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The Feminine Mystique

by Betty Friedan

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Chapters 5 - 8 Summary and Analysis

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Margaret Mead: anthropologist whose research was used by “functional” theorists to glorify pregnancy, birth, and mothering and perpetuate the feminine mystique

Friedan traces how, during the 1940s, the notion that women were inferior to men and were little more than breeding animals with delicate natures arose, in part from how popular culture interpreted and twisted the theories of Sigmund Freud. Freud, the Austrian psychoanalyst, coined the term “penis envy” to describe the experience women have at the very early stages of development when they discover they lack what a man has—a penis. The term, however, becomes a metaphor under the feminine mystique for women as lacking male power, dominance, confidence, and superiority. For women to want more than their role as housekeepers, wives, and mothers is for them to display “penis envy”—a desire for what is not naturally theirs. This, Friedan writes, is the perversion of Freud’s theories to reinforce the feminine mystique.

She writes that Freud, while brilliant in some respects, was also a product of his time and worked in a very repressed society in which women had few opportunities. It is no wonder, she suggests, that he noticed women envying men’s station. She writes that the apparent frustration of Victorian women can’t be applied to twentieth-century women without some adjustments to look at the context in which Freud studied and published. The media, advertising, and modern psychology, however, didn’t examine this context and further used the rationale of “penis envy” to reinforce women’s domestic role. Freud, she writes, suggests that anatomy determines destiny—and this “determinism” shapes his views on women and their role. She traces his relationships with the women in his life—all of whom accommodated him—and how his letters to his wife reveal his desire for her to be obedient and childish, not unlike what the mystique promotes in the twentieth century.

Though critics took Freud in context with respect to many of his theories, when it comes to his theories about gender-determined roles and behavior this is not the case, according to Friedan. In Freud, a woman is a man who is lacking, and if she has any envy of men, Freud always reduces that to sexual or biological terms. Friedan suggests, however, that a broader view would likely reveal the social reasons for her envy—her inferior social position, rather than her missing penis. Freud’s theories, however, were distilled into popular culture in books such as Marynia Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg’s Modern Woman: The Lost Sex or Helene Deutsch’s The Psychology of Woman, which essentially defined woman’s nature as passive/receptive and man’s as active/aggressive. If women want to work or think, such books suggest, they have a “masculinity complex.”

Though Friedan located psychoanalysts who disagree with Freudian theory, she notes that the media, advertising, and social momentum that built around these theories are so aggressive that there is little most can do to redefine them.

With psychiatry and psychology embracing the feminine mystique, other disciplines joined in, Friedan writes. Margaret Mead, the noted anthropologist, and a group of sociologists known as the “functionalists” further reinforced the feminine mystique. While Mead’s early research took her to cultures where males and females shared female roles, where both shared male roles, and where male and female traditional roles were reversed, she eventually bowed in her theory to a biological definition of women’s roles and how women “function” in social units—as mothers who could bring forth and nurture babies. Over time, Friedan writes, Mead’s theories moved toward the “functional”—that a woman’s role in society must be as it always has been, or male and female...

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functions within the unit of family and society become confused and society breaks down. This, Friedan writes, is both Mead’s and the functionalists’ claim.

Friedan writes that both these suppositions are based on ideas that keep women infantile and look only at history or the present to define the nature of the future, which is illogical. Functionalists often claim that women have had little success venturing into careers—even though, historically, they have had little time to prove themselves. Functionalism, instead, promotes “adjustment”—and argues that if women or men don’t like their roles, they must nonetheless learn to adjust to them for the good of society and to create a “functioning” social unit—a male-female couple. It rationalizes women retaining the status quo; Friedan writes: “Women were being adjusted to a state inferior to their full capabilities.”

Friedan also notes that Mead is a walking hypocrite based on her own theories. Mead’s theory, she writes, increasingly lionized the role of woman as baby-maker. It celebrated pregnancy and biology, elevating woman above the inferior role Freud assigned woman, but only through her biological capabilities. Friedan asks if Mead has oversold women, in terms of creating excessive praise for woman’s power to bring forth life. She notes that at the end of her career, even Mead began to question in books and articles from 1960 whether women had reverted to caveman times in their retreat to the home, where they shield their children and wait for their mates to return from the hunt. However, even Mead’s desire to see women get out of the home again still ascribes a sexual or biological talent to the act of a woman doing that.

