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The Feminine Mystique

by Betty Friedan

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Chapters 1 - 4 Summary and Analysis

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New Characters

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.

Once women’s “problem” had been exposed in the media, women began...

(This entire section contains 2999 words.)

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to show relief that their tension was finally being acknowledged. However, defining the problem is difficult. Friedan realizes the reason why: the media is part of the problem, because women’s magazines claim that women are finding happiness where, in fact, they are not. Friedan admits that as a writer for these magazines she has helped perpetuate the problem.

Friedan researched women’s magazines before and after World War II and notes that during the 1930s women were portrayed as pioneering career women who had their own goals apart from or in addition to marriage and family. She describes the stereotype of the “New Woman,” who frequently appears in pre-war magazine articles and fiction as struggling with and succeeding at defining her own identity. These women are rarely, if ever, housewives; if they do marry, they frequently attract men who admire their strength and independence. Friedan cites examples among published fiction from the time, such as the tale of “Sarah and the Seaplane,” in which the protagonist, who is taking flying lessons, is asked if she is in love and if that is why she seems so preoccupied. On the day Sarah solos, she learns that what she loves is the ability to run her own life—as well as the man who taught her to fly solo, who helped her achieve her autonomy.

However, during the 1960s, when Friedan was writing The Feminine Mystique, the portrayal of women in the media was far different from what it had been just over twenty years prior. She describes the contents of a typical McCall’s and how it contains no stories about ideas, politics, art, or other topics unrelated to homemaking, parenting, sex, or marriage. She summarizes a meeting of male editors who describe what women want from magazines, and notes that they have decided women can’t take ideas unless they are connected in some way to the domestic arts or relationships. By the late 1940s, there were magazine stories tackling the issue of “Occupation: Housewife”—the response women gave to the census taker when asked what they did for a living. These stories teach ambivalent housewives that being a housewife is a noble, respectable calling and urge them to accept the role rather than yearn for more stimulating lives.

“Occupation: Housewife” is a central image in what Friedan calls “the feminine mystique”—the notion that women’s highest purpose is to return to old-fashioned, biological concepts of her role. The feminine mystique teaches women that femininity is their only destiny—passivity, attractiveness, fertility, and submission to a mate are here glamorized. The mystique reinvents roles women have previously outgrown and makes them palatable again. By 1949, less than one-third of all females in magazine articles or fiction had identities other than as housewives; most female characters’ sole ambition was to have babies. As women began to accept the idea of relinquishing their careers, media stories tackled ways to discourage women from having ideas of their own. Such stories promoted “togetherness” with a spouse, a term coined in 1954. Togetherness, Friedan writes, essentially demands that a woman give up her identity to become a spouse’s derivative or satellite, to draw identity only from a man’s identity.

Friedan realizes that the images of women before and after the war were created by very different editorial teams. Before and during the war, female editors created the New Woman. But after the war, as men returned home and took editorial jobs, they created the image of “Occupation: Housewife” and “The Happy Housewife Heroine” to convince women to accept that their world was limited to the home. That role, she suggests, may be a product of male fantasies of home and comfort that were common during wartime. Motherhood was couched as a reward for women, but Friedan asks if it is a reward or the only option open to women for proving their worth and purpose.

“The Happy Housewife Heroine” image views woman’s only role as sexual: she is a maker of babies and exists to please and clean up after her husband, to not have any disturbing or challenging thoughts or ideas—for they would be unfeminine. The feminine mystique, is essentially, a glamorized version of the repression of women—and it is perpetuated by male editors back home from war who want women to remain at home, ready to comfort them and too helpless to challenge them. Friedan notes that as magazines perpetuate the image, research shows that women struggle to be happy under it: women strain to be glamorous, try to be happy about owning lots of material goods, or are patronized by magazines that use large type fonts—as if readers are children.

Female identity is prematurely sealed in adolescence under the feminine mystique. Friedan writes that women and men alike experience an identity crisis that is part of growing up, but that under the feminine mystique women are denied the right to question or shift the foundations of their identity. She recalls how in college she faced a choice between graduate study and a relationship and chose the latter, always feeling a measure of regret about it. Women, she writes, don’t have an individual or “private” image of who they want to be—or if they do, it is too weak to resist the “public” image of what women are supposed to be, “The Happy Housewife Heroine” portrayed by the media. The public image, though, is superficial: an image developed by magazines and the advertisers who want to sell cake mixes, appliances, and beauty products.

Friedan writes that many mothers during the 1950s and 1960s want their daughters to grow up to do something other than be housewives. The daughters recognize their mothers’ unhappiness, but don’t know what to do about it—and repeat the cycle, bowing to pressure to be properly “feminine” and popular enough to get married and become a housewife. Many of the teens Friedan interviews speak about wanting to remove their individuality to fit in, both with their peer groups and on dates. The stereotype of the unhappy “old maid” is strong for this generation, but there is no longer a stereotype of strong and independent women for these girls to emulate. Friedan describes how society acknowledges that women have a “role crisis,” but suggests that societal definitions of the crisis say the problem exists because women can’t accept the limits of their role, whereas, in her opinion, the problem exists because the role is too narrow.

The feminine mystique won’t let girls grow up. It denies them from participating in a rite of passage described by the psychologist Erik Erikson, who said adolescents’ passage to adulthood is marked by crises and decisions requiring them to make choices and determine their own values and priorities. Women, Friedan writes, are told what to do before they get the chance to question their options, and, further, they aren’t aware of other options. Women, as of the late 1950s, are denied the right to change or shape their identity beyond their limited role defined by the feminine mystique.

