Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2002
Summary Friedan examines the fact that there’s an additional constituency that has a stake in women remaining obedient to the feminine mystique: advertisers. Advertisers rely on women to buy the vast majority of their products. Women, in turn, have a psychological need to shop for products that they think will...
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Friedan examines the fact that there’s an additional constituency that has a stake in women remaining obedient to the feminine mystique: advertisers. Advertisers rely on women to buy the vast majority of their products. Women, in turn, have a psychological need to shop for products that they think will make them better housekeepers, run a “modern” home, or keep up with their neighbors—or that help them use their minds and creativity to clean. In the case of young brides, advertisers learn they can make these young women believe that if they buy the right brands or products their class and economic status will improve.
Friedan conducts extensive research on housekeepers using the market research of a millionaire who acts as a consultant for major advertising clients, noting the literature of his studies and how it discusses “manipulating” housewives’ emotions and playing on their subconscious feelings of guilt to make them buy new products. Marketers must tread a delicate path in elevating the status of housewives, discussing the work of the home as requiring intelligence, ingenuity, and creativity. Women are not maids, but specialists using the right tools for different jobs. Women who want privacy don’t need time to themselves, they need their own car. So went the logic of the advertisers.
On one hand, Friedan writes, the marketers want the women to feel resourceful and independent—to be bold enough to use a new vacuum cleaner or timesaving baking mix—but on the other hand, they don’t want her to become so independent she takes a job or questions the products marketed to her. Advertisers encourage a slight kind of independence—that produced by giving women just a little bit more time as a result of using timesaving devices and running a “modern” home. Friedan asks the marketing consultant why a woman can’t use her newfound free time to develop a career, to become an astronaut or doctor. But the marketer says his clients—the advertisers—don’t want that, and that women don’t really want that, either.
Friedan decides to find a fulfilled full-time housewife and polls various people—therapists, women, community members. But time and again she learns that the most fulfilled housewives aren’t really full-time housewives: They either have full-time or part-time jobs, or have managed to cultivate serious outside interests beyond the home. In one community of twenty-eight housewives, she learns that despite the signs of fulfillment (multiple children, successful husbands, nice homes), many of these women have tried suicide, take drugs or drink heavily, have been hospitalized for mental illness, and fantasize about or actually conduct extramarital affairs. Friedan notes that these women are highly educated and that their dissatisfaction stems from their boredom with their roles as housewives. The signs of their unhappiness are clear in their flat tones of voice and lifeless demeanors. She also notices that they are unusually busy—always on the move, doing chores, fidgeting—and that they have little time alone.
She learns of several instances where a full-time housewife and a married career woman live in similar houses side by side. The full-time housewife never seems to have enough time to finish her housework each day and no time to participate in outside activities. The professional woman, however, runs through her housework swiftly either before work or right after work, and has time for hobbies, activities, and even leisure reading. The moral of the story: If a woman is motivated, she finishes housework swiftly. But if housework is her only ambition or opportunity, she makes it take up all of her time. This, Friedan writes, is partly because she has no idea of what she might do with free time and partly because she needs to fill her time with housework to justify its difficulty and that it is “a job” in itself.
The modern household—indeed, even modern “open plan” architecture, in which rooms have no doors and open onto one another—is not configured to provide rooms or spaces where adults can sit in private. The growth of America’s suburbs is also symptomatic of the role of the housewife in the American landscape. Do the anonymous, identical suburbs—designed as retreats far from the masculine world of the city—help bolster the role of the housewife, or is she the one who urges the family to move into them? Interestingly, Friedan notes that women can play major roles in the new suburban communities, but most wives instead claim they are “too busy” to assume leadership positions. When women volunteer, it’s for trivial one-time events like bake sales and the like, leaving men the job of true civic leadership positions.
Magazines take a look at the phenomenon of female boredom, but generally conclude it’s just a woman’s lot. Friedan concludes that women who are full-time housekeepers aren’t doing mature work—studies show an eight-year-old can do most household tasks—and that that is why they are both bored and unfulfilled with the work they do. Housewives strain to take some measure of fulfillment from it, and become domineering within the home and in their roles as domestic experts, but it is a nervous, almost futile strain. The housewives’ attempt to find meaning in their work is their attempt to have ownership over some form of power or identity, to have a meaningful domain.
In addition to making more of housework than is really there, housewives also place excessive emphasis on sex as a means for fulfillment. Their intense quest to seek fulfillment from sex, either with their husband or in an extramarital affair, is a symptom of their lack of fulfillment in other arenas of life. The insistence on more and better sex from their mates, or for “the feeling” of intimacy they once knew earlier in marriage, is a sign that these women don’t need better sex, per se, but more fulfilling lives in general. The effect of women becoming sexual aggressors or seeking more from sex than it can possibly provide has the opposite of its intended effect: The more women push for sex, the less interested men become.