In addition to psychiatry and psychology under Sigmund Freud and sociology/anthropology theories propagated by Margaret Mead, American educational institutions began to perpetuate the feminine mystique among students. Friedan traces a shift in the approach to women’s education between the 1940s and the 1960s at both women’s colleges and coeducational colleges. The problem is both the students’—for young women entering college have already absorbed the feminine mystique from their time in high school—and that of educators. Friedan outlines how women are increasingly steered by guidance counselors and social pressures away from demanding classes and toward practical how-to courses that draw on other disciplines to teach women how to cook, nurture their relationships, and keep house.

Friedan discusses how educators absorbed the functionalist theories of male and female roles and calls the phenomenon of this sort of education “sex-directed education.” By prompting young women to sublimate their intellectual curiosities and focus solely on the quest for a relationship and mate, educators never allow women the full plate of options that men must face as they make decisions about their future. Women, Friedan writes, have only two narrow options at this time: marriage and their biological destiny as mothers, or a lonely spinsterhood. They are not encouraged to prepare for careers, only for clerical or other low-paying jobs that aren’t challenging but could help (but not fully support) a spouse. Because they are diverted from the choices adults used to face—what to do for a living, how to balance a career and adult relationship, which opportunities to pursue—they never pass through the final stages of adolescent questioning to become adults. They are encouraged to “adjust” to the feminine role without ever becoming aware of positive alternatives.

Friedan interviews many high school students and young college students who talk about the need to drop or de-emphasize their academic interests in order to fit in and become popular enough to attract a mate. She says that the girls and young women are making an active, conscious choice to accept the mystique and are somewhat aware of a “refusal to get involved” in work or interests outside of finding a husband. Even bright girls who hold on to their academic interests eventually decide to capitulate to the teachings of sex-directed education, sensing that if they don’t give in their lives will be too difficult.

Sex-directed educators, she writes, do two kinds of damage to women’s place in society. First of all, they only encourage women to develop their sexual function, and, secondly, they abdicate their responsibility to educate women—to train them to think, analyze, and use their creativity. Research from the end of the two-decade reign of sex-directed educators reveals that the least-developed women are the ones who had no interest in college other than finding a husband. Many women whose sole goal in youth is fulfilling their feminine function by marrying and bearing children suffer from “anomie”—a lack of identity—as they age. A body’s achievements, Friedan suggests, are not a substitute for a woman having a mind of her own in addition to a family.

Friedan explains the cultural context in which the feminine mystique arose, noting that World War II made both men and women long for the safety and comforts of home. In addition, sex-directed education, Freud, and functionalists all glamorized and praised the role of women as mothers and caretakers of the family, which drove women to participate in a demographic surge of early marriage and young pregnancy. The role of “the mother” in society also put pressure on women—both because the mother was critiqued for sending maladjusted young men to war and because men, eventually, could turn women their own age, the women they would marry, into wives-as-mothers.

She notes that the American baby boom during the post–World War II years also took place in other countries, but those other countries did not, as a consequence, decide that parenting was the only meaningful work for a woman. In America, however, a woman’s role as wife and parent was encouraged to the detriment and exclusion of her other possible pursuits. Men returning from war took women’s jobs, and women’s careers were limited or offered no promotion beyond a certain place in the hierarchy of the profession. Artists, educators, and thinkers—as well as civilians—all turned their minds to the scrutiny and development of home and hearth, to the exclusion of other American interests.

Sociological studies continued to misinterpret—or to report inaccurately—the correlation between mothering and happiness. Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey published early results of his landmark survey on women and sex indicating that the more educated a woman is, the more sexually fulfilled she is; later, however, that thesis reversed but never made it into the popular consciousness. The choice women faced continued to be home, family, and love versus career, barrenness, and loneliness.

Friedan explains how women absorbed and perpetuated the mystique, with friends teaching friends and mothers teaching children, by their own examples, how women are to behave. Men, too, were victims of the mystique, actually expecting their wives to behave not only as the mothers of their children but as their mothers as well.

Despite all the focus on mothering, Friedan notes that psychological research began to show during that during the 1940s and 1950s mothers sought too much fulfillment from their children, and, as a result, American children began showing signs of maladjustment. These mothers had no life apart from worrying over their offspring. Even Dr. Spock, the renowned pediatrician, acknowledged these findings, noting that Russian mothers who are less child-focused might have been producing better-adjusted children than American mothers. Psychiatrist David Levy coined the term “maternal overprotection” to define what was happening between mothers and their children.

