Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces The Feminine Mystique Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 859

The Feminine Mystique is one of the unusual books which is both a serious work of cultural criticism and a runaway best-seller. Despite its sometimes turgid style, The Feminine Mystique clearly hit a nerve at the time of its publication. By the 1940’s, Freud was a national guru whose sophisticated...

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The Feminine Mystique is one of the unusual books which is both a serious work of cultural criticism and a runaway best-seller. Despite its sometimes turgid style, The Feminine Mystique clearly hit a nerve at the time of its publication. By the 1940’s, Freud was a national guru whose sophisticated ideas had, in a simplified and sometimes erroneous form, become the staple of psychological thinking in the United States. Friedan was one of the first commentators to object vigorously to Freud’s insistence on the innate passivity of women and to put his peculiar notions of “penis envy” and “masculinity complex” to the test of commonsense observation. She concluded, rather convincingly: “Much of what Freud described as characteristic of universal human nature was merely characteristic of certain middle-class European men and women at the end of the nineteenth century.” Why, she asked, should Americans be so anxious to fit modern women into Freud’s outdated and probably eccentric psychological mold?

It was not only the psychological community, Friedan maintained, that had misunderstood American women. It was also the sociological establishment, as exemplified by Margaret Mead and the functionalists. The functionalists gave the highest possible value to the status quo and therefore expected women to adjust to the present needs of society, regardless of personal cost. After the war, the functionalists observed that society could return to “normal” most readily if women would give up their newfound independence, restore all the lucrative jobs to veterans with families, and begin breeding, in earnest, the next generation of patriotic Americans. A woman with any other plans was seen as dysfunctional and a genuine threat to the fundamental good of society. Mead, who followed her own brilliant career without much regard for society’s supposed needs, aided and abetted the functionalists’ point of view with her glowing reports of primitive cultures in which the mysteries of motherhood were so lovingly described. The natural childbirth/breast-feeding movement, which the writings of Mead fostered, became a cornerstone of the feminine mystique and created another set of rigid, conspicuously narrow, expectations for American women. Why, Friedan asked was society so anxious to pattern the lives of contemporary American women on the lives of Samoan natives? Why was the current social arrangement, so beloved of the functionalists and so wasteful of the talents and energies of American women, one which was worth maintaining at all costs? Not surprisingly, it was questions such as these which became the rallying points of the then-incipient women’s movement.

The appeal of Friedan’s book lay in its ability to tackle the problem of the feminine mystique not only on the scholarly level but also on the grass-roots level of everyday life. In a chapter full of salient detail, Friedan examined the role of the media and advertising in the promulgation of the feminine mystique. Since so many women attempted to assuage the emptiness of their lives in consumerism, it is not surprising that three-quarters of the nation’s advertising budget was spent directly on appeals to women. What were advertisers selling to women? They were selling the feminine mystique in the form of advanced cleaning powders, time-saving electrical appliances, and instant cake mixes. Why, Friedan asked, should anyone expect women to be satisfied with their lives when their universe had become so depressingly parochial and narrow? Why could not women be addressed by the media on any other level than that of their roles as wives and mothers?

Where was the educational establishment when women really needed them? They were, Friedan reported, reeling from a giant Freudian guilt complex. Early Kinsey findings, later corrected, suggested that women with an education were less capable of orgasm and sexual fulfillment than women who married early and were unencumbered by strong academic or vocational interests. If anyone knew the Freudian and sociological dangers of a rigorous, demanding education on women, it was the professors. In a tremendous and well-meaning attempt to make education functional for women again, they began to foster a watered-down, less challenging curriculum for women—a course of study that would encourage them to become suitable helpmates but would not create in them any unfeminine ambitions or aspirations. In Friedan’s opinion, the educational gains of women, made in the first part of the century, were almost entirely lost in the postwar years. Women in the 1950’s seemingly had to choose between a good education and a place in the world or the love and contentment of a happy home. It was Friedan who first saw this dilemma as an either/or fallacy and called out in The Feminine Mystique for colleges and universities throughout the United States to offer the same education to all of their students.

According to Friedan, the restitution of quality education for American women was an essential point, because she believed that it was only through education that an escape from the feminine mystique was possible. Only education would lead to engrossing and fulfilling work. Only when women’s lives were satisfying in themselves, she argued, would home and family be the real joy it could be for a well-rounded human being—male or female.

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Masterpieces of Women's Literature The Feminine Mystique Analysis