The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

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Chapters 12 - 14 Summary and Analysis

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 2,601 words.)