Gender Roles

Gender roles and societal expectations are at the very heart of The Feminine Mystique. The defining gender role of the 1950s and 60s is the “feminine mystique,” an idealized version of domestic femininity that all women are expected to conform to. Friedan argues that this popular conception of femininity is tied too closely to a woman’s biology, falsely equating the role of the wife and mother with the pinnacle of femininity. The feminine mystique, Friedan argues, was given wrongful credibility by the work of Freud and functionalists like Margaret Mead, who threw their considerable academic weight behind the idea that a woman’s social role is and should be determined by her biological function. Friedan acknowledges that gender roles are extremely difficult to challenge, pointing to the revolutionary feminists of the nineteenth century. Though most of these women had successful marriages, their opponents labeled them masculine man-haters, an accusation that, even forty years later, is still thrown at women who refuse to conform. Friedan observes that women who challenge the feminine mystique, whether by pursuing advanced degrees, developing their personal careers, or not marrying, are met with harsh social backlash. Women in 1963—just like the feminists of the nineteenth century—are quickly derided for trying to “compete” against men. From an early age, girls are taught that it is unattractive and unfeminine to seek personal fulfillment in the way a man does. Friedan is quick to point out that this social conditioning harms not only women but men as well. In a society with such rigidly defined gender roles, men bear the burden not only of working, but also of their wives’ utter emotional dependence. The housewife is forced into a parasitic existence, made to live through her husband and children. These relationships become may become increasingly toxic as the woman grows to resent the family that, alone, can can never fulfill her. Meanwhile, the husband and children grow frustrated with the mother’s dominating and overbearing presence in the home. Ultimately, Friedan concludes that women and men will only be able to engage in healthy, mutually beneficial relationships when the rigid gender roles created by the feminine mystique are dismantled.


The central evil of the feminine mystique is that it prevents women from developing full, authentic personal identities. Through the mystique, they are pressured and conditioned to pursue marriage and pregnancy above all other things. Though women may go to college, they are not expected to use their degrees; instead they pursue college to find a husband. Friedan observes that the repetitive and boring housework most women end up doing is not substantial or challenging enough to give these women a greater sense of purpose or identity. Friedan ties this lack of identity to the rampant consumerism of the 1950s...

(The entire section is 1191 words.)


(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Social Roles
Before World War II many women had the choice of becoming housewives or having careers, and many sources supported either choice. Friedan measures this public opinion of women by examining the images of women in women's magazines from before and after World War II. As she notes of the magazines before World War II: ‘‘The majority of heroines in the four major women's magazines were career women—happily, proudly, adventurously, attractively career women—who loved and were loved by men.’’ However, after World War II, Friedan notes that women were increasingly encouraged to become housewives and mothers alone, and to avoid becoming a ‘‘career-woman-devil.’’ Many sources provided this encouragement, including psychologists who followed the teachings of Sigmund Freud. As Friedan notes, Freud believed that ‘‘it was woman's nature to be ruled by man, and her sickness to envy him.’’ Freud called this concept ‘‘penis envy,’’ and Friedan says that the concept ‘‘was seized in this country in the 1940s as the literal explanation of all that was wrong with American women.’’ Women's desire for equality was looked at as an abnormality, and women were encouraged to accept their roles as housewife and mother and leave the careers to men.

The functionalists took this idea one step further, saying that women should not compete with men in careers because it would upset the social order. As Friedan notes, the functionalist believed that ‘‘the status quo can be maintained only if the wife and mother is exclusively a homemaker or, at most, has a ‘job’ rather than a ‘career.’’’ These and many other sources thought that confining women to their roles as housewife and mother would benefit children. However, as Friedan notes, mothers who devoted their lives entirely to their children ended up doing more harm than good. Says Friedan:...

(The entire section is 785 words.)