Betty Friedan, “The Feminine Mystique”

1963

Betty Friedan’s book, released in 1963, is often credited as a catalyst for second-wave American feminism. Almost 15 years after de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Friedan approaches the problem of sexism through the lens of midcentury American consumer culture: television, advertising, education, pop psychoanalysis, and housewifery. In a wonderfully 50s moment, she concludes the book by asserting that

“the energy locked up in these obsolete masculine and feminine roles is the social equivalent of the physical energy locked up in the realm of E=MC2 – the force that unleashed the holocaust of Hiroshima. I believe the locked-up sexual energies have helped to fuel, more than anyone realizes, the terrible violence erupting in the nation and the world during these past ten years. If I am right, the sex-role revolution will liberate these energies from the service of death and will make it really possible for men and women to ‘make love, not war'” 532.

Of course this did not occur (Linda Williams investigates the inefficacy of the ‘make love, not war’ slogan in Screening Sex), but Friedan’s text may well have helped to unleash a sexual revolution whose effects were indeed far-ranging. Friedan’s setting is a 1950s America where girls dye their hair blonde and eat chalk to appeal to men, where women break down if they cannot breastfeed because their identities are so bound to young motherhood 59. Friedan identifies women as the victims of their own consumer power, the endlessness of which constantly promises fulfillment and never delivers, producing instead “the problem that has no name” 57. The popularity of psychoanalysis “cracked the door” into the potentially unhappy lives of housewives and the anxiety of unmarried women, too.

The world of images offered to women are fluffy, crammed with color, food, fashion, and sexual pursuit of men, but “where is the world of thought and ideas, the life of the mind and spirit?” 83. In part, it is sublimated into housewifery, as magazine headlines like “Cooking is Poetry to Me” and “The Business of Running a Home” suggest 93. While the heroines of the 30s were strong, young, and gay, those of postwar America are gender-circumscribed and vapid.

“The feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity… so mysterious and intuitive and close to the creation and origin of life that man-made science may never be able to understand it… The mistake, says the mystique, the root of women’s troubles in the past is that women envied men, women tried to be like men, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love” 92.

The madonna/whore complex is reinscribed as the mother/career girl divide 95. Even female writers and editors contributed to the problem out of a sense of guilt and loss 109.

Friedan claims that this is the result of the “troubles of the image-makers” trapped in the “frantic race” of capitalism, which “force[s] the men who make the images to see women only as thing-buyers” 119. In making women mindless and bored, consumer society is also having more trouble selling to them. This push to sell means that the manipulators are guilty of using their insights to sell women things which, no matter how ingenious, will never satisfy… They are guilty of persuading housewives to stay at home, mesmerized in front of a television set” 326. (One of the most insidious ads she cites, the famous Clairol “Does she or doesn’t she?” was actually written by a woman, Shirley Polykoff.) Women are told that they are running a business, for which they must continue to buy specialized supplies. They stretch housework that should take a few hours to great lengths of time, since their sense of self rests on the illusion that they are needed at home, working full-time.

Friedan also critiques Freud for what she feels is his misogyny – his relegation of women as inferior beings complementary to men (the One, etc.). She also holds that directing all of women’s desire to sexuality and homemaking has bred a generation of sexually potent but frustrated women. If sex is the only thing left to make women “feel alive,” what happens then? (She mentions Lolita on 383- the redirection of male energy to less demanding sex objects than wives, who now expect too much from sex.) Thus, she theorizes (it sounds as nuts now as her concluding paragraph) that women are oversexed, men are cheating, and boys are homosexuals because of the pent-up energies of housewives 385. Friedan’s concern is with the children who then go on to marry young and have children: “the tragedy of children acting out the sexual phantasies of their housewife-mothers” as “one sign of the progressive dehumanization that is taking place” 392.

In the hyperbolically titled “The Comfortable Concentration Camp,” Friedan explores the problems of the arrested development of these young women – they are weak, undereducated, and lack a sense of self, which they have sacrificed to the family and to consumer ideology. She ends by advocating that colleges and places of work accommodate maternity leave, hire pregnant women, etc. In a society where women are functional and intellectual equals,

“The split image will be healed, and daughters will not face that jumping-off point at twenty-one or forty-one… they will not have to ‘beat themselves down’ to be feminine; they can stretch and stretch until their own efforts will tell them who they are… And 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… the time is at hand when the voices of the feminine mystique can no longer drown out the inner voice that is driving women on to become complete” 512.

I copy the Wikipedia summary below to save myself some of the structural summarizing of this long and detailed text:

Chapter 1: Friedan points out that the average age of marriage was dropping and the birthrate was increasing for women throughout the 1950s, yet the widespread unhappiness of women persisted, although American culture insisted that fulfillment for women could be found in marriage and housewifery; this chapter concludes by declaring, “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.'”

