Topic: Feminist Books as Evidence for the Cultural Changes of the 1960s (2009) by Debbie McCauley

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This paper discussing ‘The Feminine Mystique’ by Betty Friedan and ‘Sexual Politics’ by Kate Millett was written by Debbie McCauley on 25 March 2009 as part of a BA in Humanities and Information & Library Studies.

This critical analysis will consider two books: The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and Sexual Politics by Kate Millett, comparing them and discussing their relative value as evidence for the cultural changes of the 1960s. Both feminist books were published during what historian Arthur Marwick terms the ‘long sixties’ (2005, p. 23) being the period from c.1958 to c.1974. As both writers are American this essay will focus on events in that country.

Early feminists, known as the suffragettes, fought and sometimes died (Emily Davison, 1913 Derby) to obtain votes and other basic rights for woman. The foundations for what is widely known as the ‘second-wave’ of feminism during the ‘long sixties’ were laid earlier when Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was published in 1949. ‘Second-wave’ feminist counterculture seemed to focus mainly on the inequalities experienced by women in a patriarchal society dominated by the white middle-class male where securing their future by marriage was widely thought to be the only viable option available to women.  

Counterculture as a cultural expression is widely used in reference to the ‘long sixties,’ examples being the writings of Braunstein & Doyle (2002), Brokaw (2007), Kimball (2001) Marwick (1999) and Michals (2002). Some elements that converged to cause this counterculture include the 1940’s post-war baby boom occurring in a materially richer society which could afford the new technologies offered such as records, televisions, refrigerators and washing machines along with the contraceptive pill which was introduced in 1961. Other influences included the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, music, clothing, pop art, literature and drugs.

Subcultures consisting of hippies, civil rights groups, feminists, homosexual activity, anti-Vietnam war protesters and student activists have all been identified as being part of this countercultural mix. According to Marwick (1999) it is ‘perfectly legitimate to use the term ‘counterculture’ to refer to the many and varied activities and values which contrasted with, or were critical of, the conventional values and modes of established society’ (p. 12). Many of the counterculture groups were dominated by men. In most cases women fulfilled a traditionally subservient role which included making the coffee as well as providing secretarial and sexual services. Marwick (1999) expresses a concern that several authors retrospectively looking back at the 1960’s seem to share, ‘Was this sexual liberation for women, or simply enhanced liberation for men, a grand occasion for the even more ruthless sexual exploitation of women?’ (p. 680). Dissatisfaction with their role may have led many women to the feminist movement. For the purposes of this essay we will be concentrating on what is known as the ‘feminist counterculture.’

Betty Friedan’s (1921-2006) book The Feminine Mystique (published in 1963) is widely thought to have been the impetus for the feminist counterculture. Women of the time seem to have been trapped in a system which defined ‘proper femininity’ as little more than domestic fulfilment. Friedan, a qualified psychologist, graduated from Smith College in 1942. As a married woman, she worked as a journalist but was subsequently dismissed by her employer for becoming pregnant, ‘It was this event, she later said, that made her aware of the inequitable treatment of women in American society’ (Gamble, 2001, p. 237). As a suburban mother of three she conducted a survey of her female classmates in 1957, fifteen years after graduation, and it is on the results of this survey that The Feminine Mystique is based.

The book is one that highlighted the ‘problem that has no name’ (Freidan 1992, p. 13) or ‘feminine mystique’ which is the lack of fulfilment felt by women in the role of wife and mother. Friedan (1992) explains further: ‘The feminine mystique has succeeded in burying millions of American women alive. There is no way for these women to break out of their comfortable concentration camps except by finally putting forth an effort – that human effort which reaches beyond biology, beyond the narrow walls of home, to help reshape the future’ (p. 293). The book’s publication stirred women into forming feminist groups and helped to reshape cultural attitudes towards women’s rights.