By the late 1950s, Friedan writes, “feminism” has become a dirty word. However, strangely, the origins of feminism during the nineteenth century involved suffragettes’ fight to allow women an identity apart from that of their spouse. The fight for the right to vote was nothing more than the fight to give women the identity they had lacked. It is interesting, she notes, that during the reign of the feminine mystique the notion of women needing advocates to help them shape their own identities is scorned.

Friedan retraces the history of women’s fight for the vote, connecting that battle to the rights women no longer seem to want. She notes that feminists were defined during the 1950s as man-hating or reactive against men, when, in fact, what these women wanted was their own rights independent of (rather than in reaction to) men. The heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House easily leaves her husband to explore her own identity and role in the world apart from that of her spouse. Friedan writes: “It is a cliché of our own time that women spent half a century fighting for ‘rights’ and the next half wondering whether they wanted them after all.”

Friedan traces feminism’s links to independence in all forms, revisiting the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY—where women argued for the right to vote—and pointing out the ironic tenets of the Declaration of Independence which states that “all men and women are created equal.” Feminists have always been fought, miscategorized as man-haters or angry and inadequate women. Arguments based on nature, religion, and intellect are all brought out in the fight to keep women in their “God-given” role—in much the way pro-slavery advocates claimed the Negro was an animal or inferior.

During the mid-nineteenth century, an early feminist named Lucy Stone pushed and fought her way through college and did, eventually, marry. But her marriage was unconventional at the time, for she did not take her husband’s name—and the couple publicized their vows to show the terms of their marriage as different from those of the time. Stone, Friedan writes, didn’t take her husband’s name because that followed the idea of the “femme couverte”—or woman “covered” by her husband’s identity, finances, and rule. Women’s push to get the vote paralleled their push to abolish slavery. The more they demonstrated and found interests outside the home, the more fulfilled they felt and the better their marriages and parenting—for they were living a life of the mind in addition to a life of the home.

Women did finally win the right to vote, but somehow the image of the feminist was distorted into the image of the man-hater, the uncomfortable woman who can’t accept her role. “Did women really go home again as a reaction to feminism?” Friedan asks. She believes that women didn’t retreat from the original urges feminism helped promote—for the right to vote, think, and have lives apart from their families. Sigmund Freud the Austrian psychoanalyst who linked male and female development and destiny with male and female anatomy may have had more to do with it, she suggests.


Betty Friedan launches The Feminine Mystique by first taking the pulse of the American woman and determining that she is not healthy living the role she has been given.

Friedan’s first chapter establishes the “problem that has no name” as a foundation for her historical inquiry into how America arrived at a place where women, liberated thanks to early feminists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, have nonetheless decided to turn their backs on their freedoms. She structures her nonfiction account of women’s shifting identity—and the cultural forces that contributed to the shift—by starting with a snapshot of where women are in the 1950s so that, in later chapters, she can dig beneath the surface account of women’s role in society. She also establishes that many mothers want more for their daughters than they have had in life, yet feel helpless to teach their daughters how to create fuller lives.

Friedan finds that women are overly focused on their roles as wives, housekeepers, and mothers—their biological role. She also finds reflections of this image depicted in the media, the most popular and digestible form of social messaging to which men and women are exposed. Women’s predilections and the media’s promotion of the “feminine mystique,” as she refers to the glamorization of women’s sex-based roles as wives and mothers, are chicken-and-egg issues. Did the media present vulnerable women with a social alternative to careers and independence—the feminine mystique—at just the right time? Or did women who had planned to use their lives otherwise digest and then begin parroting the perfect image of homemaking and marriage depicted in the articles and stories they read everywhere? One theme Friedan explores throughout her book is introduced here: The feminine mystique infiltrates different disciplines—both intellectual (psychology, anthropology) and mainstream (the media, education)—and then reinforces itself within American culture.

Friedan works to bring forth the context against which the feminine mystique arose and to point out its perverse thesis. The media reinforces women’s roles and vice versa—and yet, during the period of which Friedan writes, a shift from female to male editors took place, and with it, the image of women in the media shifted. The women Friedan sees in the pages of popular magazines during the 1940s and 1950s are always housewives—gone are the New Women of the 1930s who struggled with the still-contemporary issues of balancing their intellectual or professional passions with their romantic lives or family responsibilities. In the place of the New Women came the women who told the census taker that their occupation was “housewife.” Friedan tries to connect the dots between these two identities, and reviews the way that the media manipulated women—a theme that will resurface later in the book, when she studies how advertisers consciously played on housewives’ insecurities to sell products.

She also traces the history of women’s liberation and how, as soon as women succeeded in securing the vote, the feminine mystique rose up to teach them they didn’t really have any grounds for using it. Of note within these chapters is a piece of magazine fiction, “Sarah and the Seaplane,” which Friedan sees as an apt parable for where women could go: The story features a protagonist named Sarah who is learning to fly. Her peers and family ask her why she is preoccupied, if she is in love (the feminine mystique’s perpetual goal), but she is actually in love with her growing sense of independence. She finally solos in the seaplane—and also falls in love with the instructor who “gave her her wings.” Sarah, as a protagonist, provides a glimpse of where women can go: they can be both strong and independent, but function in relationships that arise in large part because others are drawn to their strength and independence. Sadly, stories like Sarah’s began disappearing from women’s magazines in the 1940s and 1950s.


Chapters 5 - 8 Summary and Analysis