Friedan moves from a look at the surface of the feminine mystique—as depicted in media—and the historical context against which it arose into the background of the culture in which the mystique arose. In chapters five through eight, she traces how the social sciences rationalized and justified the feminine mystique rather than questioning it, a factor in reinforcing rather than weakening the domestic and sexual edifice in which women were told to live during the mid-twentieth century.

Mid-century scholars and pop psychologists saw in Sigmund Freud a genius whose theories claimed man was superior, woman inferior, and that any attempt women made to widen their social role beyond wife-mother-domestic was little more than their “penis envy”—or wish to be male and have more freedom, Friedan notes. But she also asks why no one looks at the historical context in which Freud theorized—Victorian Vienna. Meanwhile, Margaret Mead’s initial research on how men and women can play interchangeable roles in a culture soon gave way to a one-sided look at the importance of women as mothers and a worship of the act of childbearing. By the time Mead began to question this line of thinking, both her earlier work and the existing thought on Freud had reinforced popular culture’s belief that woman’s only destiny was to be a housewife and mother. Here Friedan establishes the idea that just when the popular theories began to exhaust their own logic, no one cared to question them more deeply.

After demonstrating how individual theorists promoted the feminine mystique, Friedan looks at how educators and young women absorbed these ideas. She describes how educators took the intellectuals’ ideas about women’s roles and applied them to the curriculum promoted to women. Young girls came to college already filled with the notion that they couldn’t do much with their lives but marry, and the few who didn’t feel that way became convinced when greeted with curriculum choices and guidance counselors who steered them to the altar rather than to their degrees. Men, too, suffered under the mystique by seeing women become mothers too young—and by seeing in their female peers a continuation of their own mothers’ patterns, rather than female adults with whom they could form complex relationships. Lastly, women themselves began to perpetuate the myth among themselves—as friends taught friends and mothers taught daughters what it was to be a woman.

Friedan’s explanation of how women’s oppression under the feminine mystique was introduced and then incorporated into the American culture’s thinking, and how the theories created by the mystique were internalized and then maintained and propagated by women, mirrors theories of the French theorist Michel Foucault. Foucault was well-known for his literary criticism, but also for his theories about how institutions overtake an individual’s will and teach individuals to obey and self-perpetuate the teachings of the institution. This last step—the individual’s full absorption of the institution’s message—is the institution’s highest achievement, for if an individual self-regulates himself or herself according to the roles taught by an institution, he or she is no longer an individual, but rather a walking symbol or mouthpiece for that institution. Foucault outlined these theories in his work detailing how the French prison system was created and functioned in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Originally created to house the mentally sick and some poor, the institutions soon became vehicles for repressing the lower classes and teaching them not to strive above their stations.

Foucault suggested that prisons repressed people first by isolating them physically in a prison building; then by labeling and categorizing them; then by teaching them to accept, internalize, and believe in their new identities and that they belonged where society placed them. His metaphors translate to other ways in which social groups teach their members to behave according to assigned roles—a sort of functionalism, based not on gender (as Friedan explains) but on social station. After considering Foucault’s examples, it becomes easy to understand why women fell prey to the feminine mystique. Society isolated them (placing them in the home and discouraging their participation in careers or social causes), labeled them as housewives, and taught them that they would have no opportunity beyond their roles as wives and mothers. Soon, women accepted and internalized this assigned role—girls in high school curbed their interest in academics, women in college got their “MRS” degrees—and the “brainwashing” was complete.

While Friedan doesn’t discuss Foucault in her book, his theories about how institutions arise, establish themselves, and eventually infiltrate the way individuals think is worth noting when reading these chapters. Friedan explains how each new theorist whose work could have refuted or questioned the feminine mystique instead allowed the work to be distorted under the mystique in order to reinforce it. She enumerates the wide variety of intellectuals—from Freud to Margaret Mead—who agree that a woman's destiny is biological. Women listen to these thinkers, and despite women’s growing resentment of and resistance to the role they have been assigned, they find themselves playing that role. Adhering to the feminine mystique produces very real, negative consequences for these women. Although many marry and become mothers as they are told to, they are resentful of their situation—alternately showing anger or behaving like overprotective mothers.


Chapters 1 - 4 Summary and Analysis


Chapters 9 - 11 Summary and Analysis