Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2160
Although there has been recent criticism of Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique, there is no doubt, even in the minds of her harshest critics, that her book had such a profound impact on the female population during the 1960s that it has been credited with initiating the second wave of feminism in the United States. In order to better comprehend how The Feminine Mystique had such a profound impact on women of that era, it is important to understand who the mid-twentieth-century American woman was. Although it is impossible to gather information on every female and ask each of them to recall what it was like to be a woman in that turbulent era, it is feasible to look to one of the leading literary voices of that time to discern what her female characters were doing and thinking about.
With this objective in mind, the first author who comes to mind is Grace Paley, a contemporary of Friedan's, who made a point of writing strictly from a woman's perspective, discussing issues that were pertinent to the American female. She was one of the first American women writers to do so. She wrote during at time when female issues were considered worthy only of a kitchen-table discussion over coffee. She lived in a world that was completely dominated by men, in the home, in the workplace, and in the field of publishing. Yet, she had the confidence to compose her work with the highest literary skill that she was capable of and to write about what she knew best—women's daily lives and routines of the 1950s, the same topic that Friedan addresses.
Friedan interviewed many women in the course of her research for The Feminine Mystique, why add yet another voice to the mix? The answer is simple. It's one of interest. Friedan's examples support her thesis, but Paley's characters offer background color. Friedan's women respond to specific questions, while Paley's go about their business, offering readers brief glimpses into their lives. Friedan's writing dramatically changed the course of many women's lives, and it is the women as depicted in Paley's short stories that she most affected. Paley's characters, in her collection of short stories called Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1960), were conceived before the publication of Friedan's 1963 classic. They consist of both formally educated women and those who are not formally educated. They are housewives and mothers who, at most, struggle with part-time jobs. There is little mention of professional businesswomen. Paley's female characters therefore represent the epitome of Friedan's targeted audience. To listen to them is to hear the voices of the women who most often found themselves concealed under the veil of what Friedan refers to as the feminine mystique.
To begin with, readers should first understand what Friedan means when she writes about feminine mystique. For her it is the belief that was popular in the early part of the twentieth century that stated that the major source of women's frustrations was their own forgetfulness of what constituted femininity. Women, especially according to Sigmund Freud's basic tenet, were often found to be envious of men, so they tried to be like men. In attempting to do so, women denied their own natural instincts, which were ‘‘sexual passivity,’’ submission to men, and their need to nurture. These traits, according to social propaganda at that time, were best developed in the role of wife and mother. Women should not worry about obtaining a college degree nor about the subsequent challenge of finding and advancing a professional career. Further education and involvement in...
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the broader concept of society encompassed a man's world. For women to want to be involved outside of the home was testimony to their jealousy of men. ‘‘The new mystique makes the housewife-mothers, who never had a chance to be anything else, the model for all women,’’ Friedan writes. This model confined women ‘‘to cooking, cleaning, washing, bearing children—into a religion, a pattern by which all women must now live or deny their femininity.’’
In the first short story of Paley's collection, her female protagonist is sitting on the front steps of her local library when her ex-husband happens to stroll by. She says, ‘‘Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.’’ With this simple statement, Paley acknowledges the feelings that women of her generation held in terms of defining themselves. They became so consumed with playing out their roles as wives that they were left with no concept of themselves. These were the women who bought the ‘‘new mystique,’’ who modeled themselves on the 1950s definition of femininity. By turning their backs on their education and further exploration of self, their husband became their lives. They lived through their husbands' promotions, defeats, and challenges in the world outside their homes. In the same short story, the woman continues her brief dialogue with her ex-husband, who tells her that he is finally going to buy that sailboat he has always wanted. He still has dreams, he tells her. ‘‘But as for you, it's too late. You'll always want nothing,’’ he says. This represents the problems and frustrations that the pre-Friedan women were suffering. They were caught in the middle of a paradox. They were being told that they needed nothing more than to take care of their husbands; but in doing so, their husbands often concluded that, since the women lived through them, they needed nothing for themselves. ‘‘But I do want something,’’ Paley's character says. ‘‘I want, for instance, to be a different person.’’ Paley's female might want to change; however, Paley concludes this story with the woman lamenting that although she is capable of taking action, especially when someone comes along and points out possible deficiencies, she is better known for her ‘‘hospitable remarks.’’ In other words, she acquiesces. She does not want to upset the boat. She is, after all, the one who maintains the home, who keeps the balance. She seeks the perfect definition of femininity and remains lost in the feminine mystique.
The baby boom that occurred at the end of World War II was based on a number of factors, but Friedan believes that one of the major reasons was that ‘‘women who had once wanted careers were now making careers out of having babies.’’ Motherhood was glorified by the feminine mystique, and therefore the more children a woman bore the more closely she matched the archetype of femininity. The feminine mystique promised self-fulfillment with each new baby, a promise that was seldom realized. As young wives, women sought recognition through their husbands. As mothers, women promoted themselves through their children. Their offspring's accomplishments were their own. It was one more excuse, Friedan states, for women to forego defining themselves.
Paley writes in her short story ‘‘Faith in the Afternoon’’ that her protagonist gave birth to two sons ‘‘to honor’’ her husband and ‘‘his way of loving.’’ However, in a later story, ‘‘Faith in a Tree,’’ when Faith's babies have matured to school age and she has realized several years of substituting her life for theirs, she states: ‘‘Just when I most needed important conversation, a sniff of the man-wide world, that is, at least one brainy companion who could translate my friendly language into his tongue of undying carnal love, I was forced to lounge in our neighborhood park, surrounded by children.’’ With this characterization, Faith is beginning to discover the holes in the feminine mystique. Living through one's husband or one's children is not as gratifying as the women's magazine articles have portrayed. Faith is beginning to hunger for, as Friedan describes it, some undefined ‘‘something more.’’ This thing that is missing in her life is not only difficult to define, it is almost impossible to think about. It goes against the essence of what a woman, what femininity, is. So Faith feels guilty for these thoughts. ‘‘I own two small boys,’’ she reminds herself, "whose dependence on me takes up my lumpen time and my bourgeois feelings.’’ She then goes on to state how much she loves them, how much she pampers them, how much her time and life is consumed by them. ‘‘I kiss those kids forty times a day.’’ Although Faith may be craving intellectual stimulation, she wants to make sure that everyone knows that she is a good mother. The sacrifice of self is warranted. To be a wife and mother is all a woman needed, according to the feminine mystique. It is the educated career women who are really suffering.
Friedan states that when women, such as Paley's character Faith, felt most frustrated, they often turned to consumerism. They bought new things for the home. Manufacturers took note of this inclination and persuaded women into believing that they needed all the latest gadgets to keep their homes spotlessly clean. Paley's narrator in her story ‘‘Distance’’ misses her youth when she was free to define herself as only her own intuition demanded. However, her present situation is not so bad, she claims. She and her husband purchase new cars, and bought a television set ‘‘the minute it first came out,’’ and have ‘‘everything grand for the kitchen.’’ She says she has no complaints, but then goes on to state that reminiscing about her youth ‘‘is like a long hopeless homesickness.’’ She lives with all the great conveniences, she says, but it is like living ‘‘in a foreign town.’’ In spite of the joys of consumerism that are supposed to make her a better housewife, she does not feel at home in her dictated role. As a matter of fact, as Friedan has pointed out, Paley's female characters, like many of the frustrated housewives of the 1950s lost in the feminine mystique, are miserable. Things are falling apart. Life is not proving to be what the women thought it would be. Once, everything was ‘‘spotless, the kitchen was all inlay like broken-up bathroom tiles.… Formica on all surfaces, everything bright. The shine of the pots and pans was turned to stun the eyes of company,’’ Paley writes in her story ‘‘Distance.’’ Now, however, the female protagonist is lost in misery, and ‘‘she's always dirty. Crying crying crying.’’ Some of Paley's women are lost in misery because their husbands have left them. Others have lost their husbands because they are depressed. Whatever the case, Paley's character Faith is confronted by her mother, who consoles her with the wisdom to better her life by cleaning up the house and cooking a special dinner. ‘‘Tell the children to be a little quiet.… He'll be home before you know it.… Do up your hair something special.’’ It is the woman's fault that her marriage has fallen apart. She is unhappy because she has not been a good wife or a good mother.
