Sigmund Freud

♀ The Mistaken Choice

Photograph by  Keijo Knutas  via  Photopin  ( cc )

Photograph by Keijo Knutas via Photopin (cc)

This is the eighth post in my chapter-by-chapter analysis of The Feminine Mystique, as I read the book for the first time in an effort to educate myself about the roots of modern feminism. You can read the other posts here.

In “The Mistaken Choice” Betty Friedan again raises the question of why women chose to go home. I understand what she’s saying: that no one absolutely forced the women of the 40s and 50s to choose full-time motherhood and homemaking over education and career. The question seems a little disingenuous, though; at this point she has spent a full five chapters (the first and fourth being the exceptions so far) explaining in great detail all the social, religious, and moral pressures pushing women to stay home. I suppose she really intended to say that she was about to add to the dogpile, and that does indeed prove to be the purpose of the chapter.

Specifically, Friedan posits that the mystique must have filled a need for these women; her theory about that need returns to her earlier idea of women being infantilized or kept from growing up, but in this case she approaches that idea by talking about World War II. Suggesting that the war left the GI men traumatized and longing for the comfort of home and the affection of their mothers and wives, while women—lonely and aching for love and affection from their soldier boyfriends and husbands—worried that love and marriage both might pass them by as the war dragged on, Friedan reminds the reader that the horrors of war in general and the apocalypse of the Atom Bomb in particular left the world a different place. Both men and women found it easier to retreat to the familiarity and ease of domestic and family life than to face the cruel realities of life after WWII.

The young GI, made older than his years by the war, could meet his lonely need for love and mother by re-creating his childhood home. Instead of dating many girls until college and profession were achieved, he could marry on the GI bill, and give his own babies the tender mother love he was no longer baby enough to seek for himself. Then there were the slightly older men: men of twenty-five whose marriages had been postponed by the war and who now felt they must make up for lost time; men in their thirties, kept first by depression and then by war from marrying, or if married, from enjoying the comforts of home.

For the girls, these lonely years added an extra urgency to their search for love. Those who married in the thirties saw their husbands off to war; those who grew up in the forties were afraid, with reason, that they might never have the love, the homes and children, which few women would willingly miss. When the men came back, there was a headlong rush into marriage. (Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. Norton & Company, 1997, pp. 182–183)

On top of this legitimate desire for love, marriage, and children, women were tricked into conflating the loneliness and desperation of wartime and the effects of career aspirations:

They were told that the cold dimension of loneliness which the war had added to their lives was the necessary price they had to pay for a career, for any interest outside the home. The mystique spelled out a choice—love, home, children, or other goals and purposes in life. (183)

Also, with gender discrimination still rampant in the working world, women could hardly be blamed for choosing domestic life—for which society claimed they were ideally suited—over the uphill battle of professional achievement.

Women were often driven embittered from their chosen fields when, ready and able to handle a better job, they were passed over for a man. In some jobs a woman had to be content to do the work while the man got the credit. Or if she got the better job, she had to face the bitterness and hostility of the man. (185)

Friedan speculates that many turned to therapy (her earlier bugbear of “Freudianism”) but failed to understand the true cause of their depression, anxiety, and general maladjustment—the war. Instead, she suggests, they looked to sexual analysis for answers and conveniently discovered that poor mothering could take the blame for nearly any psychological problem:

In every case history of troubled child; alcoholic, suicidal, schizophrenic, psychopathic, neurotic adult; impotent, homosexual male; frigid, promiscuous female; ulcerous, asthmatic, and otherwise disturbed American, could be found a mother.. A frustrated, repressed, disturbed, martyred, never satisfied, unhappy woman. A demanding, nagging, shrewish wife. A rejecting, overprotecting, dominating mother. World War II revealed that millions of American men were psychologically incapable of facing the shock of war, of facing life away from their “moms.” Clearly something was “wrong” with American women. (189)

That this “discovery” appeared to coincide with a surge of educated, career-oriented women created a post hoc, ergo propter hoc mindset toward female empowerment:

