Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2778
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...
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