‘‘Life isn't that great,’’ Paley's protagonist states in the short story ‘‘Living.’’ ‘‘We've had nothing but crummy days and crummy guys and no money and broke all the time and cockroaches and nothing to do on Sunday but take the kids to Central Park and row on that lousy lake.’’ It is an epiphany of sorts, albeit a depressing one. This is the life that many women played out based on the concept of feminine mystique, which, as Friedan points out, glorifies being a housewife as an end-all career. It is ironic, says Friedan, that at a time when doors were finally opened to women, thanks to the work and passion of the women involved in the first wave of feminism in the United States, when women could gain a college degree and find fulfilling professional careers, that the feminine mystique was born and promoted. Friedan states that this concept flourished under the psychological theories as well as the well-read women's magazine articles, both of which were male-dominated, that appeared to want to keep women from self-actualizing, keep them uneducated and housebound. It is a process of what Friedan refers to as the progressive dehumanization of women. As women on the cusp of the 1960s were beginning to realize, the life, as defined by the feminine mystique, was not that great. In fact, it was quite empty. They might not have been able to put their finger on their misery, and they might have felt guilty about thinking about it, but women collectively knew that trying to define themselves through the feminine mystique was a life filled with ‘‘crummy days.’’ So when Friedan's book came out a few years later, they gobbled it up. Here was something that made sense of their lives. Here was someone who could see into their misery and name it. Here was a book that helped them understand why the feminine mystique was not working for them.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on The Feminine Mystique, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003. Hart, has degrees in English literature and creative writing, and focuses her published works on literary themes.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1395
In 1963, Betty Friedan made history when she published The Feminine Mystique. She knew that what she was writing was revolutionary, since the genesis of the book, the results from a questionnaire to her fellow alumni, had produced such a negative reaction from various women's magazines when she tried to sell the results as an article in 1957. As Friedan notes in her introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique, ‘‘the then male publisher of Mc Call's … turned the piece down in horror, despite underground efforts of female editors. The male McCall's editors said it couldn't be true.’’ It was easy for these editors to turn down the results of one survey that did not uphold the conventional image of femininity. As Friedan notes in the same introduction, she told her agent: ‘‘I'll have to write a book to get this into print.’’ However, as the resulting book indicates, Friedan learned something from her experience with the magazine editors. She realized that, in order to prove her point that women have been repressed by an idealized image, she would have to provide a wealth of research support, not just her own opinion.
When it comes to Friedan's research methods, the critics are as divided in their criticism as with all the other aspects of the work. Some critics believe that The Feminine Mystique is thoroughly researched and contains valid information. In her review of the book for the American Sociological Review, Sylvia Fleis Fava notes: ‘‘Friedan, by training a psychologist and by occupation a journalist, supports her thesis mainly with data from these fields.’’ In her 1976 review of It Changed My Life for Washington Post Book World, Anne Bernays states: ‘‘A thoroughly researched analysis of what is wrong with us, Friedan's first book named and probed the ‘nameless problem’ that plagues women.’’
However, not all critics think that Friedan's research was accurate or representative. In her review of The Second Stage for Commonweal, Margaret O'Brien Steinfels notes that The Feminine Mystique featured ‘‘endless yardage of popular prose laced with pseudo-psychology and sociology, chapter after chapter badly patched from old magazine articles.’’ Likewise, in another review of The Second Stage for the New York Times Book Review, Herma Hill Kay notes: ‘‘Neither the suburban housewives described in The Feminine Mystique nor the radical feminists who, as portrayed in The Second Stage, perceived man as ‘the enemy’ represented large numbers of American women.’’
Friedan relied on three main types of examples to support her assertions—excerpts and paraphrases of academic theories, statistics, and first-person accounts. Friedan chose her academic theories very carefully, using them to serve one of two purposes. They either directly supported or contradicted her ideas. An example of the first is Maslow' s hierarchy of needs. Friedan cites several selections from Maslow's work and ultimately uses it to support her assertion: ‘‘The transcendence of self, in sexual orgasm, as in creative experience, can only be attained by one who is himself, or herself, complete, by one who has realized his or her own identity.’’ An example of the latter category is Friedan's discussion of Sigmund Freud who is generally recognized as a brilliant Victorian psychologist whose ideas are somewhat dated. Friedan cites several selections from Freud that support the ideal of the feminine mystique, then notes that most of Freud's concepts were already being reinterpreted in the 1940s so that they better fit in with modern scientific theory and practice. However, Friedan points out that Freud's theory of femininity was not updated; it was applied literally to American women after World War II so that ‘‘women today were considered no different than Victorian women.’’
Friedan also incorporates a number of statistics, numbers that are derived from a data sample. Statistics lend third-party credibility to arguments like Friedan's, because they are based on facts, not opinion. Friedan includes statistics on several topics, including marriage age, ‘‘By the end of the nineteen-fifties, the average marriage age of women in America dropped to 20, and was still dropping, into the teens’’; higher education, ‘‘By the mid-fifties, 60 per cent dropped out of college to marry, or because they were afraid too much education would be a marriage bar’’; and sex, ‘‘In American media there were more than 2 1/2 times as many references to sex in 1960 as in 1950, an increase from 509 to 1,341 ‘permissive’ sex references in the 200 media studied.’’
Although academic theories and statistics help support an argument, they can also generalize the discussion and keep it at a distance from readers; it is hard for some readers to relate to a theory or number. As a result, Friedan also includes countless first-person accounts, which offer intimate examples from individual human lives—and thus tend to have a greater impact on readers. First-person accounts are credible because individuals speak for themselves. In fact, for some reviewers, this was the most important part of The Feminine Mystique. In her entry on Friedan for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Mary F. Brewer notes that Friedan bases her arguments on ‘‘real American women's lives; she quotes profusely from the letters, interviews, and questionnaires she compiled from educated middle-class housewives and mothers who were struggling to find some meaning in their domestically bound lives.’’
As with the academic theories, Friedan employs two types of first-person accounts. In most of the cases, the personal quotes directly support Friedan's argument that women are unhappy in their role as housewives. For example, in the beginning of the book, Friedan includes several excerpts of interviews with depressed housewives. Says one desperate woman, ‘‘I begin to feel I have no personality. I'm a server of food and a putter-on of pants and a bedmaker, somebody who can be called on when you want something.’’ Another woman notes: ‘‘The problem is always being the children's mommy, or the minister's wife and never being myself.’’
Friedan also quotes women who try to convince their readers that women should live up to the ideal image of femininity. For example, when Friedan is discussing the power that sex-directed educators had over society, she notes that many young women were led to believe that their emotional problems resulted from their traditional, career-focused, masculine education. Says one young woman: ‘‘I have come to realize that I was educated to be a successful man and must now learn by myself to be a successful woman.’’ However, after offering these first-person accounts, Friedan steadily dismantles them, using her various other kinds of research to try to prove that the women speaking these quotes were duped by the feminine mystique. As a response to the above quotation, for example, Friedan offers a study of college women that indicates ‘‘those seniors who showed the greatest signs of growth were more ‘masculine’ in the sense of being less passive and conventional; but they were more ‘feminine’ in inner emotional life.’’
Collectively, Friedan's academic theories, statistics, and first-person accounts provided various support for her argument that received a mixed reception from critics. No matter what any individual critic thought of Friedan's research, however, Friedan did achieve her ‘‘call to awareness,’’ as Cynthia Fuchs Epstein notes in her Dissent article. Says Epstein:
The facts of history are lost to some critics. The Feminine Mystique, the work of a journalist with high exposure to the social sciences, laid out the problems women faced in post-World War II suburban ghettos or in the symbolic ghettos of sex-labeled jobs and subordinate roles in public life and in the family.
In the end, whether or not one thinks that Friedan succeeded in making her case, Friedan was right to assume that she had to provide overwhelming support for her controversial ideas. As she herself notes at one point about sex-directed education: ‘‘It takes a very daring educator today to attack the sex-directed line, for he must challenge, in essence, the conventional image of femininity.’’ Yet, this is exactly what Friedan was trying to do herself. She launched a daring attack against sex-directed educators, psychologists, sociologists, the media, the corporate world, and others whom she identified as agents of the feminine mystique. Says Sara Sanborn in the Saturday Review, ‘‘she performed the writer's unique service by saying out loud what the rest of us had only nervously thought.’’
Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on The Feminine Mystique, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, Gale, 2003. Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4573
It has become commonplace to see the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963 as a major turning point in the history of modern American feminism and, more generally, in the history of the postwar period. And with good reason, for her book was a key factor in the revival of the women's movement and in the transformation of the nation's awareness of the challenges middle-class suburban women faced. The Feminine Mystique helped millions of women comprehend, and then change, the conditions of their lives. The book took already familiar ideas, made them easily accessible, and gave them a forceful immediacy. It explored issues that others had articulated but failed to connect with women's experiences—the meaning of American history, the nature of alienated labor, the existence of the identity crisis, the threat of atomic warfare, the implications of Nazi anti-Semitism, the use of psychology as cultural criticism, and the dynamics of sexuality. By extending to women many of the ideas about the implications of affluence that widely-read male authors had developed for white, middle-class men, Friedan's book not only stood as an important endpoint in the development of 1950s social criticism but also translated that tradition into feminist terms. In addition, the book raises questions about the trajectory of Friedan's ideology, specifically about the relationship between her labor radicalism of the 1940s and early 1950s, and her feminism in the 1960s.
To connect a book to a life is no easy matter. Although Friedan herself has emphasized the importance of the questionnaires her Smith classmates filled out during the spring of 1957, when she was thirty-six years old, she also acknowledged in 1976 that in writing The Feminine Mystique ‘‘all the pieces of my own life came together for the first time.’’ Here she was on the mark. It is impossible for someone to have come out of nowhere, and in so short a time, to the deep understanding of women's lives that Friedan offered in 1963. Experiences from her childhood in Peoria, her analysis of the Smith questionnaire, and all points in between, helped shape the 1963 book.
In Peoria Friedan began the journey so critical to the history of American feminism. There she first pondered the question of what hindered and fostered the aspirations of women. In addition, in that Illinois city anti-Semitism and labor's struggles first provided her with the material that would ignite her sense of social justice. At Smith College young Bettye Goldstein encountered social democratic and radical ideologies, as well as psychological perspectives, as she shifted the focus of her passion for progressive social change from anti-Semitism to anti-fascism, and then to the labor movement. From the defense of the maids in 1940 it was only a short step to her articulation in 1943 of a belief that working-class women were ‘‘fighters—that they refuse any longer to be paid or treated as some inferior species’’ by men. Labor union activity and participation in Popular Front feminism in the 1940s and early 1950s provided the bridge over which she moved from the working class to women as the repository of her hopes, as well as some of the material from which she would fashion her feminism in The Feminine Mystique.
Popular Front feminism—represented by the unionism of the CIO and the probing discussions around the Congress of American Women—deepened and broadened Friedan's commitments. Reading people like Elizabeth Hawes and writing for Federated Press and UE News gave Friedan sustained familiarity with issues such as protests over the impact of rising prices on households, the discontent of housewives with domestic work, the history of women in America, the dynamics of sex discrimination, the negative force of male chauvinism, and the possibility that the cultural apparatus of a capitalist society might suppress women's aspirations for better lives.
The discussions of women's issues in Old Left circles beginning in the 1940s and Friedan's 1963 book had a good deal in common. They both offered wide-ranging treatments of the forces arrayed against women—the media, education, and professional expertise. Progressive women in the 1940s and Friedan in 1963 explored the alienating nature of housework. They showed an awareness of male chauvinism but ultimately lay the blame at the door of capitalism. They saw Modern Woman: The Lost Sex as the text that helped launch the anti-feminist attack. They fought the fascist emphasis on Küche, Kinder, and Kirche.
Yet despite these similarities, the differences between Popular Front feminism and The Feminine Mystique were considerable. In articulating a middle-class, suburban feminism, Friedan both drew on and repudiated her Popular Front feminism. What happened in Friedan's life between 1953, when she last published an article on working women in the labor press, and 1963, when her book on suburban women appeared, fundamentally shaped The Feminine Mystique. Over time, a series of events undermined Friedan's hopes that male-led radical social movements would fight for women with the consistency and dedication she felt necessary. Disillusioned and chastened by the male chauvinism in unions but also by the Bomb, the Holocaust the Cold War and McCarthyism, she turned elsewhere. Her therapy in the mid-1950s enabled her to rethink her past and envision her future.
Always a writer who worked with the situations and material close at hand, in the early 1950s Friedan began to apply what she learned about working-class women in progressive feminist discussions of the 1940s to the situation that middle-class women faced in suburbs. Living in Parkway Village and Rockland County at the same time she was writing for the Parkway Villager and mass-circulation magazines, Friedan had begun to describe how middle-class and wealthy women worked against great odds to achieve and grow. What she wrote about democratic households and cooperative communities, as well as her long-held dream of the satisfactions that romance and marriage would provide, reflected her high hopes for what life in the suburbs might bring. Although she felt that in the mid-1950s she successfully broke through the strictures of the feminine mystique she would describe in her 1963 book, the problems with her marriage and suburban life fostered in her a disillusionment different from but in many ways more profound than what she had experienced with the sexual politics of the Popular Front.
If all these experiences provided a general background out of which her 1963 book emerged, the more proximate origins of The Feminine Mystique lay in what she focused on during her career as a freelance writer. She well understood the connection between the magazine articles she began to publish in the mid-1950s and her 1963 book. In addition, a critical impetus to her book was her response to McCarthyism. When she drew on her 1952 survey of her classmates to write ‘‘Was Their Education UnAmerican?’’ she first gave evidence of pondering the relationship between her Smith education, the struggle for civil liberties, and what it meant for women to thrive as thinkers and public figures in the suburbs. Then in her work on Intellectual Resources Pool, which began about the same time that she looked over those fateful questionnaires, Friedan paid sustained attention to the question of what it meant for middle-class women to develop an identity in American suburbs, including an identity as intellectuals. She asked these questions at a time when the whole culture, but especially anti-communists, seemed to be conspiring to suppress not only the vitality of intellectual life for which free speech was so important, but also the aspirations of educated women to achieve a full sense of themselves. With her book, she reassured her own generation that their education mattered at the same time that she warned contemporary college students to take themselves more seriously.
The Feminine Mystique took Friedan an unexpected five-plus years to complete. She was writing under conditions that were difficult at best, and neither Carl nor her editor at W. W. Norton thought she would ever finish. The material was painful, and through her engagement with it, Friedan was rethinking her position on a range of issues. She was a wife with a commuting husband and a mother of three. By the end of 1957, Daniel was nine, Jonathan was five, and Emily was one. Her ten-year-old marriage to Carl was less than ideal, and in 1962 it took a turn for the worse. Carl complained to friends that when he came home at the end of the day, ‘‘that bitch’’ was busily writing her book on the dining-room table instead of preparing the meal in the kitchen. Carl often did not come home at night. Though his own career may not have been going well, he felt Betty was wasting her time. Her friends whispered that instead of ending the marriage she was writing about it. In addition, during almost the entire time she was working on the book she was also running the pool, and trying to publish articles in magazines. She had to travel for material—within the greater New York area for interviews, and to the New York Public Library where she took extensive notes on what she read. Without a secretary to type early drafts, let alone a photocopy machine or word processor, writing as many as a dozen drafts was laborious, tiring, and time consuming. In early 1961, having turned in half the manuscript to her publisher, she expected the book to be published before the year's end. But her agent, Marie Rodell, wrote back to an impatient Friedan that the manuscript was so long it would not have the impact Friedan desired. Not surprisingly, she was optimistic at some moments, discouraged at others.
To support her arguments, Friedan carried out wide-ranging research in women's magazines and the writings of social and behavioral scientists. She interviewed experts, professional women, and suburban housewives. She examined the short stories and human interest features in widely read women's magazines. Though Friedan made clear her reliance on such sources, there were some books that she read but acknowledged minimally or not at all. For example, she examined works by existentialists, and though their ideas influenced her writing, especially on the issue of how people could shape their identities, she did not fully make clear her indebtedness. Friedan also returned to Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), which she had read at Smith, now absorbing his iconoclastic social criticism, which demystified the dynamics of women's subjugation, especially the ways domestic ideology kept middle-class women from working outside the home.