Women were just beginning to play a part in American society that depended not on their sex, but on their individual abilities. It was apparent to the naked eye, obvious to the returning GI, that these American women were indeed more independent, strong-minded, assertive of will and opinion, less passive and feminine than, for instance, the German and Japanese girls who, the GI’s boasted, “even washed our backs for us.” It was less apparent, however, that these girls were different from their mothers. Perhaps that is why, by some strange distortion of logic, all the neuroses of children past and present were blamed on the independence and individuality of this new generation of American girls—independence and individuality which the housewife-mothers of the previous generation never had. (189)

Despite no actual evidence in support of this theory—and in rejection of evidence to the contrary, society began to blame working mothers for all sorts of psychological problems in children young and grown and to claim that educated women were less sexually fulfilled than uneducated women. More and more, women were vilified for working outside the home, which made domesticity an even easier choice. Since housekeeping and motherhood offered a safe, comfortable retreat from the perils of true adulthood and personal agency, women decided they would rather, on the whole, just stay home.

When a culture has erected barrier after barrier against women as separate selves; when a culture has erected legal, political, social, economic and educational barriers to women’s own acceptance of maturity—even after most of those barriers are down it is still easier for a woman to seek the sanctuary of the home. It is easier to live through her husband and children than to make a road of her own in the world… It is frightening to grow up finally and be free of passive dependence. Why should a woman bother to be anything more than a wife and mother if all the forces of her culture tell her she doesn’t have to, will be better off not to, grow up? (204)

While this chapter doesn’t break much new ground for Friedan’s overall message, it does add more documentation to the dossier—another chapter, another framing device for the preponderance of evidence needed to jolt women into the realization that they were unhappy and needed change. I’ve had occasion to suggest as much before, but this book really is overkill for modern audiences, who (for the most part) know quite well that the women of the 1950s and ’60s ached desperately—if subconsciously—for a revolution. For Friedan’s actual audience, though, I suspect the book was just right.

♀ The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud

This is the fifth post in my chapter-by-chapter analysis of The Feminine Mystique, as I read the book for the first time in an effort to educate myself about the roots of modern feminism. You can read the other posts here.

Because most of my friends and family do not identify as feminists, I occasionally have conversations about gender-normative behavior or gender stereotypes. I’m sure you know the kind I mean—statements like “Women shouldn’t be in positions of power because they’re too emotional, not rational”, “Women are more nurturing, so that’s why it makes sense for them to be the primary caregivers”, “Women are more monogamous than men because [insert evolution-based rationale here]”, or even “Men and women don’t like the same movies because girls like gooey romantic movies and men only like action!” I try not to be that person who constantly corrects people when they make anti-feminist remarks, but in appropriate settings, I say what I think.

People find stereotypes seductive and hard to ignore because stereotypes nearly always have a bit of truth at their core. To take one example from above, women probably do, as a group, tend to prefer romances or dramas—essentially, relationship-based movies—more than men. But even when the kernel of truth is obvious to nearly everyone, most people still make the mistake of assuming it represents a characteristic innate to that particular gender, ignoring the possibility that cultural norms and expectations drive that particular behavior.

In chapter 5 of The Feminine Mystique, “The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud”, Betty Friedan attributes this very mistake to the titular psychologist. Despite his many insights, she contends that Freud’s theories about sexual differences essentialized cultural norms. In turn, gender traditionalists of the 1940s used a distilled version of Freudianism to reinforce the standards of their day, as women felt unqualified to argue with the findings of a revered scientist.

Friedan acknowledges Freud’s gifts and accomplishments, but he was a product of his day, and he reflected the beliefs and cultural expectations thereof. For example, although he married a strong, capable woman, he infantilized her and did not consider her his intellectual equal. Friedan quotes from one of his letters to Martha:


“You are far too soft, and this is something I have got to correct, for what one of us does will also be charged to the other’s account. You are my precious little woman, and even if you make a mistake, you are none the less so… But you know all this, my sweet child….” (Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. Norton & Company, 1997, p. 110)


Freud expected that women would be happiest and most well-adjusted if they resigned themselves to relative inactivity, being content to serve their husbands or fathers and bear children. If they harbored ambitions outside this role, they would develop neuroses and require therapy. In the Victorian era, this was actually true. Women had little opportunity to shed socially-imposed functions, so any desire to deviate led to frustration. Freud made the mistake of universalizing this fact, attributing female frustration at such limitations to the inherent nature of women and labeling this frustration “penis envy”. (118)

