The Feminine Mystique Themes
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 and 60s, pointing out that housewives would not be so susceptible to manipulative advertisements featuring the “perfect homemaker” if they were not in a constant state of identity crisis. Unable to find a sense of self through their domestic duties, women begin to rely on or even dominate the identities of their husbands and children. Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a model, Friedan makes the case that while men are encouraged to achieve self-actualization, women have been prevented from achieving anything more than their base physiological needs. Friedan argues that this arrested personal development has resulted in the dehumanization of millions of housewives.
Education plays a complex role in The Feminine Mystique . Friedan blames the “sex-directed educators” who infiltrated universities and women’s colleges for reinforcing narrow and restricting gender roles. Sex-directed educators blamed the undeniable unhappiness of the American housewife on an “excess of education,” believing that women with too much education could...
(The entire section is 1,187 words.)