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The Feminine Mystique

by Betty Friedan
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The Feminine Mystique Themes

The main themes in The Feminine Mystique are gender roles, identity, education, and consumerism.

  • Gender roles: Friedan argues that the preservation of rigid gender roles is harmful to both men and women.
  • Identity: Pressure for all women to aspire only to marriage and motherhood prevents women from exploring their personal identity.
  • Education: Though universities have historically contributed to the feminine mystique, Friedan believes that increasing access to higher education is the best way to empower women.
  • Consumerism: The massive rise of consumerism and advertising in the 1950s helped create the image of the perfect housewife, thus reinforcing the feminine mystique.

Themes

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Last Updated on April 6, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1187

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.

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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.

Identity

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.

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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

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 never be properly content with domestic life. These educators also helped perpetuate the myth that educated women experienced greater sexual frigidity and dissatisfaction, a conclusion based on the preliminary results of Alfred Kinsey’s landmark study of women and sex. Friedan notes that the final results of Kinsey’s study completely contradicted his early findings, showing that educated women actually had more satisfying and fulfilling sex lives than their non-educated counterparts. This information, however, was ignored by sex-directed educators whose “solution” to the unhappiness of the American housewife was to refocus curriculums, making them easier and more focused on domestic life.

As the myth that educated and career-focused women were unsuccessful in domestic life spread through popular media, women began to change their attitudes toward school. Young women no longer wanted to appear too invested in academics for fear of becoming unattractive to men. Friedan discovers that these women consciously stopped themselves from becoming too engaged in their college classes, either because they feared that, by the time they left school, most of their eligible male peers would already be “taken” or because they knew that they would have to drop their graduate studies or career once they were married. Friedan ultimately concludes that while education guided by the feminine mystique can have disastrous consequences, higher education is the “key to the trap” and the only thing that can save American women from the feminine mystique. Friedan proposes that the government should fund programs that would help wives and mothers to finish their degrees or pursue graduate study. Friedan also argues that colleges need to start taking their female students more seriously and says universities should make an effort to employ more married female faculty to serve as mentors and examples to female college students.

Consumerism

Friedan argues that advertisers have played a huge role in creating and perpetuating the feminine mystique. She interviews a man she dubs “the manipulator,” who teaches companies to market their products to housewives by exploiting the feminine mystique. Friedan notes that though it goes unsaid, the American consumer economy is fueled by housewives buying products for their homes. The feminine mystique makes housewives easy targets for advertisers who market their products as an essential tool of the perfect homemaker and thus the “perfect woman.” Friedan interviews advertisers who admit to deliberately crafting the image of the ideal homemaker in order to sell products. The advertisers acknowledge that they had to strike a delicate balance: she needed to be modern and adventurous enough to try new household products but not so independent that she ventured into the working world.

To prevent women from leaving the home, advertisers deliberately elevated the role of the housewife, portraying easy, boring housework as a complex task requiring the “expertise” of a successful woman who bought and used a whole arsenal of household products and tools. While interviewing housewives, Friedan discovered that despite all of these time-saving products, women were still spending the majority of their day doing housework that should have taken a couple of hours. She concluded that these women were—both consciously and unconsciously—stretching out their housework in order to feel necessary. Friedan concludes that in a society that tells women that their only purpose is to be a homemaker, women are forced to try to make housework seem substantial and meaningful, even though such menial labor is not fulfilling enough to satisfy most women.

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