Betty Friedan began researching The Feminine Mystique as a result of her own questions with regard to her roles as worker, wife, and mother. Her first research was a questionnaire she developed for the members of her graduating class from Smith College. She then examined the writings of psychologists, philosophers, and literary theorists; spoke with magazine editors, marketing researchers, and theoretical experts on women; and, most important, interviewed eighty women—students, young mothers, and middle-aged women—facing issues of self-definition. The endnotes attest Friedan’s broad-based research during the five years she spent writing the book.
The Feminine Mystique supports a thesis that women need meaningful work in order to be healthy adults. Friedan documents a trend in American life: Since World War II ended, women in the United States had been conditioned away from accepting responsibility for themselves outside marriage and motherhood. Friedan asserts that American women are in “chains made up of mistaken ideas and misinterpreted facts, of incomplete truths and unreal choices. They are not easily seen and not easily shaken off.”
Mistaken ideas include Sigmund Freud’s theories of women’s motivation. Friedan argues against the Freudian assumption that women are motivated by penis envy, a longing for that which their bodies lack, and find fulfillment by transferring to their sons all their own suppressed ambitions. She notes that in American popular culture, Freud’s theories “settled everywhere, like fine volcanic ash.”
Women’s energies were then channeled into approved areas by educators who accepted Freud’s theories as scientific fact, those whom Friedan terms “sex-directed educators.” The focus of education for women, therefore, often became training to help women adjust not to an intellectual challenge but to their feminine roles. Mistaken ideas about women’s education preparing them for the roles of housewife and mother shaped college curricula in the 1950’s, with courses on “Mate Selection,” “Adjustment to Marriage,” and “Education for Family Living.” Friedan cites Margaret Mead’s concern for men’s intellectual life and accomplishments being stunted by early marriage: “The father’s term paper gets all mixed up with the babies’ [sic] bottle.” Friedan then asks the question implied within Mead’s concern: What cost to women accompanies early domesticity?
Friedan also addresses the economic interests upholding the housewife/mother definition of woman. Although Friedan asserts that business and industry do not work as a conspiracy, she provides evidence from reports and interviews from the director of the Institute for Motivational Research in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Friedan summarizes and analyzes reports and surveys that include this message: “The store will sell her more . . . if it will understand that the real need she is trying to fill by shopping is not anything she can buy there.” Explained in the chapter are needs for creativity (solution: buy a new appliance, a cake mix), learning and advancement (solution: buy a new set of symbols to match the husband’s higher income), privacy (solution: buy a second car), sexual frustration (solution: “put the libido back into advertising”). Friedan notes that advertisers are not responsible for putting women into the narrowed role of housewife and mother but have strongly influenced women to stay there.
Friedan summarizes the history of the women’s movement in the United States, tracing the struggle for equal rights that...
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