She also carefully followed the arguments in Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex (1953), but mentioned only its ‘‘insights into French women.’’ Beauvoir had explored how class and patriarchy shaped women's lives. She provided what was, for the time, a sympathetic account of the situation lesbians faced. She fully recognized women's participation in the work force and the frustrations of domestic life. She offered a telling analysis of the power dynamics in marriage. Linking the personal and political, she discussed a ‘‘liberation’’ of women that would be ‘‘collective.’’ Friedan's reading notes of Beauvoir's book reveal her great interest in Beauvoir's existentialism, including her linking of productivity and transcendence. In addition, she derived from Beauvoir a keen sense of how language, power, economic conditions, and sexuality divided men and women.
What she read in Beauvoir and Veblen, as well as what she understood from her own situation and her reading of American women's history, also found confirmation in Friedrich Engels's essay of 1884, ‘‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.’’ Around 1959, she copied the following passage from a collection of the writings of Engels and Karl Marx:
we see already that the emancipation of women and their equality with men are impossible and must remain so as long as women are excluded from socially productive work and restricted to housework, which is private. The emancipation of women becomes possible only when women are enabled to take part in production on a large, social scale, and when domestic duties require their attention only to a minor degree.
Here Friedan relied on Engels for support of the central thesis of her book, that women would achieve emancipation only when they entered the paid work force. Like feminists who preceded and followed her, she agreed with Engels's classic statement of women's condition. Her reliance on Engels strongly suggests that even in the late 1950s Marxism continued to inform her outlook. There is, however, one difference between what she read and what she wrote down. After Engels's words ‘‘when women are enabled to take part,’’ Friedan added, in parentheses, her own words: ‘‘along with men.’’ This was a significant addition, expressing both her experience as a Popular Front feminist and her hope for the cooperation of men in women's liberation.
The fact that she read Engels makes clear that Friedan and her editor had to make difficult decisions on what to leave out and include, a process that involved the questions of how much of her radical past to reveal, and how political and feminist the book would be. She also had to decide how to give it shock value and personal immediacy that would intensify its impact.
The magazine editors, who in 1962 looked at articles derived from Friedan's book chapters, raised questions about the scope, tone, and originality of her work. Some of their comments prefigured the anti-feminist diatribes that came with the book's publication in 1963. The editors at Reporter found Friedan's chapters ‘‘too shrill and humorless.’’ A male editor from Redbook turned down one excerpt from the book, saying it was ‘‘heavy going,’’ and another for expressing ‘‘a rather strident’’ perspective. ‘‘Put us down as a group of smug or evil males,’’ remarked an editor of Antioch Review, who found that Friedan's chapter ‘‘The Sexual Sell’’ ‘‘contributes little to understanding or solution of the problems it raises.’’ Friedan's article, he concluded, was ‘‘dubious sociology which attempts to answer too much with too little.’’ Others questioned Friedan's originality. An editor at American Scholar found nothing especially new in what she had to say about Freud. A male editor of the journal of the National Education Association remarked that though an excerpt from the book pretended to present new material, in fact it had ‘‘the ring of past history.’’ He illustrated his point by correctly noting that educators concerned about higher education for women had ‘‘already gone far beyond’’ what Friedan discussed. These responses gave Friedan a sense of the tough choices she had to make with the book, even as they intensified her sense of the importance of her message.
Friedan faced the problem of positioning her book in what she and her editors saw as an increasingly crowded field of writings on middle-class women. Although we tend to see The Feminine Mystique as a book that stands by itself, Friedan and her publisher were aware that others had already articulated many of the book's concerns. When a vice president of W. W. Norton wrote Pearl S. Buck to solicit a jacket blurb, he remarked that ‘‘one of our problems is that much is being written these days about the plight (or whatever it is) of the educated American woman; therefore, this one will have to fight its way out of a thicket.’’ He may have been thinking of F. Ivan Nye and Lois W. Hoffman's The Employed Mother in America (1963), of Morton M. Hunt's Her Infinite Variety: The American Woman as Lover, Mate or Rival (1962), of Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl (1962), or of the abundant discussion by educators and social critics regarding the frustrations of suburban women to which Friedan herself was responding. Friedan also had to decide whether to emphasize the deliberations of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, whose work, underway in 1961, would result in a report that, like Friedan's book, appeared in 1963.
There were additional indications that Friedan was racing against the clock. While the book gave some the impression of a powerful and unshakable feminine mystique, Friedan herself acknowledged in the book that around 1960 the media began to pay attention to the discontents of middle-class American women. There is plenty of evidence that Friedan's readers, from professional women to housewives, found what she had to say either familiar or less than shocking. Some of those who reviewed the book found nothing particularly new or dramatic in it. Similarly, although some women who wrote Friedan indicated that they found an intense revelatory power in her words, others said they were tired of negative writings that, they believed, belabored the women's situation.
If what Friedan wrote was hardly new to so many, then why did the book have such an impact? We can begin to answer that question by examining the ways she reworked familiar themes to give them a special urgency, especially for middle-class white women. Nowhere was this clearer than on the issue of women's work. Especially striking is the contrast between her animus against the toil of housewives and volunteers and her strong preference for women entering the paid work force, a dichotomy a friend warned her not to fall back on. Here Friedan was advocating what she had learned from labor radicals who urged women to get paying jobs and to work cooperatively with men. Friedan recast the terms of a long-standing debate between men and women so that it would appeal to middle-class readers. In her discussion of housework, for example, she offered only scattered hints about the reluctance of husbands to help with household chores. At one moment, she mentioned ‘‘the active resentment of husbands’’ of career women, while elsewhere she praised cooperative husbands. Neither perspective enabled her to discuss openly or fully what she felt about her marriage, the sexual politics of marriage, and the attempts by women, herself included, to set things right. As a labor journalist she had talked of oppressive factory work for working-class women; in The Feminine Mystique, alienated labor involved the unrecompensed efforts by white, middle-class women to keep their suburban homes spotless. One reader picked up on what it might mean, in both trivial and profound ways, to apply a Marxist analysis to suburban women. In 1963, the woman wrote to Friedan that the book made her wish to rush into streets and cry ‘‘To arms, sisters! You have nothing to lose but your vacuum cleaners.’’
Friedan also cast her discussion of sexuality in terms that would appeal to conventional, middle-class, heterosexual suburban women. She promised that emancipation from the tensions of the feminine mystique would insure that women intensified their enjoyment of sex. Her statement that the ‘‘dirty word career has too many celibate connotations’’ underscored her preference for marriage. She hinted at the dangers of lesbianism when she discussed the sexual role models she had known in Peoria and at Smith. She contrasted ‘‘old-maid’’ teachers and women who cut their ‘‘hair like a man’’ with ‘‘the warm center of life’’ she claimed she experienced in her parents' home. She was concerned that some mothers' misdirected sexual energies turned boys into homosexuals. She warned that for an increasing number of sons, the consequence of the feminine mystique was that ‘‘parasitical’’ mothers would cause homosexuality to spread ‘‘like a murky smog over the American scene.’’ Friedan's homophobia was standard for the period and reflects the antipathy to homosexuality widely shared in Popular Front circles. Her emphasis on feminized men and masculinized women echoed stereotypes widely held in the 1950s. What makes her perspective especially troubling is that it came at a time when reactionaries were hounding gays and lesbians out of government jobs on the assumption that ‘‘sexual perversion’’ had weakened their moral character, making them more likely to breach national security due to blackmail.
Friedan also made the history of women palatable to her audience. Although most scholars believe that 1960s feminism began without a sense of connection to the past, Friedan had long been aware of women's historic struggles, as many of her earlier writings make clear. Friedan not only talked of passion and ‘‘revolution,’’ but connected women's struggles with those of African Americans and union members. Yet her version of the past highlighted women who were educated, physically attractive, and socially respectable. Friedan went to considerable lengths to connect historic feminism not with the stereotypical man-haters or ‘‘neurotic victims of penis envy who wanted to be men,’’ but with married women who, she noted repeatedly, were ‘‘dainty,’’ ‘‘pretty,’’ and ‘‘lovely.’’ Unlike her writings for Federated Press and the UE News, which pointed out how millions of American women had to work hard in order to support a family economy under adverse situations, The Feminine Mystique described women's search for identity and personal growth, not the fight against discrimination or exploitation. While immigrant, African American, and union women were the subject of her 1953 Women Fight For a Better Life! UE Picture Story of Women's Role in American History, in The Feminine Mystique she remarked that female factory workers "could not take the lead’’ and that ‘‘most of the leading feminists’’ were from the middle class. In contrast, Eleanor Flexner's Century of Struggle (1959), on which Friedan relied in writing The Feminine Mystique, included extensive discussions of the social movements of African Americans, radicals, and union women.
