The Feminine Mystique Summary

Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique is a non-fiction work that illuminates the plight of American women during the mid-nineteenth century.

  • Through interviews with American housewives, Friedan discovers that many of them are dissatisfied with their lives.

  • Friedan traces the return of women to domestic life after their pre-World War II emancipation. She argues that women were socially pressured into becoming homemakers by the “feminine mystique,” an idealized image of domestic femininity that arose in the 1950s.

  • Friedan concludes that housewives are prevented from developing full, autonomous identities and argues that it is in the interest of both men and women to reject the feminine mystique.

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Last Updated on April 6, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2017

By the end of the 1950s, it was clear that something was happening to American women. The average marriage age was twenty years old and dropping while the middle-class birth rate was exploding. Women’s enrollment in college was falling steeply while more than half of the women accepted to college...

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By the end of the 1950s, it was clear that something was happening to American women. The average marriage age was twenty years old and dropping while the middle-class birth rate was exploding. Women’s enrollment in college was falling steeply while more than half of the women accepted to college were dropping out before getting their degrees. Why were these young women so seemingly uninterested in having careers and educations, the very rights their suffragette mothers had worked so hard to secure? Was this new generation of women really happier as housewives?

These are the questions that Betty Friedan grapples with in The Feminine Mystique. Drawing on countless interviews with housewives, psychologists, editors, and professors, as well as her own personal experience, Betty Friedan concludes that millions of American housewives are suffering in silence from a terrible and mysterious sense of emptiness. Women have difficulty describing or even admitting this feeling and thus Friedan dubs it “the problem that has no name.”

In the years after World War II, the suburban housewife took on an almost mythic quality. She was transformed by popular media into a domestic goddess—beautiful, feminine, and sublimely happy. Though she was educated, she chose to make her husband and children her career. Amazing new appliances and products spared her from the drudgery of housework, allowing her to devote herself to being the perfect wife, the perfect mother, and, therefore, the perfect woman. Over and over, it was said that the American housewife was the envy of women all around the world, yet Friedan’s interviews with these housewives revealed that nearly all of them suffered from an unexplained sense of dissatisfaction. They tried their best to mimic the “happy housewife” that stared out at them from magazines and advertisements, but even women who were incredibly successful housewives seemed to feel that something was missing.

Friedan dubs the idealized version of femininity that emerged in the 1950s and 60s the “feminine mystique.” According to the feminine mystique, a woman’s only goal should be the fulfillment of her femininity through the domestic life of a homemaker. Friedan, who herself wrote for women’s magazines, argues that these magazines played a large role in crafting the feminine mystique and, by extension, fueling “the problem that has no name.” The happy housewife became the heroine of the stories in ladies’ magazines as well as the focal point of the advertisements that ran in those same magazines. Friedan notes that it is no coincidence that the creation of the “happy housewife heroine” coincided with the return of male writers and editors after the war.

Friedan believes that her generation was among the first victims of the feminine mystique, which pressured and guilted promising young women like Friedan and her peers into abandoning their professional goals. Friedan recounts her own regrettable decision to leave school after winning a fellowship that would have allowed her to get her doctorate degree and become a professional psychologist. Women confronted by the feminine mystique, she argues, are frightened of appearing too committed to their education or career and warding off potential husbands. These women drop their own professional aspirations to become housewives and then, often years later, find themselves unsatisfied in their roles as professional homemakers. Friedan argues that this unhappiness, “the problem that has no name,” is inevitable when women are not allowed to develop their own identities beyond the confines of the feminine mystique.

Friedan traces the historical path that pushed the newly emancipated women of the 1920s back into the domestic sphere. The early feminists of the nineteenth century were true revolutionaries, risking social ostracism, arrest, and even physical attack to challenge the degrading gender roles of the time. Friedan notes that this first wave of feminism is where the “myth” of the man-hating feminist originated, and she dispels it by pointing out that most of the prominent figures in the early feminist movement were happily married. Though this perception of feminism was inaccurate, Friedan observes that it persisted long after the first-wave feminists won the right to vote. By the 1960s, feminism had become a “dirty joke” and women were quickly abandoning the schools and workplaces that their mothers had fought tooth and nail to gain entrance to.

Friedan attributes part of the resilience of the feminine mystique to popular psychological and sociological theories that were often twisted and misrepresented in the media. For example, Sigmund Freud’s theory of “penis envy” was meant to describe an early stage of development in girls but, under the influence of the feminine mystique, was used to disparage any woman who rebelled against her role. Such women were quickly branded as “unfeminine” and accused of “trying to be men.” Though modern scholars interpret most of Freudian psychology in the context of the time it was written, Friedan suggests that such contextualization was rarely given to Freud’s theories on femininity. Thus, Freud’s biologically based theory that one’s social destiny is determined by their genital anatomy went unquestioned, even as it spread throughout popular culture and classrooms. According to Freud, the dissatisfaction of the Victorian woman was the result of her biological inferiority to man, rather than a legitimate frustration with her limited role in society. Friedan argues that the uncontextualized adoption of these theories normalized the idea that a woman who wanted to be more than a housewife must be suffering from some form of neurosis.

