Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
The Feminine Mystique was one of the most influential books in convincing middle-class American women during the 1960’s that their personal identity as housewives and mothers had not provided them with full and meaningful lives. Herself one of the women whose plight she described, Betty Friedan examined “the problem that has no name” in a series of insightful chapters that set forth the many ways in which women felt frustrated and repressed.
The book grew out of Friedan’s search for a more significant existence. A writer whose professional career had taken second place to a husband and family, she surveyed the condition of women at the end of the 1950’s and then found that women’s magazines for which she wrote were reluctant to publish her findings. The magazines did not want details about the anxieties and tensions of middle-class, suburban women. She decided to write a book that could explore the issue of women’s identity in greater depth. The Feminine Mystique grew from her determination to locate the deeper causes of the frustration that she and women like her felt. As she researched how society directed women into child rearing and family to the exclusion of their own talents and abilities, she became convinced that the ideology of accepting such roles accounted for much of the problem.
The book proved to be a significant catalyst for many women in the 1960’s. Friedan’s powerful description of how her...
(The entire section is 407 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan addresses what she terms “the problem that has no name,” questioning the aims of post-World War II American society and, especially, the roles of women. Born in Peoria, Illinois, and a graduate of Smith College, Friedan worked as a writer and researcher for women’s magazines before writing her groundbreaking book. During her research work, she discovered and interviewed a generation of women who identified themselves with the phrase “occupation: housewife.” Many of these “housewives” were college-educated women and were the daughters of college-educated women who became cultural pioneers in the 1920’s and 1930’s, working as teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals.
With the triumph of woman’s suffrage still fresh in the national conscience, pre-World War II women, despite an economic depression and a war raging in Europe and Asia, saw a limitless future for both their sons and their daughters. Circumstances, however, intervened, and the mood changed. The daughters of Rosie the Riveter and the granddaughters of Jazz Age flappers found a different America. World War II ended, and men came home to reclaim their jobs. The world saw the dawning of the nuclear age, the surging of the U.S. economy, a rise in marriages, and an increasing birthrate. As new houses were built and filled with wondrous new time-saving appliances, such as the dishwasher, the washing...
(The entire section is 1186 words.)
Chapter 1: The Problem That Has No Name
Friedan begins The Feminine Mystique with an introduction describing the problem that has no name—the widespread unhappiness of women. Using a practice that becomes common throughout the book, Friedan offers several case studies of unhappy women from around the United States, and she wonders whether this unhappiness is related to the female role of housewife.
Chapter 2: The Happy Housewife Heroine
Friedan examines women's magazines from before and after World War II. In 1930s magazines, stories feature confident and independent heroines, of whom many are involved in careers. However, in most women's magazines in the late 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s, the Happy Housewife, whose only ambitions are marriage and motherhood, replaces the career-oriented New Woman. Friedan calls this homemaker ideal of femininity the feminine mystique.
Chapter 3: The Crisis in Woman's Identity
Friedan remembers her own decision to conform to society's expectations by giving up her promising career to raise children and finds that other young women still struggle with this decision. Many women drop out of school early to marry, afraid that if they wait too long or become too educated, they will not be able to attract a husband. Unfortunately, many women do not find fulfillment in the narrow roles of wife and mother and then fear something is wrong...
(The entire section is 1276 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Chapters 1 - 4 Summary and Analysis
Alfred Kinsey: sex researcher who produced groundbreaking research studies about American sexual behavior during the mid-twentieth century.
Erik Erikson: psychologist who described the “identity crisis” most people face at adolescence as a rite of passage essential to human growth and devaelopment.
Lucy Stone: nineteenth-century feminist who fought for women's intellectual freedom and publicized the then-unconventional terms of her marriage.
Sigmund Freud: Austrian psychoanalyst who developed sex- and gender-based theories of human development that Friedan says were misused in order to curb women's potential.