Friedan also connected the conditions women faced with two of the great events that haunted her, as they did many members of her generation. At several points, she used the horrors of the Bomb to drive home her point. She contrasted domesticity with a world trembling ‘‘on the brink of technological holocaust.’’ She also chided women in the anti-nuclear Women's Strike for Peace who claimed that once the testing of atomic weapons ended, they would be glad to stay home and take care of their children. Yet for someone who exaggerated her own role as a housewife, it is ironic that Friedan criticized the professional artist who headed that movement for saying she was ‘‘just a housewife.’’
More problematic was Friedan's exploration of the parallels between the Nazi death camps and suburban homes as ‘‘comfortable concentration camps,’’ an analogy that exaggerated what suburban women faced and belittled the fate of victims of Naziism. This was the first time since 1946 that she had mentioned the Holocaust in print. Although in the end she acknowledged that such an analogy broke down, Friedan nonetheless spent several pages exploring the similarities. Just before her book appeared, two other Jewish writers, Stanley Elkins and Erving Goffman, had applied the Holocaust comparison to two institutions where a more compelling case could be made: slavery and a mental hospital. Similarly problematic was Friedan's omission of the anti-Semitism that drove the Nazis to murder millions of Jews. Like many Jews of her generation, Friedan hoped for a society in which anti-Semitism and race prejudice more generally would be wiped out. Therefore, in her book she strove for a race-neutral picture, in the process both trivializing and universalizing the experience of Jews.
While the concentration camp analogy grew out of her youthful anti-fascism, she gave no hint of how her early experiences with anti-Semitism had started her on the road to a passionate progressivism. There is a final reason that may explain why Friedan did not want to make explicit any connection between the situation Jews and women faced. Historically and in her own experience, there was a close connection between anti-Semitism and anti-radicalism. Yet despite the fact that feminist groups such as the Congress of American Women had a disproportionate share of Jews among their members and leaders, in public discussions anti-Semitism and anti-feminism had run along largely separate paths. On some level Friedan may have realized that it was best to use the discussion of the concentration camps to raise the consciousness of a wide range of readers without linking Naziism with anti-Semitism or feminism with Jews. Though the concentration camp analogy was careless and exaggerated, it nonetheless dramatically conveyed to Friedan's readers the horrible and dehumanized feeling of women who were trapped in their homes.
Another distinctive aspect of The Feminine Mystique was Friedan's use, and gendering, of contemporary psychology. She took what humanistic and ego psychologists had written about men, and occasionally about women, and turned it to feminist purposes. Drawing on studies by A. H. Maslow in the late 1930s, Friedan noted that the greater a woman's sense of dominance and self-esteem, the fuller her sexual satisfaction and ‘‘the more her concern was directed outward to other people and to problems of the world.’’ Despite this earlier research, by the 1950s the feminine mystique had influenced even Maslow, Friedan noted, encouraging him to believe women would achieve self-actualization primarily as wives and mothers. Maslow and others held such notions despite evidence from the Kinsey report that persuaded Friedan of a link between women's emancipation and their greater capacity for sexual fulfillment. However, Friedan hardly wished to rest her case for women's enhanced self-esteem on the likelihood of more and better orgasms. She rejected a narcissistic version of self-fulfillment. Drawing on the writings of David Riesman, Erik Erikson, and Olive Schreiner, and on the experience of frontier women, Friedan argued that people developed a healthy identity not through housekeeping, but through commitment to purposeful and sustained effort ‘‘which reaches beyond biology, beyond the narrow walls of home, to help shape the future.’’
Along with others, Friedan was exploring how to ground a cultural and social critique by rethinking the contributions of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx an enterprise that first captivated her in the early 1940s as an undergraduate. What Herbert Marcuse achieved in Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955), Friedan did almost a decade later, responding to the Cold War by minimizing her debt to Marx even as she relied on him. Central to her solutions to women's problems was her emphasis on personal growth, self-determination, and human potential. Here Friedan was participating in one of the major postwar cultural and intellectual movements, the application of psychological and therapeutic approaches to public policy and social issues. In the process, she recovered the lessons of her undergraduate and graduate studies, joining others such as Paul Goodman, Riesman, Margaret Mead, Erikson, Rollo May, Maslow, and Erich Fromm in using humanistic psychology and neo-Freudianism as the basis for a powerful cultural critique at a time when other formulations were politically discredited.
Like others, Friedan offered what the historian Ellen Herman has called a ‘‘postmaterial agenda’’ which employed psychological concepts to undergird feminism. Here Friedan was responding to the way writers—including Philip Wylie, Edward Strecker, Ferdinand Lundberg, and Marynia Farnham—used psychology to suggest that only the acceptance of domesticity would cure female frustrations. Friedan's contribution was to turn the argument around, asserting that women's misery came from the attempt to keep them in place. Psychology rather than convincing women to adjust and conform, could be used to foster their personal growth and fuller embrace of non-domestic roles. Other observers suggested the troublesome nature of male identity in the 1950s; Friedan gave this theme a twist. She both recognized the problems posed by feminized men and masculinized women and went on to promise that the liberation of women would strengthen male and female identity alike. Friedan took from other writers an analysis that blamed the problems of diminished masculine identity on life in the suburbs, jobs in large organizations, and consumer culture; she then turned this explanation into an argument for women's liberation.
Source: Daniel Horowitz, ‘‘The Development of The Feminine Mystique, 1957-63,’’ in Betty Friedan and the Making of ‘‘The Feminine Mystique’’: The American Left, The Cold War, and Modern Feminism, University of Massachusetts Press, 1998, pp. 197-223.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5776
Published in 1963, The Feminine Mystique is commonly regarded both as a feminist classic and as a book which acted as a catalyst to the western feminist movement, which began in the mid to late sixties. In the canon of post-war feminist works it sits somewhat isolated, and somewhat incongruously, midway between The Second Sex and the outpouring of texts and tracts later on. But the striking gap between 1948—the date of de Beauvoir's book—and 1963 in fact fits well with one of Friedan's principal contentions. The arguments of almost all feminist social critics, before and after Friedan, involve the presupposition or demonstration that women's freedom either never existed or existed only in the remote past. Friedan, however, argues that women had freedom and lost it. And this peculiarity is perhaps a starting point for thinking about some of the echoes and overtones of the unidentified ‘problem’. I want to explore some of the twists and turns of this unexpected structure of feminist narrative, and how it is related to Friedan's conceptions of subjectivity, femininity and the American nation. In particular, I am interested in the links that are made between femininity, in Friedan's sense, and the impact of consumerism, and in how these links impinge upon the form of Friedan's argument.
The genealogy of Friedan's particular ‘problem’ goes something like this. Not long ago, in the time of our grandmothers, strong ‘pioneer’ women got together to claim their rights to citizenship and equality on a par with men. They won access to higher education and the professions and all seemed set, thanks to their incomparable efforts, for a fair and sunny future for the now fully human second sex. But unfortunately there came World War II which brought young and old men flocking home to America with a craving for Mom and apple pie in the form of a wife and lots of children. To serve, or to reinforce, this need, the men of Madison Avenue stepped in. Lest there should be any women unwilling to comply with the scenario, advertising, magazines and the proliferation of domestic consumer goods saw to it that the ‘image’ of feminine fulfilment in the form of husband, babies and suburbia would be promoted to the exclusion of anything else. Other cultural forces came into play. too. The evil prescriptions of a Freud, who thought women's destiny was domestic and infantile, entered and influenced every American mind. Higher education for women was dominated by a spurious use of sociology and anthropology to ensure girls got the message that their ‘sex-role’ as wives and mothers, and not their ‘human’ capacity to create and achieve in the working world, was the natural one. In any case, thanks to the bombardment of all these types of influence and suggestion, most of them left college halfway through to get married and reproduce. All the promise of a new generation of potentially free women, the daughters of the ‘pioneers’, has thus been knocked out of them, and it is now a matter of some urgency to expose the general fraud for what it is: to allow ‘the problem with no name’ to be spoken.