Friedan acknowledges that psychology was not the only academic discipline that perpetuated the feminine mystique. Many sociologists reinforced the limited role of women through functionalist theory. Social functionalists chose to study elements of a society by looking only at their current social function. Friedan argues that such an approach often mistakenly conflates what “is” with what “should be.” Functionalists observed women in their current domestic role and concluded that women needed to be domestic in order for society to function properly. Accordingly, functionalists recommended that unhappy women should strive to “adjust” to their necessary roles as housewives.

The functionalist approach trickled down through various disciplines, a phenomenon Friedan examines closely through the work of the anthropologist Margaret Mead. Though Mead’s early work questioned the notion of rigid gender roles, she eventually turned toward functionalism by tying the woman’s role in society to her biology. In some ways, Mead elevated the woman by discussing the social significance of her ability to become pregnant. But, Friedan observes, in doing so Mead fell into the same type of thinking as Freud and the functionalists. In defining women by their biology, these scholars trapped women in the roles of mate and mother, lending dangerous academic credibility to the feminine mystique.

The apparent academic consensus regarding the role of women was accompanied by a major shift in the way women were being educated. In the educational sphere, the feminine mystique became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Girls with high intelligence in childhood were discouraged from taking their educations too seriously for fear of scaring off potential boyfriends and husbands. College professors reported that the highly capable women being admitted to top schools seemed uninterested in graduating, starting careers, or pursuing further education. Through her interviews with college girls, Friedan discovers that the young women of this generation were intentionally holding back their academic potential. These girls related their dread of being seen as “odd” or “masculine” and their fear of becoming overly invested in a field they must inevitably abandon for marriage.

While the feminine mystique pressured young women not to take their education seriously, co-educational colleges were becoming increasingly reluctant to admit women, seeing them as “husband hunters” rather than serious academics. Meanwhile, women’s colleges around the country began to alter their curriculums, replacing serious academic courses with easy domestic classes designed to prepare women for married life. These changes were led by a group of “sex-directed educators” who blamed the unhappiness of housewives on an excess of education. Sex-directed educators also pointed the finger at working mothers as the cause of character deficiencies in their children. Working women were guilted into making what Friedan calls “the mistaken choice” to return to the domestic sphere where, paradoxically, they may have done more harm than good. Friedan points out that despite the accusations of the sex-directed educators, studies routinely show that overbearing and overly-involved mothers are actually more likely to raise neurotic and poorly adjusted children.

Next, Friedan introduces another stakeholder in the feminine mystique—perhaps the most powerful one of all. Though it is rarely openly acknowledged, the consumer economy of the 1960s was largely driven by housewives who bought things for their homes. Friedan finds that advertisers continue to benefit enormously from the feminine mystique and, therefore, use it constantly in their work. Eager to prevent women from leaving the domestic sphere, advertisers deliberately glorify the housewife, portraying her as a domestic “expert.” Women are encouraged to become expert homemakers, the mark of which is ownership and use of a complex array of products for cooking, cleaning, and keeping house. However, Friedan notes that despite the numerous time-saving products and tools at their disposal, many housewives seemed to be remarkably inefficient in their housework, often spending the majority of their day cleaning. She hypothesizes that these women are unconsciously stretching out their housework to fill their time. This, she argues, is a natural consequence of a society that confines women to the house. Lacking other ways to meaningfully contribute to society, women unconsciously drag out and complicate their housework in an effort to make it resemble a full-time “job.”

When housewives inevitably fail to find fulfillment through their housework, Friedan observes that they often seek it through sex. Women who lack an identity of their own must find satisfaction through their families, a pattern that usually ends disastrously for all involved. Friedan finds that men grow to resent their dependent and parasitic wives while women become frustrated with husbands who are unable to fulfill them through sex. Often, one or both will eventually act out through an extramarital affair.

The feminine mystique negatively impacts children as well. Women who lack an independent identity will try to live through their children, often dominating their child’s life completely. The feminine mystique makes it difficult for mothers to see their children as autonomous individuals and, instead, encourages them to view their children as reflections of themselves. Thus, the mother’s lack of independent identity prevents her from connecting with her children in an authentic and healthy way. Indeed, psychological studies at the time indicated that children raised by overly involved mothers often showed extreme passivity and apathy. Friedan suggests that the feminine mystique limits women to the point of dehumanization and that this dehumanization is then passed on to their children, whose over-invested mothers prevent them from developing an independent identity.

Ultimately, Friedan believes that women must be given the freedom to develop fully as human beings independent from their homes and families. Referencing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Friedan argues that women have only been allowed to realize their basic, physiological needs, unlike men, who are allowed and even expected to pursue higher-order needs such as self-actualization. Friedan theorizes that the best way for women to move forward is through education. She suggests that the government sponsor educational programs to help housewives who have already left academia finish their degrees. She also calls for the hiring of more married, female faculty members to show young women that they do not have to choose between their careers and their families. Efforts to lift women up should be supported by men, Friedan argues, because changing expectations for women will benefit men too. Men will be free to become more authentic versions of themselves when the burdens and joys of caring for a family, keeping a house, and having a career are shared equally between the sexes. According to Friedan, the “problem that has no name” will only be overcome when women and men challenge the feminine mystique and work to create a society where every person, regardless of gender, is free to pursue their passions.

 

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