Masterpieces of Women's Literature The Feminine Mystique Analysis
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 607
Women’s magazines, Friedan suggests, were one of the primary popularizers of the feminine mystique, encouraging women to focus on home and family to the exclusion of anything else. She describes in detail articles, stories, and whole issues whose primary message was that women who aspired to any interest beyond the home were unhappy, unfulfilled, and abnormal.
She goes on to analyze the genesis of the mystique in postwar values, as a way for war-weary Americans, frightened of the changes in the modern world, to hide in an idealized notion of a safe home complete with happy housewife and contented children. She also notes that a fear of “masculinized” women helped drive the development and popularity of the feminine mystique. The gains in women’s rights and freedoms as a result of the feminist movement of the nineteenth century were threatening to U.S. society as a whole, and during the 1950’s the feminists of earlier days were portrayed as ridiculous characters who had simply been unable to attain love and feminine fulfillment. Friedan commits an entire chapter to explaining what these feminist pioneers really did and who they were.
Further chapters focus on popular ideas and belief systems that bolstered the feminine mystique, and each is exploded in the analysis. For example, Freud’s concept that women are driven by penis envy was used as justification for mocking the ideas and work of feminists, since they could be dismissed as maladjusted women who had not resolved their penis envy. Friedan counters the popular dependence on Freudian ideas by delving into the forces that motivated Freud himself and pointing to his distorted experiences with the women in his life.
Women, Friedan says, were offered a choice: either succeed in a “masculine” career and be celibate and sexless, or be a housewife and mother, a truly feminine woman, and experience the love of husband and family. It is one or the other. Given that kind of choice, she points out, many women chose the latter.
Yet why would women accept such a choice? Friedan suggests that there were several factors, including the effect of the war years with the fears and loneliness engendered by that experience, the job discrimination women experienced after the war as they were fired to make way for returning veterans, and a fear made popular during this time that women were harming their children by a loss of femininity and by working outside the home. The feminine mystique was a boon to one arena of American society, the world of commercial interests. Friedan devotes a chapter to the importance of consumerism to women whose lives centered on home and family. Products and advertising were geared to the woman in the home, who was encouraged to buy as never before.
Nevertheless, the feminine mystique backfired in many ways, Friedan argues. Men became resentful of overly dependent wives—women who, having no lives and interests of their own, clung to their husbands. Children whose mothers were encouraged to concentrate on them as the primary products of their lifework grew up soft, dependent, and incapable of building their own meaningful lives. Women themselves forfeited any self-identity and could define themselves only as their husbands’ wives and their children’s mothers.
Friedan concludes her dense, passionate, and provocative essay with a chapter urging women to look beyond their homes and the feminine mystique, to educate themselves and look for dreams of their own. She suggests ways for the women of her day to begin to break out of the trap foisted upon them by the popular culture of the postwar world and to find themselves as human beings.