Betty Friedan launches her nonfiction account of the twentieth-century crisis among American women by describing their trouble as so deeply ingrained that few people can see it. She calls the trouble with women’s identity “the problem that has no name” and says it has no name because women are told to believe—and often do believe—that “the problem” doesn’t exist. The problem, as Friedan describes it, is that women are increasingly taught to believe that their existence and happiness is limited to the roles of spouse, mother, and housewife. Because so few women are able to recognize that these roles are limited or that they might be unhappy with them, the problem has “no name.”
She notes that by 1950, the media...
(The entire section is 2999 words.)
Chapters 5 - 8 Summary and Analysis
Margaret Mead: anthropologist whose research was used by “functional” theorists to glorify pregnancy, birth, and mothering and perpetuate the feminine mystique
Friedan traces how, during the 1940s, the notion that women were inferior to men and were little more than breeding animals with delicate natures arose, in part from how popular culture interpreted and twisted the theories of Sigmund Freud. Freud, the Austrian psychoanalyst, coined the term “penis envy” to describe the experience women have at the very early stages of development when they discover they lack what a man has—a penis. The term, however, becomes a metaphor under the feminine mystique for women as lacking male power, dominance, confidence, and superiority. For women to want more than their role as housekeepers, wives, and mothers is for them to display “penis envy”—a desire for what is not naturally theirs. This, Friedan writes, is the perversion of Freud’s theories to reinforce the feminine mystique.
She writes that Freud, while brilliant in some respects, was also a product of his time and worked in a very repressed society in which women had few opportunities. It is no wonder, she suggests, that he noticed women envying men’s station. She writes that the apparent frustration of Victorian women can’t be applied to twentieth-century women without some adjustments to look at the...
(The entire section is 2778 words.)
Chapters 9 - 11 Summary and Analysis
Friedan examines the fact that there’s an additional constituency that has a stake in women remaining obedient to the feminine mystique: advertisers. Advertisers rely on women to buy the vast majority of their products. Women, in turn, have a psychological need to shop for products that they think will make them better housekeepers, run a “modern” home, or keep up with their neighbors—or that help them use their minds and creativity to clean. In the case of young brides, advertisers learn they can make these young women believe that if they buy the right brands or products their class and economic status will improve.
Friedan conducts extensive research on housekeepers using the market research of a millionaire who acts as a consultant for major advertising clients, noting the literature of his studies and how it discusses “manipulating” housewives’ emotions and playing on their subconscious feelings of guilt to make them buy new products. Marketers must tread a delicate path in elevating the status of housewives, discussing the work of the home as requiring intelligence, ingenuity, and creativity. Women are not maids, but specialists using the right tools for different jobs. Women who want privacy don’t need time to themselves, they need their own car. So went the logic of the advertisers.
On one hand, Friedan writes, the marketers want the women to feel resourceful and independent—to be bold...
(The entire section is 2002 words.)
Chapters 12 - 14 Summary and Analysis
Bruno Bettelheim: psychoanalyst who defined how the concentration camps of Nazi Germany “dehumanized” their captives
A. H. Maslow: psychologist who studied notions of the developed self in women and learned that “dominant” women are happier than their “non-dominant” peers
Just as many women and mothers withdraw from society at the behest of the feminine mystique, so, too, do children who rely upon them as models of adulthood. The children raised by these mothers—doting, attentive mothers whose lives revolve around parenting—are turning out to be unmotivated and undisciplined, and to have a flat, disinterested quality. Like their mothers, they aren’t able to find a way or a reason to participate in the world around them—and they expect others to make their lives easy, just as their ever-present mother did as they were growing up. The sense of self that most youths develop is thwarted. Members of this younger generation are more concerned with pleasing others, being part of a crowd, and waiting for others to make decisions and lead. Passive and dependent, these youths aren't prepared to enter adulthood. Friedan notes that educators worry about the new generation’s passivity and inability to take charge.
While passivity had been latently developing in young girls and women, it is only when it became apparent in young boys, Friedan writes, that...
(The entire section is 2601 words.)