Illustration of a woman in an apron in a kitchen

The Feminine Mystique

by Betty Friedan

Start Free Trial

The Feminine Mystique Characters

The key figures in The Feminine Mystique are Betty Friedan, Sigmund Freud, and Margaret Mead.

  • Inspired by her own unhappy experience as a housewife, Betty Friedan developed her theory of the "feminine mystique" through numerous interviews with suburban American women.
  • Sigmund Freud's biologically-based theory of femininity was often referenced in popular media in the 1950s, lending harmful credibility to the feminine mystique. 
  • Margaret Mead was a widely-cited anthropologist who promoted a functionalist view of gender. Because women's biological role is to bear children, Mead argued that their social role thus must be motherhood.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on January 25, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 825

Betty Friedan

While researching for The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan conducted hundreds of interviews with women around the country, but her interest in their plight was undeniably personal. Throughout the book, Friedan frequently draws on her own experience as a housewife suffering from “the problem that has no name.” Indeed, she says that she recognized the quiet desperation of her fellow housewives “first as a woman” long before she understood its social and psychological implications. As a young woman, Friedan attended college with the intention of getting a degree in psychology. She was a successful student, winning multiple fellowships to continue on in her studies. However, she ultimately succumbed to the pressure of what she would later name the “feminine mystique” and turned down a fellowship that would have allowed her to get her doctorate. She went on to work as a writer, where she saw firsthand how the feminine mystique dictated the content of women’s magazines. She later married, had children, and lived the life of a suburban housewife. After realizing that many other housewives shared her feelings of unhappiness, Friedan started to write articles about “the problem that had no name” and eventually developed these ideas into The Feminine Mystique. After the publication of her book, Friedan became a prominent leader in the second-wave feminist movement. She was one of the co-founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW) as well as its first president. The Feminine Mystique went on to become a bestseller and is often credited with inciting the second wave of American feminism.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis. Friedan believes that, while his work on repressive moral codes was beneficial to the feminist cause, Freud’s work on femininity was poorly interpreted by the popular media in the 1950s and lent dangerous credibility to the feminine mystique. While much of Freud’s other work was analyzed in the context of its time, Friedan argues that the same treatment was not given to his theories on femininity. Freud’s analysis of femininity was largely influenced by women’s biology. He believed that it was a woman’s destiny to be socially inferior to man because, lacking a penis, she was biologically inferior. Freud dismissed women who struggled with repressive Victorian gender roles as having retained an unconscious “penis envy” from their early development. Friedan notes that proponents of the feminine mystique promoted these Freudian ideas without examining the influence that Victorian society had on Freud’s own understanding of gender. Furthermore, despite the immense popularity of Freud’s work, many of his theories were oversimplified and generally misunderstood by the public. The most prominent example is Freud’s theory of penis envy, which originally referred to a stage in the psychological development of Victorian girls. In the 1950s, so-called penis envy was used to denigrate feminists or any women who tried to exercise the rights that were now available to them.

Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead was a prominent anthropologist who adopted a functionalist approach in her work and ultimately helped to promote the feminine mystique. Mead’s early work actually focused on cultures with inverted gender roles and her conclusions appeared to question the validity of rigid social roles. In her later work, however, Mead adopted a more functionalist view of women and strove to emphasize the social significance of childbearing. While Mead may have been trying to elevate womanhood, she ended up falling into the trap of functionalist thought, coming to believe that because women can bear children, their primary purpose should be to become wives and mothers. The scholarly reinforcement Mead’s work lent the feminine mystique was...

(This entire section contains 825 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

especially damaging because she was so widely read and cited. Friedan also points out that Mead did not live up to the feminine ideal that she wrote about. Though she proposed that women should focus on their role as a wife and mother, Mead herself was a devoted researcher who achieved enormous professional success in her field.

A.C. Kinsey

Alfred Kinsey was a well-known researcher who conducted a series of famous sex studies. His preliminary findings from a massive study on women and sex suggested that educated women experienced less sexual pleasure and satisfaction than uneducated women. These findings were used by proponents of the feminine mystique—particularly “sex-directed educators”—to convince women to make domestic life their primary focus. When Kinsey published the full study, his final conclusions completely contradicted his earlier findings, showing that educated women were actually more likely to experience sexual satisfaction than women who married  young to become housewives. Kinsey also studied the increasing depersonalization of sex and the seeming sexual insatiability of American housewives. Friedan believes that both of these phenomena are negative side effects of the feminine mystique. She argues that when women are not allowed to find personal fulfillment, they will then try to achieve fulfillment or satisfaction through sex, both in and out of their marriages.