Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2601
New Characters 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
Summary 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 observers began to show concern. She cites an Army doctor who visits young, sick prisoners of war and is shocked at how unable to care for themselves they are, how they lay waiting for doctors and nurses to help them with tasks they could handle on their own. She notes that educators uneasily try to place the blame on cultural factors like McCarthyism or other political phenomena. Friedan writes that the reason children have become passive and infantilized is that their mothers are overly invested in their development and do not let them develop properly. The mothers entered marriage and motherhood at such immature ages themselves that they don’t know how to teach their children self-sufficiency. Indeed, these mothers, lacking expressions of their own ego in adult activities and thoughts, over-invest their energy in their children and look to their children to fulfill their emotional needs. This places a burden on the children to perform for their mothers, to do as they say, to let themselves be guided like puppets, and, like the mothers, to look to others to make decisions in the world.
Friedan describes a mother who feels her child’s first day at school is just like her own first date, and another who can’t bear for her children to suffer at all—even though suffering and separation are both a part of human development. These women “live through their children,” and in turn deprive the children of their own lives. The women have buried their urge to grow as people, but they can’t eliminate that urge and so it seeks expression in their connection to their children.
Under the feminine mystique, women are taught to deny themselves their real identities and interests in favor of playing a role. Friedan cites a psychiatrist who describes two ways women function with underdeveloped identities. The first is “noncommitment”—a form of going through the motions without fully believing in the activity at hand. The second is “vicarious living”—a denial of one’s personality or stake in activities in favor of latching on to someone else’s interests and personality. These two functions are typical of the bright young housewife who must learn to “adjust” to her role, which is to say deny herself and apply her energy to activities she doesn’t believe in (though...
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society does) and seek an outlet for her energy through vicarious involvement with her children. Marital discord, suicide, and even child-beating are on the rise as men and women alike live under these forms of personal sublimation. A mother who lacks a strong core or sense of self, Friedan writes, struggles to impart a sense of the world to a child. Indeed, the child’s existence challenges her or highlights her lack—she looks closely to the child for cues or signs from the outer world, and is too permissive or doting on him or her.
Ultimately, Friedan writes, the loss of identity that women experience under the feminine mystique closely parallels the trauma and stripping away of identity of the Nazi concentration camps. The home, for women, is the “comfortable concentration camp.” Friedan traces the “dehumanization” process outlined by psychoanalyst and scholar Bruno Bettelheim in his study of how World War II concentration camps worked to manipulate prisoners’ minds. Like Nazi prisoners, women renounce their prior and outside interests as part of the feminine mystique. Like the prisoners, they spend their days at monotonous work and join a community of people who are in similar situations. And, like the prisoners, being with others who are alike is at first comforting but it ultimately makes each person anonymous—just a number in a uniform. Those who accept the status they are given in the camps are dead in spirit before their bodies are killed. This is the metaphor that women experience as housewives—they give up their identities and then have nothing to show or teach their children. The mothers, who should impart identity to their children, instead look to the children to bring them a sense of and source of identity.
Friedan concludes that women’s unhappiness and their children’s lack of success in adjusting to normal adolescent and young adult development is a sign that women have outgrown the housewife role. While Friedan never supported that role to begin with, she argues that even functionalists could possibly conclude that the role of the housewife is no longer benefiting the mother, the child, or the family as a social unit.
The problem with making women obey the feminine mystique is that it forbids them from growing, from expanding their repertoire of knowledge, interests, and emotions over time. The feminine mystique discourages growth in the name of “adjustment” to the prescribed female role. Friedan writes: “Adjustment to a culture which does not permit the realization of one’s entire being is not a cure at all, according to the new psychological thinkers.” Men and, especially, women, can’t live their lives with a one-size-fits-all definition of what is important. Women, like men, need to extend themselves beyond the home and struggle to find out what matters to them in terms of work or current issues in the world that they can pursue. Friedan writes that it may be too late to save women who are actually happy with their roles as housewives, but the growing signs of frustration and unrest among many other housewives are a good starting point for shaking these women out of complacency.
The failure of a woman to “self-actualize” or develop her adult self has not before been considered a pathology, but rather a positive attribute. But the results of women’s obedience of the feminine mystique often parallel the type of world that mental patients live in—a day-to-day world, a world where the big picture or the future is not part of the equation. Women need to seize and participate in the future, Friedan writes, rather than live trapped in the present of domesticity. She describes a hierarchy of human needs and how, in modern society, humans need to find fulfillment in the form of self-expression. For women, sex has been a permitted form of self-expression, but sex is not the whole story. In fact, women who have outlets outside the home—jobs, political interests, serious endeavors—show higher satisfaction with sex and “adjustment” to marriage than do women who seek fulfillment only in sex, a mate, and family/domestic life.
Friedan cites the psychologist A. H. Maslow in describing how “dominant” (assertive, confident) women are happier than their stereotypically mystique-driven “non-dominant” (passive, accommodating) female counterparts in several realms of life. Dominance allows a woman to not let her ego (or lack thereof) interfere in her relationships with others. If dominant, a woman doesn’t tailor her comments to please others but speaks her mind freely. She doesn’t hold back from what she thinks or decide not to do something because it’s not feminine. Because of that, she enjoys her marriage, sex, child-rearing, work, and, in general, life a lot more than the woman urged by the feminine mystique to seek satisfaction only in her biological destiny.