Sex becomes a game of power or coercion, and because so many women use sex as a means for fulfillment under the feminine mystique, the media, movies, and popular novels are full of sexual references—which nearly doubled in some cases between 1950 and 1960, Friedan reports. But the increased sex is mechanical and depersonalized—the quantity of sex discussed in the culture or shown in books and films is not of much quality. Women Friedan interviews speak of their mates losing interest in sex as their appetites for sex increase. This is a paradox because under the feminine mystique sex should fulfill these women, or alleviate their boredom, but it doesn’t.
Friedan observes that women’s hunger to find meaning in their relationships and their roles as housewives creates an emasculating or irritating effect on men. Men increasingly are having affairs, often as a show of self-assertion rather than because they love another woman, and they are beginning to resent women and their dominion and rules about the home. In addition, according to some doctors, women’s appetite for sex and also procreation is in some instances bringing about signs of early menopause. The more a woman relies on sex for her identity, the worse her complications during childbirth or recovery from gynecological health procedures. Friedan equates the rising consciousness of male homosexuality to the concurrent rise in women’s sexual appetites, noting that homosexuality has always existed but asserts itself in a new way at a time when women are asserting their sexual selves.
The first four chapters of Friedan’s work define the feminine mystique and its context, while the next four chapters outline the institutionalized thinking (in psychology, anthropology and education) out of which it arose and is reinforced. The ninth through eleventh chapters show the devastating ramifications of the feminine mystique on the women that the mystique is supposed to fulfill and fill with purpose.
Here Friedan reveals that consumerism—through advertising—is at the heart of the feminine mystique. Magazines and stories may portray the ideal housewife, but the real purpose behind that, she reveals, is to expose the housewife to the advertising found in the pages of magazines or during favorite family television shows. The language advertising agencies and their clients use to discuss women acknowledges that women live under self-deception—they are unfulfilled, guilty about how little they use their minds, and bored with their work around the home. Rather than appeal to the unconscious truth many housewives keep at bay, the advertisers seek to manipulate them into maintaining the deception under which they live: advertisers pitch products that make housewives more efficient—but not too efficient, because that would shatter the mystique’s rationalization that housework is challenging. They pitch products that make a woman “modern” and capable of running an up-to-date home.
What they are really pitching, Friedan observes, is perpetuation of the feminine mystique. They encourage women to fill their shopping carts rather than acknowledge the emptiness of the way they spend their time. Advertisers and their clients have a financial and social stake in keeping women in the home and using their products, rather than allowing women the freedom to leave the home for work and other interests. If a woman left the home more often, or took her gaze away from the “thing buying” that is her job as homemaker, the economy would fall apart, such thinking goes. Never does a woman’s happiness, mental health, or the fact that she can both clean and participate in meaningful work activities enter the advertisers’ equation: women are little more than wallet-carriers whose sadness leads them to shop for products that will only alleviate their sad feelings temporarily. Perfect, the advertiser thinks—when that relief is over, she’ll shop again.
Friedan looks for a housewife who is actually fulfilled and finds only working women. The true housewives, as promoted by the mystique and by advertising, are bored and depressed. They feel empty and have a flat, lifeless tone to their voices. Many are taking drugs or having affairs or considering suicide. These women may or may not realize that their housework is unfulfilling, but regardless, they tend to make it take all day long—either as a rationalization to make their housework seem more challenging than it is or because there’s nothing motivating them, nothing meaningful for them to do after the housework is finished. This behavior, Friedan suggests, is a symptom of the mystique’s ills.
Another symptom of the mystique’s problem is that housewives over-sexualize their relationships, looking to their mates for more frequent and more dramatic or meaningful sex. For women of the feminine mystique, sex is the only area in which they feel “alive” or filled with purpose. Since the mystique tells women their role is only biological, women's resulting insistence on sex makes unfortunate sense. Frequent, intense sex or frequent pregnancies are the only goals allowed when a woman's identity is defined by her sexual “achievements.” If a woman’s only role is as procreator or sex kitten, she must have frequent and meaningful sex as often as possible to prove to herself that this role is important. The over-reliance on sex is actually destroying the marriages that the feminine mystique was meant to bolster: men are overwhelmed by their sex-seeking wives and don’t know what the women want, while women are not as fulfilled as they expected to be from their sex lives with mates and often turn to affairs—also not fulfilling—to get a “feeling” of “identity” from another man. The over-reliance on sex points to even greater symptoms of trouble introduced by the feminine mystique: women don’t have any intellectual or spiritual basis for identity under the mystique, as they are little more than bodies who clean and procreate.