Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2999
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 development.
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 no longer showed images of women doing anything other than trying to attract men, get married, have babies, or do domestic work. The media presented a distorted image of women’s potential, but women’s behavior revealed they had accepted and even embraced this image. By the late 1950s, women were marrying younger, having more babies, and, if working, working solely to bolster their husbands’ careers rather than finding challenging jobs for their own sake. Friedan interviews women throughout the chapter to provide case studies of the choices they faced and made.
In 1959, Friedan realized that women were beginning to acknowledge the limited nature of their roles. During the interviews conducted for her 1963 book, she learned that isolation and depression were common among women then living the so-called dream of the suburban housewife. Therapists frequently heard about the problem but treated it as the woman’s failure to cope or accept, rather than society’s imposition of a difficult role for women.
Finally, in 1960, the question of women’s limited role hit the media, but often the question of women’s confused identity was dismissed as being the result of women having too much education or not knowing how lucky they were to live in the safe retreat of home while their husbands competed at work. By 1962, psychiatrists and other researchers began reporting that single women were happier than married ones. And so, Friedan writes, “the door of all those pretty suburban houses opened a crack to permit a glimpse of uncounted thousands of American housewives who suffered alone from a problem that suddenly everyone was talking about.”
According to Friedan, the problem hinges on the fact that women have been taught to seek fulfillment in their sexually determined roles of mates and mothers—what she calls their “feminine” role. She notes that women have few avenues for pleasure, intellect, or self-expression and that as the women’s roles became increasingly limited outside the home their interest in sex increased. Alfred Kinsey, the famous sex therapist, emerged to show that women and men alike were having more and better sex. The underside of this, Friedan writes, is that women seek fulfillment from sex to compensate for lives that are otherwise empty; thus, sex for women becomes a symptom of psychological hunger rather than attraction and pleasure.
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