The dissatisfactions of suburbia centre, for Friedan, around an opposition between ‘selfhood’ and ‘sex-role’—also glossed as ‘humanity’ and ‘femininity’. The long-term planning arid ‘creativity’ involved in a worthy career are valorized by Friedan against the ‘stunted’ qualities of the woman who remains in a state of little-girl conformity, confined to her reproductive role and to fulfilment in the form of sex, by which Friedan means both reproduction and sexual pleasure. Motherhood, like that suburban wasteland, is a trap: Friedan has vivid metaphors of confinement to express this, including a chapter title of what now seems to be dubious taste—‘Progressive Dehumanization: The Comfortable Concentration Camp’. A frequently repeated image of the apparently happy housewife with ‘a station wagon full of children’ is itself used to epitomize ‘this new image which insists she is not a person but a ‘‘woman’’’. Whereas the Victorians' problem was the repression of sexuality, that of the present is ‘a stunting or evasion of growth’.
The account of socially induced ‘femininity’ as inhibited growth and as something which necessarily detracts from the achievement of full humanity can be placed in a tradition of feminist humanism which goes back to Mary Wollstonecraft. Friedan's narrative difficulty, however, is that she believes that the battles of Wollstonecraft and her successors, the ‘pioneer’ feminists, were fought and won, and she tries to explain what she now identifies as a relapse into a situation just as unsatisfactory as the one from which women freed themselves before.
Several culprits, of disparate provenance, are identified; I mentioned some of them at the beginning. One is the spread of psychoanalysis, taken as having reinforced conceptions of women as naturally inferior and naturally destined for merely domestic functions. An ad hominem attack on Freud himself, via his letters to his fiancée, is used as the basis for a reading of his account of femininity, and especially of penis envy, as both prescriptive and misogynistic. Freud is effectively likened to a salesman, purveying a false representation of women's nature: ‘The fact is that to Freud, even more than to the magazine editor on Madison Avenue today, women were a strange, inferior, less-than-human species’.
Another set of culprits are ‘the sex-directed educators’, who have betrayed the high ideals of educational pioneers and who now offer courses which are intellectually unchallenging and whose explicit message, in courses with names like ‘Adjustment to Marriage’ and ‘Education for Family Living’, is that of the feminine mystique—Mothers' Studies, perhaps. Such education is in reality ‘an indoctrination of opinions and values through manipulation of the students' emotions; and in this manipulative disguise, it is no longer subject to the critical thinking demanded in other academic disciplines’. The identification of a conspiracy here does not, however, stop with the professors themselves: they, too, have been deceived, and Friedan goes on to describe ‘the degree to which the feminine mystique has brainwashed American educators’.
Even the brainwashers are brainwashed, then: the plot continues to thicken. Closer to home, we find a rather familiar target for blame: the mother. Not, in this case, the current generation of mystified, over-young mothers, but their mothers. The nineteenth-century struggle for women's rights was not incomplete. Friedan states clearly: ‘The ones who fought that battle won more than empty paper rights. They cast off the shadow of contempt and self-contempt that had degraded women for centuries’. But then something went wrong, and it is this which she is at a loss to explain:
Why, with the removal of all the legal, political, economic and educational barriers that once kept woman from being man's equal, a person in her own right, an individual free to develop her own potential, should she accept this new image which insists she is not a person but a ‘woman’, by definition barred from human existence and a voice in human destiny?
The next generation did not follow up the victory, but returned to the same domesticated forms of femininity from which their mothers had sought to free them. ‘Did women really go home again as a reaction to feminism?’ Friedan asks, with no little bewilderment. ‘The fact is, that to women born after 1920, feminism was dead history’. This is like saying that emancipated slaves go back to their masters when the battle is forgotten, so Friedan adds more. Feminism was not only dead history, or not dead history at all, but ‘a dirty word’, evoking for ‘mothers still trapped’ and still raising daughters, ‘the fiery, man-eating feminist, the career woman—loveless, alone’. And thin was what they passed on to their daughters: ‘These mothers were probably the real model for the man-eating myth’. After ‘the passionate journey their grandmothers had begun’ as pioneers of feminism, the subsequent generations were left with no positive image with which to identify. ‘They had truly outgrown the old image; they were finally free to be what they chose to be. But what choice were they offered?’
The model of free choice brings us to the most often emphasized source of the feminine mystique: the media. Advertising, magazines and (to a lesser extent) popular novels and ‘how-to’ books, from Spook to sausage rolls, are treated as absolutely central to the propagation of the mystique. Friedan enters into the confessional mode in describing how she herself used to make her living writing articles to order on aspects of housewifery or mothering for magazines like Good Housekeeping or Mademoiselle. At this stage, significantly, it is tracked down as being primarily a male conspiracy; and in the height of her crime thriller mode, Friedan devotes a whole chapter to the results of her being given permission to delve into the secrets of an advertising agency's market research files. It is with all the force of a revelation that she points out the importance of advertising and consumption to the social control or the sociological description of American women:
Properly manipulated … American housewives can be given the sense of identity, purpose, creativity, the self-realization, even the sexual joy they lack—by the buying of things. I suddenly realized the significance of the boast that women wield seventy-five per cent of the purchasing power in America. I suddenly saw American women as victims of that ghastly gift, that power at the point of purchase. The insights he shared with me so liberally revealed many things …
The image of femininity perpetrated by magazines is itself the first example brought forward by Friedan after her opening chapter on the barely articulated ‘problem with no name’. She runs through typical articles and stories, showing how they share a common message and injunction to women, that they should seek their fulfilment in the form of marriage and homemaking. But, as with the history of the feminist movement, this present, univocal image is contrasted sharply with a previous phase in magazine publishing when political stories could be part of the contents list, when there were more women writers than now, and when the housewife's role was not the be-all and end-all of the reader's presumed horizons. This earlier ‘passionate search for truth and identity’ is highlighted by a short story about a girl who secretly learns to fly. This, for Friedan, represents the heights of past achievement and serves as a measure of how far things have subsequently declined: ‘It is like remembering a long forgotten dream, to recapture the memory of what a career meant to women before ‘‘career woman’’ became a dirty word in America’.
Given the recurrent rhetoric of manipulation and brainwashing, it is not surprising that the marketing case, around magazines and advertising, should be so crucial for Friedan. The fifties model of ‘hidden persuaders’ (the title of Vance Packard's 1957 book on the advertising industry)—of a barely discernible but thus all the more effective conspiracy—contributes to the mystery overtones of the diagnosis of the mystique and its origins. A distortion or ‘blurring’ of the image has occurred since the more open days of the flying story, so that false and fatuous models are being perpetrated throughout the land in every sphere of daily life. From education to therapy, to childcare, to journalism and advertising, women are being sold back down the river by the withholding of what ought to have been the fruits of their social emancipation. And crucially, whatever the relative priorities accorded to each of these agencies in perpetrating the mystique, it is the ‘sell-out’ metaphor of marketing which subsumes them all. The model of the marketing brainwash, of the insidious manipulation of advertising, is itself taken up as the model for a generalized social persuasion.
The harmful effects of the mystique are summed up by the repeated reference to ‘waste’. Waste is what happens when the mystique takes over. The avoidance of waste represents the kind of emotional parsimony and efficient use of available human resources that fits with the paradigm of goal-setting and deferred gratification. The ‘waste’ is first of female ‘human’ potential that is going unused or untapped, owing to its deflection on to feminine channels falsely and misleadingly imaged as leading to authentic fulfilment. Friedan is in no doubt as to the relative valuation to be ascribed to domestic and other forms of work: the former can be summed up as ‘trivia’, to be kept to a functional—waste-free—minimum; the second is characterized by such heady pursuits as ‘splitting atoms, penetrating outer space, creating art that illuminates human destiny, pioneering on the frontiers of society’.
This unquestioned valorization of high-flying, maximum-penetration activities over their ‘feminine’ alternatives is worth contrasting with its reversed form in a later feminist writer like Elaine Showalter. Writing in the late 1970s, Showalter blames what she identifies as the theoreticist excesses of literary criticism over the previous twenty years on a kind of masculinist emulation by male critics of their scientific rivals in the era of Sputnik. Friedan has human playing feminine as genuine plays trivial, artificial; Showalter makes the ‘human achievement’ pole explicitly masculine and the alternative an authentic femaleness.
