The Feminine Mystique, By Betty Friedan

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The Independent Culture

It has been a "victory for the assholes" writes Lionel Shriver, incisively introducing this iconic 1963 book, that the word "feminist" has become stigmatised. Why are so many independent contemporary women reluctant to identify themselves as feminists? Perhaps, suggests Shriver, it is because they are fearful of being perceived as "difficult", man-hating harridans. The advice that Shriver offers to those women who would choose housewifery and motherhood over a demanding career is to watch every episode of Mad Men, and then to read this book.

It is indeed a book worth reading carefully; it feels as relevant today as it was when it was first published. It was written, claims Friedan, out of a sense that there was something wrong in the way that American women were trying to live their lives. Friedan conducted an intensive questionnaire of her Smith College classmates 15 years after their graduation, and in the results, "some tortured, some serene", identified a "schizophrenic split" between the reality of these women's lives and the image to which they were meant to conform – "the feminine mystique". It was "the problem that had no name"; a strange yearning and dissatisfaction that lay buried in women who were taught not to want careers, further education or political rights.

In these pages, this outspoken campaigner for women's rights forcefully explores topics ranging from the crisis in female identity, through to the "sexual solipsism" of Freud, and the "progressive dehumanization" of women.

What Shriver describes as the "unachievable idealisations of what it means to be female" are still rampant. Yet Friedan's message is an affirmative one – that women can affect society as well as be affected by it.