Dominant women keep the sensual pleasures of domestic life (food, sex, the comforts of home and children) in better perspective, yet enjoy them more when they do focus on them, Friedan writes, crediting Maslow. Further, women who are dominant see their partners as separate beings and enjoy a healthier love than the merged identities and togetherness recommended for relationships under the feminine mystique. Friedan says that women need to find meaningful work or interests outside their feminine roles in order to truly manifest their potential and live as adults.
For women to break through the ceiling of the feminine mystique, they must first recognize that the mystique is a problem and face the fact of the problem. But acknowledging the problem is just a starting point: women then have to find a way to solve it. Finding meaningful work or interests to which they can seriously commit themselves, and for which they’re willing to make long-term plans and compete, is what women need. More than the occasional day or hour off, women need to make a legitimate commitment to changing their identities, first disconnecting them from their link to housework—which is, after all, a series of chores to be done as fast as possible rather than a vocation demanding talent. They must then recognize their marriage and family life in proper perspective—as part of the cloth of their life, but not the whole thing.
A job, preferably paid, can be a big part of this process. However, it can’t be any job—it must be a job to which the woman feels committed, or a job that leads to a professional station the woman plans to pursue as part of a long-term plan to which she is committed. Volunteer work and art are valid as well, but if they are treated as hobbies or never brought to bear in public, they don’t require the commitment Friedan says is necessary. Along the way, moving one’s identity away from the feminine mystique and re-attaching it to a personally defined vision of the future will be difficult. The feminine mystique will continue to assert itself; old friends, family members, and other women may disapprove.
But women must also talk themselves down from the resistance the feminine mystique has taught them, and, once they begin to follow the life changes they’ve decided on for themselves, make subsequent adjustments at home. They can’t preserve their former activities and bring with them the values of the feminine mystique that once governed them. Friedan cites the example of two housewives who took jobs, and how one hired a maid to handle housework and continued working happily while the other insisted on doing both her job and all the old housework because she felt that was her role. Eventually, this second woman quit out of exhaustion.
Ultimately, education plays a major role for women who have been subverted by the feminine mystique. Friedan proposes that women who were discouraged from thinking and finishing college be offered a sort of national GI Bill to allow them to return to college for meaningful academics—not mystique-conceived courses on how to cook, clean and optimize relationships. She cites examples throughout the book’s final chapters of how women have transcended the limitations of the feminine mystique, and the many steps and slow journeys to re-train themselves or complete the schooling they dropped when younger they have taken. It will be difficult, she acknowledges, but it will ultimately be fruitful for women as individuals and for society.
Analysis Here Friedan traces the final and most negative consequences of the feminine mystique and measures how the mystique is already damaging a new generation not just of young women but also young men. The feminine mystique robs women of their identity—indeed, it never allows them to manifest any of the personal characteristics or make any of the personal choices that create an identity. And so, these women become monsters who perpetuate the feminine mystique. Lacking meaning in their own lives, these women rely too much on their own children’s routine successes and failures for a sense of fulfillment that, unfortunately, never seems to come. If a mother relies too heavily on her children to be children, Friedan suggests, these children can’t grow up to become independent adults without a major struggle.
The mothers of the feminine mystique live in an infantile world in which they are made prisoners of the homes they are told to cherish, and where they serve spouses and children but never their own needs. The theories of Bruno Bettelheim and of A. H. Maslow both acknowledge that adults must retain and develop their own identities through formal participation in their environments. Bettelheim described this necessity in terms of what gives individuals their humanity and what, in society, they must do to preserve their senses of self. Maslow described the significance of finding one’s passions and priorities as key to individual advancement. Both theorists suggest, as Friedan does, that informal participation or vicarious interests aren’t sufficient for personal growth: people must make choices, take risks, and compete in order to feel and be alive. The feminine mystique kills the spirit and identity of women, Friedan suggests, using psychological techniques and brainwashing not unlike those used by the Nazis in concentration camps. The consequences for women are awful (suffering, suicide attempts, depression, lifelessness, envy of mates and children), and the consequences for society are worse: members of the new generation of children aren’t able to make their own decisions or take their own risks. How could they? Their mothers never did, and young women know the only “choice” is the choice the prior generation made: finding a mate, marrying, and having babies.
Friedan postulates that the feminine mystique must be acknowledged and confronted by each individual woman who suffers under it, so that she may heal and restore the identity that has been taken from her—often at a very young age. Research shows that “dominant” or active women are happier in all the arenas the feminine mystique promised to women as a reward for their “femininity” (passivity). The dominant woman is happier in her marriage, her day-to-day life, her sex life, and her relationship to her children. In addition, she has a role in her community and a “life plan” or goals she works toward that have nothing to do with her spouse’s or children’s goals. She doesn’t believe the only reward for being a woman is “togetherness”—a relinquishment of the female identity in favor of her mate’s or her children’s. The journey facing women will be difficult, Friedan asserts, because the mystique is insidious and psychological and many still want it to continue—either because they are afraid of what will happen when women begin to change or because women, themselves, are afraid of the hard work that lies ahead of them. That hard work, Friedan suggests, is far easier than living under the false pretenses of the feminine mystique.