Parallel to the idea of personal waste is that of national waste. Here Friedan introduces a full-scale narrative of imminent cultural decline precipitated by the menace of the marauding ‘mystique’. This argument acquires an urgency distinct from the argument about women's individual waste. Friedan refers not only to ‘the desperate need of this nation for the untapped reserves of women's intelligence’, but also to a generalized domestication of all American people, men and women. After the war, she says, ‘the whole nation stopped growing up’ and it suffers now from ‘a vacuum of larger purpose’, from ‘the lack of an ideology or national purpose’. So now the infantile and non-goal-oriented attributes of image-dominated women have been transferred to Americans in general. And here, instead of women being the victims, they are identified as the source. Friedan provides a whole gallery of monstrous females, chiefly in the form of the over-dominant mother who won't let her sons grow up and separate from her. An ideology of domestic ‘togetherness’ in marriage has made men so passive that even though their wives are at home all day with nothing better to do than get on with the chores, they still get drawn into the trivia of washing up, vacuuming and the rest in a way that their fathers did not.
There are indications in these sections of a nostalgia for a more authoritarian community and family structure, with mother and father each in his and her proper, traditional place and with the domestic sphere relegated to its rightful secondariness in relation to the public world of national achievement. It is interesting to note the difference here from arguments in the seventies about the desirability or imminent emergence of ‘the sensitive man’ formed from a happy blend of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ qualities—first, because clearly he figured a lot earlier, and secondly because at this stage in feminist argument he's represented as thoroughly feeble. It's not that Friedan wants to keep women in the home; rather, she thinks the home and its tasks should be reduced to a minimum so that both sexes can fulfil a genuinely ‘human’ function in the outside world.
More dramatically, Friedan sees ‘frightening implications for the future of our nation in the parasitical softening that is being passed on to the new generation of children’. Specifically, she identifies ‘a recent increase in the overt manifestations of male homosexuality’, and comments:
I do not think this is unrelated to the national embrace of the feminine mystique. For the feminine mystique has glorified and perpetuated the name of femininity and passive, childlike immaturity which is passed on from mother to son, as well as to daughters.
A little further on, this becomes ‘the homosexuality that is spreading like a murky smog over the American scene’. What is striking here is not only the imagery of infection—the murky disease and the clean, almost Jamesian ‘American scene’—but its manifest link to a process of cultural feminization. Male homosexuality as the end-point of the feminine mystique is not just artificial, a regrettable but accidental distortion of the reality it overlays: it is a sinister source of cultural contamination. This ‘murky smog’ is the final smut, the last ‘dirty word’ in the story of the mystique: that clean, feminine exterior is now found to hide a particularly nasty can of worms. Marketing and the mystique are together leading to ‘bearded undisciplined beatnickery’ and a ‘deterioration of the human character’.
Male homosexual activity is further identified as ‘hauntingly ‘‘feminine’’’ in its ‘lack of lasting human satisfaction’. Friedan establishes a clear category of what she calls ‘pseudo-sex’, as engaged in by bored housewives, teenagers and male homosexuals. Again, it is interesting to note parallels with recent arguments seen as a backlash to the liberalization of sexual mores in the wake of the 1960s: here is Friedan making a case in 1963 for the return of real sex between real, whole people (of different sex) against a hypothetical backcloth of generalized promiscuity and a lowering of moral standards: ‘For men, too, sex itself is taking on the unreal character of phantasy—depersonalized, dissatisfying, and finally inhuman’. The censure of ‘the stunted world of sexual fantasy’ is exactly parallel to the criticism of the stunted image of the feminine mystique. At the same time, the obsession with sex—or with pseudo-sex—is regarded as the focal point for the diversion of women from their true selfhood. Like a Victorian moralist, or a 1980s Victoria Gillick, Friedan asks: ‘Why is it so difficult for these youngsters to postpone present pleasure for future long-term goals?’
And yet the argument about sexuality is not as straightforward as it appears. Friedan devotes some pages to the Kinsey reports on sexual behaviour which came out in the 1950s, and which in their revised form suggested a correlation between educational level and sexual fulfilment. She argues against pseudo-sex not on the grounds that it is immoral—though there is a didactic tone to the prose—but on the grounds that it isn't as good as it could be: ‘Sex, for them [young girls] is not really sex at all. They have not even begun to experience a sexual response, much less ‘‘fulfilment’’’.
The further development of this occurs when Friedan suggests that real sexual fulfilment requires the other sort—‘human’ fulfilment—as a condition of possibility and therefore, implicitly, that if you want good sex you should see to your achievement in other areas first. Quoting the findings of ‘Professor Maslow’, Friedan concludes: ‘It seemed as if fulfilment of personal capacity in this larger world opened new vistas of sexual ecstasy’. Friedan has not herself shifted the terms from those of the mystique itself. While she accuses it of diverting women, and perhaps men too, from full human achievement to merely sexual preoccupations, her own argument is effectively to say: ‘That is pseudosex. Free yourself from the mystique and you can have the real thing.’ So sex remains at the centre; it is not so much displaced as the excesses of a passion that detracts from rationality, but rather reinscribed as an even more fulfilling by-product of personal growth.
This brings us to another equivocation in Friedan's text. She describes, as we have seen, the various institutions and agencies which might be identified as responsible for the propagation or infliction of the mystique, whatever their motives or interests. She does not really explain why the mystique appeals, why it sticks, given the prior history of tough feminist values developed and put into action in the past. The only reason, ultimately, is a negative one: women obeyed, or adopted the mystique, because nothing better was on offer. Feminism was ‘dead history’ or even ‘a dirty word’, and a female member of the next generation was stuck ‘for lack of an image that would help her to grow up as a woman true to herself’. Or in the passage quoted earlier: ‘They had truly outgrown the old image. They were finally free to be what they chose to be. But what choice were they offered?’
Always there is the same humanist appeal to a pre-existing individual self, embryonically there from the start and available for a development which can be straight and true or may, by extraneous social influence, deviate from its natural course. A girl either grows—grows up, tall and strong—or else she is warped and stunted and remains in a state of immaturity or corruption. Friedan claims on the one hand that the ‘lack of an image’ of what she might be caused the fall-back into the error of false femininity: without the good model, there is no way for the girl to grow. On the other hand, because she conceives of the person as there all the time, she also appeals repeatedly to a ‘basic’ or ‘hard core of self’ which is called upon to resist its own feminization:
By choosing femininity over the painful growth to full identity, by never achieving the hard core of self that comes not from fantasy but from mastering reality, these girls are doomed to suffer ultimately that bored, diffuse feeling of purposelessness, non-existence, non-involvement with the world that can be called anomie, or lack of identity, or merely felt as the problem that has no name.
Here, it is the girl's own active ‘choosing’ of the femininity which then makes her passively ‘doomed to suffer’. She begins as a fully rational subject and condemns herself to the utter passivity of ‘non-existence’. There is a hesitation as to victimization or agency in relation to which, in other cases, Friedan sometimes privileges one side and sometimes the other. To take another instance:
In the last analysis, millions of able women in this free land chose, themselves, not to use the door education could have opened for them. The choice—and the responsibility—for the race back home was finally their own.
In this example, free choice is real: in ‘this free land’, women are ultimately free to choose ‘themselves’, and responsible for the mistakes they make. Home is the prison they preferred to the open, outside world of education and opportunity. In the earlier example—finally free, but what choice were they offered?—choice is seen as limited by what is offered. No image available, therefore no possible identification with a self to match up to the free, or freed, ‘New Woman’.
This oscillation recurs throughout the book. There is the ‘inner voice’ within that is the germ of an authentic protest; at the same time, there is the clear statement that the image conforms in a sense to what women want: ‘This image … shapes women's lives today and mirrors their dreams’. In other words, the ‘image’ imprints itself in such a way as to be indistinguishable from those other dreams characterized as more primary and more true to the inner, human self. Friedan is constantly caught in this contradiction, which can be smoothed over only by accepting the arbitrary distinction between true and false dreams—between those that are from within and correspond to ‘human’ potential, and those that are from without and are imposed by the manipulators of the ‘feminine’ mystique.
Much of the difficulty stems from the fact that the language for each alternative is identical, having to do with wanting (or ‘yearning’), choice and fulfilment. Friedan tells the story of the first feminist movement, whose emergence was prompted by a situation of confinement to the home and to a state of infantile underdevelopment similar to the one she identifies in the present. The problem for a woman then was that ‘she could never grow up to ask the simply human question, ‘‘Who am I? What do I want?’’’ But what is wrong now is articulated in terms which seem to correspond to this acknowledgement of wanting, to a search for identity and fulfilment: ‘Women who suffer this problem, in whom this voice is stirring, have lived their whole lives in the pursuit of feminine fulfilment’.