The final chapter of the book expresses Friedan’s hope for the future of women:

When women do not need to live through their husbands and children, men will not fear the love and strength of women, nor need another’s weakness to prove their own masculinity. They can finally see each other as they are. And this may be the next step in human evolution. (Friedan, 1992, p. 331)

Kate Millett (born 1934) wrote Sexual Politics in 1970, seven years after The Feminine Mystique was published. Sexual Politics is founded on radical feminism and argues that all relationships between men and women are based on patriarchal power. It also attacks Freudian theory and suggests that ‘coming as it did, at the peak of the sexual revolution, Freud’s doctrine of penis envy is in fact a superbly timed accusation, enabling masculine sentiment to take the offensive again as it had not since the disappearance of overt misogyny when the pose of chivalry became fashionable’ (Millett, 1970, p. 189).

Millet (1970) launches an acidic attack on the literary stereotypes created by male novelists D.H. Lawrence: ‘sexual politics in its most overpowering form’ (p. 238); Henry Miller: ‘his virulent sexism is beyond question’ (p. 313); and Norman Mailer: ‘vaguely depressing to see a literary man vending the same trash as those hundreds of psychologues and quacks whose jeremiads confound the public with such titles as The Feminization of the American Male’ (p. 330). Gamble (2001) comments on women’s representation in literature by these writers as ‘they were virgins or whores. By and large the whores came to miserable ends, and the virgins got married’ (p. 130).

Along with other key texts both these books paint an extremely valuable picture of the thinking behind the feminist counterculture. The realities of women’s lives from this period can only be accurately interpreted by primary sources from the time. These sources give a valuable first-hand narrative of the thoughts, frustrations, daily lives and experience of women at that time as autobiographies, written as a reflection years after the event, cannot possibly do.

On further reading of the two texts it becomes clear that they are different in their approach, possibly accounted for by the years between their publication dates. During the intervening time there had been changes within society and people’s consciousness. The Vietnam War was in progress, NOW (National Organisation for Women) had been formed to act as a civil rights organisation for women with Betty Friedan as its first president, the ‘New York Radical Women’ had staged their famous protest at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, and Anna Koedt had written Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.

Friedan was writing from her personal experience as a white middle-class American housewife. Her book quickly became a best seller so had a wide influence, even though it had its basis on a very small sample of white, middle-class, educated women to the exclusion of working-class and black women. In contrast Millett was writing from a radical feminist stance. Sexual Politics argues academically, spending much time on Freud’s theories, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia and the impact of the media and religion on the subjugation of women. ‘This mythic version of the female as the cause of human suffering, knowledge, and sin is still the foundation of sexual attitudes, for it represents the most crucial argument of the patriarchal tradition in the West’ (Millet 1970, p. 52).

When discussing Freudian theory Millett (1970) suggests that ‘In formulating the theory of penis envy, Freud not only neglected the possibility of a social explanation for feminine dissatisfaction but precluded it by postulating a literal jealousy of the organ whereby the male is distinguished’ (p. 183). Freidan (1992) also confronts Freud’s theories ‘The feminine mystique, elevated by Freudian theory into a scientific religion, sounded a single, overprotective, life-restricting, future-denying note for women’ (p. 111).

Friedan was focused on women’s daily existence and seems to be trying to reach other women in situations similar to her own. However, Freedman (2002), when commenting on The Feminine Mystique states that: ‘Her solution – for the middle-class women to hire a maid – shifted the burden to working-class women but left the demeaning attitude in place’ (p. 130). Millet (1970) tries to reach further and be more political in her stance and include all women: ‘In America one may expect the new women’s movement to ally itself on an equal basis with blacks and students in a growing radical coalition’ (p. 363). Millett (1970) also discusses marriage as a patriarchical institution: ‘Lest a woman entertain any doubts over her serf status, the wedding ceremony, with its injunctions to subordinance and obedience, was perfectly clear upon this point’ (p. 68).

