Friedan states that women “got all kinds of advice from the growing armies of marriage and child guidance counselors, psychotherapists, and armchair psychologists, on how to adjust to their role as housewives. No other road to fulfillment was offered to American women in the middle of the twentieth century.” What do these “growing armies” say about American self-reliance and individualism? What might be some reasons that “other roads” seemed shut off to women?
This quote, of course, is from Betty Friedan's seminal 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, and it refers to the growing number of women who felt confined and limited (to say the least) by the demands of being a housewife. Many women in the postwar era had gone to college, and the 1950s were the most affluent decade in American history. Despite, or really because, of these trends, women faced the expectation, created by the media and advertising, that they should stay in the home and be mothers and helpmeets to their husbands. Many women became bored with the drudgery and restless, and yet they were told by the media that this was not appropriate. Friedan describes this as a "problem with no name." Women had healthy children, nice homes with modern appliances, husbands with lucrative jobs, but they were still not happy. Friedan argued that this led many women to blame themselves, wondering if there was something wrong with them because they were unhappy. Her answer was that women were only after a normal, fulfilling, life--one which was closed to housewives who really had to live as what she called "mindless drudges."
The quote refers to the very people who created the "feminine mystique" in the first place. These people, along with advertisers who promoted consumption in the home as the secret to happiness, were the ones who counseled women to be good mothers, to keep a good home, to be a loving and understanding wife. They emphasized the importance of the mother to the home, suggesting that any desire on a woman's part for anything more was in some way abnormal. As Friedan highlights, many of these doctors prescribed antidepressants to mothers who came to them distraught over their lack of a full life. She says that these women wrote letters to her (she was a journalist who wrote for magazines) describing an "empty feeling" or simply feeling "incomplete," a problem so prevalent that psychologists called in the "housewife's syndrome."
What all this suggests about individualism and self-reliance is that the road to full development as a person was really only open to men in the postwar era. Unless a woman truly wanted to be a housewife and nothing more, society's expectations, as reinforced by mass media and an American consumer culture, were confining. Being a housewife and a good mother was the only "road to fulfillment" for a woman. As for what closed other roads, Friedan, as stated above, suggests that the obstacles were mostly created by the media and mass culture. But there were other, structural obstacles as well--women struggled to find professional jobs at pay rates anywhere close to this of men in any case.
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