This double premise—first, that there is a basic ‘core of self’ which ought to develop according to its nature and to resist extraneous influence, and second, that without an external image there is no possibility of achieving a full identity—accounts, I think, for a final twist in the form of Friedan's argument. For it is as if the entire book is there to lay out the missing image of human selfhood excluded by the mystique, but that this can only be done by repeating exactly those forms of persuasion from outside which are identified as the insidious techniques of the mystique which is thereby displaced and excluded in its turn. Be a whole person, achieve your human potential, and you can have even more than is presently on offer.
This is not to dismiss the book of The Feminine Mystique as an advertisers' con on a par with that of the feminine mystique it takes as its object. It is rather to suggest that the denunciation of ‘brainwashing’ and ‘manipulation’ in the name of a suppressed authenticity may mean that the authenticity claimed instead is rhetorically just as suspect. Friedan counters the mystique's representation of the natural woman with her own, and lays her argument open to the same critique in the name of another feminine—or human—nature. (And this, as we shall see, is precisely what happens when she revises her own argument eighteen years later.) In the second chapter she cites as an example of the spuriousness of contemporary women's magazine journalism an editor who was heard to demand: ‘Can't you dream up a new crisis for women?’ Friedan's next chapter is entitled ‘The Crisis in Women's Identity’.
In rereading—or reading—Friedan twenty or more years on, it is relatively easy to point out aspects which now seem anachronistic, either because they refer to demands which no longer seem pertinent or because they appear unacceptably narrow or biased. In the first category—demands no longer relevant—would appear, for example, the fact that western nations are not much worried by high birthrates any more, or the fact that in a time of high unemployment it is no longer feasible to marshal an argument that women are a wasted asset for the state.
In the second category—demands that now appear prejudiced—would be placed the heterosexist assumptions, not only in the representation of male homosexuality as a cultural symptom but also in the premise that the normal woman is heterosexual: Friedan refers, for example, to the ‘perversion’ of history by which nineteenth-century feminists are represented as ‘man-hating, embittered, sex-starved spinsters’ and proceeds to show, on the one hand, that many famous feminists ‘loved, were loved, and married’, and on the other that the cause was great enough to lead to a temporary abandonment of womanliness:
Is it so hard to understand that emancipation, the right to full humanity, was important enough to generations of women, still alive or only recently dead, that some fought with their fists, and went to jail and even died for it? And for the right to human growth, some women denied their own sex, the desire to love and be loved by a man, and to bear children.
Here there is, clearly, a conception of natural sexual difference operating alongside the claim for recognition of women's humanity; and that difference consists in a heterosexual, childbearing destiny which would radically separate Friedan from many of her feminist successors. Her argument is that marriage and motherhood should be kept in their secondary, ‘sexual’ place, not that they are to be questioned in themselves as part of what she calls the ‘life-plan’ for women.
Also featuring in this category of now unacceptable assumptions would be the middle-class, professional focus which is implicit throughout and which occasionally shows another negative side. It is in the following terms that Friedan denounces the distorted evidence used to build statistical proof that working mothers are bad for children's development:
How many women realize, even now, that the babies in these publicized cases, who withered away from lack of maternal affection, were not the children of educated, middle-class mothers who left them in others' care certain hours of the day to practice a profession or write a poem, or fight a political battle—but truly abandoned children: foundlings often deserted at birth by unwed mothers and drunken fathers, children who never had a home or tender loving care.
The asymmetry here between ‘unwed’ and ‘drunken’ is perhaps even more interesting than the vignette itself, with the two culpable parents stumbling around in their different states of post-natal incapacitation to throw out the baby ‘at birth’. And interestingly, the ‘home and tender loving care’ which measure the extent of the foundling's deprivation figure here not as the false image of domestic happiness perpetrated by the feminine mystique, but as just what a baby deserves.
In academic circles, Friedan's humanist premises and triumphalist rhetoric of emancipation do now seem rather old-fashioned. The current emphasis on sexual difference as the starting point for questions, rather than as an ideological confusion masking women's full humanity, has the effect of relegating a perspective such as Friedan's to the status of being theoretically unsophisticated as well as historically outdated. But to fail to consider her on these grounds is to accept precisely those assumptions about concepts of progressive liberation and enlightenment, collective and individual, which the later models have put into question. The point is not to reject Friedan from some point of advanced knowledge either as simply ‘of her time’—an argument for the early sixties of no interest now, or as benightedly prejudiced—good liberal as she was, we've come a long way since then. Rather, the very twists of her argument, with all the oddity of its details and contradictions, as seen from more than two decades later, may themselves suggest a different perspective on current feminist preoccupations and assumptions and current versions of feminist history and feminism's destination.
Friedan's basic theory of historical, as of individual, development is one of evolutionary maturation—from ‘primitive’ to civilized cultures, via the agency of pioneers, in the feminist movement as in American history. In this scheme, the present form of femininity is but a moderate deviation, to be ironed out—if the image is not too domestic—by a final mobilization of latent energy:
In the light of women's long battle for emancipation, the recent sexual counterrevolution in America has been perhaps a final crisis, a strange breath-holding interval before the larva breaks out of the shell into maturity.
But elsewhere, Friedan half hints—and half despairingly—that there may be a structure more cyclical than progressive in the history of feminist argument. For instance:
Encouraged by the mystique to evade their identity crisis, permitted to escape identity altogether in the name of sexual fulfilment, women once again are living with their feet bound in the old image of glorified femininity. And it is the same old image, despite its shiny new clothes, that trapped women for centuries and made the feminists rebel.
From femininity to feminism, to the forgetting of feminism to a return to femininity, to feminism again—and so on. Such would seem to be the sequence identified by this description, leaving no suggestion of a possible outcome of full feminist, or human, identity for women, since the story never ends.
This difficulty is highlighted by Friedan's own explicit shift of position since 1963. The Second Stage (1981) reads uncannily like a reversal of the terms of The Feminine Mystique. In place of the silently suffering, affluent housewife, we are here introduced to the secretly unfulfilled female executive who has taken on wholesale the offer of success in a man's world but is now experiencing the effects of the ‘denial’ of what turn out to have been valid feminine feelings. Where ‘femininity’ was the false image in the first book, its negative effects to be cured by feminist consciousness, ‘feminist rhetoric’ has now become the stale and stultifying demand, to be cured by the recovery of a measure of femininity. Rather than the feminine mystique, it is ‘the feminist mystique’ which is ‘the problem’. Two halves assuredly make a whole, and balance will only be attained by acknowledging the importance of those traditionally female nurturing qualities and "needs’ which the first stage of feminism forced them to repudiate.
The role of the false, distorting image played by femininity in the earlier book is thus taken over in The Second Stage by the ‘stunting’ excesses of a feminism ‘blind’ to the caring, family values it had to reject in order to make its initial point. In arguing that the time has now come to ‘transcend’ the polarization of men and women, Friedan relies on the same types of double premises as in The Feminine Mystique. From one perspective, the new problems are generated by economic and national necessities (because of inflation and dwindling growth, women have to go out to work to balance the domestic budget; by the same token, macho masculinity a la John Wayne is no longer viable in post-Vietnam America). But at the same time, the solutions appeal to first principles: men are now able to put off what turn out to have been their own ‘masks’ of hyper-masculinity, to discover their underlying feelings; women, meanwhile, have got past the point of needing to assert themselves according to values now seen not as the ‘human’ norm but as excessively masculine. Femininity is now valorized as a buried potential, where previously it was regarded as a fabrication.
All this leaves open the whole question of what actually constitutes the difference between the sexes. Too much of either masculinity or femininity is bad for men and women, which suggests that they are not qualities tied to either sex: women must not get too much like men, any more than men should repress their feminine side. And yet, the whole aim of ‘the transcendence of polarization’ is that, in the words of the book's final sentence, we will all be ‘spelling out own names, at last, as women and men’. The goal of feminism, having passed through all its ‘evolutionary’ stages, then, would be to make true men and women of us, while at the same time the attainment of such identities is predicated on a fusion of masculine and feminine qualities. Transcendence might be another impasse after all.
Source: Rachel Bowlby, ‘‘‘The Problem with No Name’: Rereading Friedan's The Feminine Mystique,’’ in Feminist Review, No. 27, Autumn 1987, pp. 61-75.