The long-term affects of the counterculture were to absorb previously fringe ideas into mainstream culture which is discussed by Marwick (1999) who states that ‘The various countercultural movements and subcultures, being ineluctably implicated in and interrelated with mainstream society while all the time expanding and interacting with each other, did not confront that society but permeated and transformed it’ (p. 13). Both The Feminine Mystique and Sexual Politics can be used as evidence for countercultural change as they articulated what many women seemed to feel but couldn’t put into words. Feminist counterculture was the means feminists used to help create a new political, economic and cultural society. The two texts discussed illustrate the issues women were confronting and the changes deemed necessary to construct this vision of a fairer and more equal society. Inequities include the fact that women were paid less then men for the same work, bars could refuse to serve women, job advertisements were separated by sex, banks could deny women credit or loans and women were even excluded from jury duty. 

The change that took place in women’s lives as a result of the feminist movement has been profound. They include the feminist movement becoming a political movement; highlighting of the sexualisation of women in popular culture, music and advertising, arguing for equal pay and equal job opportunities, lobbying for free contraception, easier divorce laws and legally available abortion, fighting for maternity leave, twenty four hour child care availability for working mothers and Women’s Studies programs being introduced into Universities. As a result there has been a rising consciousness leading to a growth in women’s centres, rape crisis centres, women’s refuge, childcare centres and higher education levels for women. As Michals (2002) explains ‘While few feminists had been hippies, the trajectory that the new women’s movement took, its experience with the mainstreaming of its core ideas and strategies, and most of all, its emphasis on a politics of the conscious self overlap greatly with those of traditionally defined counterculture groups’ (p. 45).

Women, who had gained greater freedom and new skills by working during World War II and in some cases serving on the front lines by becoming resistance fighters in Nazi occupied countries, were expected to go back to the kitchen at the end of the war relinquishing their jobs to the men who returned. The under-swell of resentment caused by this probably contributed to the foundations of the feminist counterculture.

The Feminine Mystique and Sexual Politics provoked thought and enabled people to start talking about the issues. As Gamble (2001) states: ‘Friedan dismantled the female version of the American dream, which taught women to aspire to perfect domesticity, in order to reveal the frustration and feelings of entrapment beneath’ (p. 237). Today’s society still has a long way to go to reach a point where the vision of both authors is realised. The female body is still used as a commodity by advertisers, misogynistic gangster rap lyrics are frequently heard and the proliferation of diet books, plastic surgery and cosmetic advertising do much to damage women’s body image as they try to conform to the unrealistic expectations of the ‘perfect female’ imagery bombarding women and girls from the moment they are born.

This analysis has explored The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan and Sexual Politics by Kate Millett, compared them and discussed their value as evidence for the cultural changes of the 1960s. It has explained what the ‘long sixties’ were, the ‘second-wave’ of feminism and ‘feminist counterculture’. Also discussed were the treatment of women as second class citizens and certain historical events that contributed to these conditions. The improvements to women’s issues today were also discussed and the writings accepted as important primary sources that have been vindicated in retrospect.


APPENDIX: Relevant key dates


1939-45           World War II

1947                Cold War begins

1949                Simone de Beauvoir writes The Second Sex

1950-53           Korean War

1962                Cuban Missile Crises

1963                American Presidential Commission on the Status of Women

1963                Betty Friedan writes The Feminine Mystique

1964-75           Vietnam War

1966                National Organisation for Women (NOW) formed to act as a civil rights organisation for women with Betty Friedan as its first President.

1968                ‘New York Radical Women’ protest at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City - Julia Kristeva.

1968                Anna Koedt writes Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm

1970                Kate Millett writes Sexual Politics

1970                Germaine Greer writes The Female Eunuch

1972                The first battered women’s shelter opens in Urbana, Illinois, founded by Cheryl Frank and Jacqueline Flenner

1972                1st edition of Ms Magazine edited by Gloria Steinem

1978                For the first time in the history of the United States, more women than men enter college.

1980s               The decline of the second-wave

1990s               Third wave of feminism: Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz.



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