Chapter 2: Friedan shows that the editorial decisions concerning women’s magazines were being made mostly by men, who insisted on stories and articles that showed women as either happy housewives or unhappy, neurotic careerists, thus creating the “feminine mystique”—the idea that women were naturally fulfilled by devoting their lives to being housewives and mothers. Friedan notes that this is in contrast to the 1930s, at which time women’s magazines often featured confident and independent heroines, many of whom were involved in careers.

Chapter 3: Friedan recalls her own decision to conform to society’s expectations by giving up her promising career in psychology to raise children, and shows that other young women still struggled with the same kind of decision. Many women dropped out of school early to marry, afraid that if they waited too long or became too educated, they would not be able to attract a husband.

Chapter 4: Friedan discusses early American feminists and how they fought against the assumption that the proper role of a woman was to be solely a wife and mother. She notes that they secured important rights for women, including education, the right to pursue a career, and the right to vote.

Chapter 5: Friedan, who had a degree in psychology, criticizes Sigmund Freud (whose ideas were very influential in America at the time of her book’s publication). She notes that Freud saw women as childlike and as destined to be housewives, once pointing out that Freud wrote, “I believe that all reforming action in law and education would break down in front of the fact that, long before the age at which a man can earn a position in society, Nature has determined woman’s destiny through beauty, charm, and sweetness. Law and custom have much to give women that has been withheld from them, but the position of women will surely be what it is: in youth an adored darling and in mature years a loved wife.” Friedan also points out that Freud’s unproven concept of “penis envy” had been used to label women who wanted careers as neurotic, and that the popularity of Freud’s work and ideas elevated the “feminine mystique” of female fulfillment in housewifery into a “scientific religion” that most women were not educated enough to criticize. [vs. Barbara Johnson’s argument]

Chapter 6: Friedan criticizes functionalism, which attempted to make the social sciences more credible by studying the institutions of society as if they were parts of a social body, as in biology. Institutions were studied in terms of their function in society, and women were confined to their sexual biological roles as housewives and mothers as well as being told that doing otherwise would upset the social balance. Friedan points out that this is unproven and that Margaret Mead, a prominent functionalist, had a flourishing career as an anthropologist.

Chapter 7: Friedan discusses the change in women’s education from the 1940s to the early 1960s, in which many women’s schools concentrated on non-challenging classes that focused mostly on marriage, family, and other subjects deemed suitable for women, as educators influenced by functionalism felt that too much education would spoil women’s femininity and capacity for sexual fulfillment. Friedan says that this change in education arrested girls in their emotional development at a young age, because they never had to face the painful identity crisis and subsequent maturation that comes from dealing with many adult challenges.

Chapter 8: Friedan notes that the uncertainties and fears during World War II and the Cold War made Americans long for the comfort of home, so they tried to create an idealized home life with father as the breadwinner and mother as the housewife. Friedan notes that this was helped along by the fact that many of the women who worked during the war filling jobs previously filled by men faced dismissal, discrimination, or hostility when the men returned, and that educators blamed over-educated, career-focused mothers for the maladjustment of soldiers in World War II. Yet as Friedan shows, later studies found that overbearing mothers, not careerists, were the ones who raised maladjusted children.

Chapter 9: Friedan shows that advertisers tried to encourage housewives to think of themselves as professionals who needed many specialized products in order to do their jobs, while discouraging housewives from having actual careers, since that would mean they would not spend as much time and effort on housework and therefore would not buy as many household products, cutting into advertisers’ profits.

Chapter 10: Friedan interviews several full-time housewives, finding that although they are not fulfilled by their housework, they are all extremely busy with it. She postulates that these women unconsciously stretch their home duties to fill the time available, because the feminine mystique has taught women that this is their role, and if they ever complete their tasks they will become unneeded.

Chapter 11: Friedan notes that many housewives have sought fulfillment in sex, unable to find it in housework and children; Friedan notes that sex cannot fulfill all of a person’s needs, and that attempts to make it do so often drive married women to have affairs or drive their husbands away as they become obsessed with sex.

Chapter 12: Friedan discusses the fact that many children have lost interest in life or emotional growth, attributing the change to the mother’s own lack of fulfillment, a side effect of the feminine mystique. When the mother lacks a self, Friedan notes, she often tries to live through her children, causing the children to lose their own sense of themselves as separate human beings with their own lives.

Chapter 13: Friedan discusses Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and notes that women have been trapped at the basic, physiological level, expected to find their identity through their sexual role alone. Friedan says that women need meaningful work just as men do to achieve self-actualization, the highest level on the hierarchy of needs.

Chapter 14: In the final chapter of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan discusses several case studies of women who have begun to go against the feminine mystique. She also advocates a new life plan for her women readers, including not viewing housework as a career, not trying to find total fulfillment through marriage and motherhood alone, and finding meaningful work that uses their full mental capacity. She discusses the conflicts that some women may face in this journey to self-actualization, including their own fears and resistance from others. For each conflict, Friedan offers examples of women who have overcome it. Friedan ends her book by promoting education and meaningful work as the ultimate method by which American women can avoid becoming trapped in the feminine mystique, calling for a drastic rethinking of what it means to be feminine, and offering several educational and occupational suggestions.

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