Freud’s theory of penis envy is probably too nuanced to discuss thoroughly in this venue, but here is a somewhat reductive summary: The first time a young girl sees a penis, she realizes its superiority to her own anatomy and desires to have a penis for herself. Whenever, then, a woman behaves as one would expect a man to behave, or displays the ambitions of a man, this subconscious desire for a penis is at the root of that behavior. Friedan quotes from Freud’s lecture “The Psychology of Women”:


“That the girl recognizes the fact that she lacks a penis does not mean that she accepts it absence lightly. On the contrary, she clings for a long time to the desire to get something like it, and believes in that possibility for an extraordinary number of years; and even at a time when her knowlege of reality has long since led her to abandon the fulfillment of this desire as being quite unattainable, analysis proves that it still persists in the unconscious, and retains a considerable charge of energy. The desire after all to obtain the penis for which she so much longs may even contribute to the motives that impel a grown-up woman to come to analysis, and what she quite reasonably expects to get from analysis, such as the capacity to pursue an intellectual career, can often be recognized as a sublimated modification of this repressed wish.” (115)


We now know that Freud had it backwards. Women have ambition because growth is a human need, and they felt envy—conscious or subconscious—toward men because society in both Freud’s and Friedan’s day prevented them from fulfilling this need. Penis envy, if it exists, is the result, not the cause, of women being treated as inferior and having their needs subjugated to men. If women had penises (that is, if they were men), they could do as men do: learn, grow, accomplish, change the world.


Victorian culture gave women many reasons to envy men: the same conditions, in fact, that the feminists fought against.[1] If a woman who was denied the freedom, the status and the pleasures that men enjoyed wished secretly that she could have these things, in the shorthand of the dream, she might wish herself a man and see herself with that one thing which made men unequivocally different—the penis. (117)


Freud knew his limits (to an extent) and believed that after his death his adherents would critique his work, discarding anything that did not hold up to scrutiny. Actually, the opposite occurred, in the short term. Freud’s followers grew more rigid and dogmatic, conforming observation to theory, not vice versa. (120) Thus, while science began to demonstrate that females were in no way inferior to males except by the measure of physical strength, Freudians, now pervading mainstream thought, continued to find women unsuited to a life of equality with men. (118) Reducing Freud’s theories to a few bullet points, the culture of the day codified penis envy into a prescription rather than a description:


It was as if Freud’s Victorian image of woman became more real than the twentieth-century women to whom it was applied. Freud’s theory of femininity was seized in America with such literalness that women today were considered no different than Victorian women. The real injustices life held for women a century ago, were dismissed as mere rationalizations of penis envy. And the real opportunities life offered to women now, compared to women then, were forbidden in the name of penis envy. (119)


Evidence against this rigid application of Freudianism began to pile up, even among psychoanalysts, who found it more and more difficult to apply Freud’s ideas to real-life women. Friedan interviews one of the last remaining analysts to have trained at Freud’s Psychoanalytic Institute:


“I had a woman patient on the couch for nearly two years before I could face her real problem—that it was not enough for her to be just a housewife and mother. One day she had a dream that she was teaching a class. I could not dismiss the powerful yearning of this housewife’s dream as penis envy. It was the expression of her own need for mature self-fulfillment. I told her: ‘I can’t analyze this dream away. You must do something about it.’” (122)


Friedan places the ultimate blame for the perpetuation of the feminine mystique not on the psychoanalysts and therapists but on the mass media and “popularizers and translators of Freudian thought into the colleges and universities”. Reductive Freudianism, prescriptively applied as an ideal, permeated the American consciousness and kept women stuck in rigid gender roles despite the recent gains made on behalf of their rights and freedoms. Ordinary women, even those inwardly seething against these culturally-imposed restrictions, retained such reverence for the “science” at the root of their serfdom that they could mount no meaningful rebuttal. (124–125)

As I concluded in my review of the previous chapter, those in power have an obligation to constantly self-evaluate and ensure that they are doing all they can to equalize the disenfranchised. Conventional wisdom is often our enemy in this endeavor, so we must give careful consideration to whether the assumptions and stereotypes we perpetuate are based on inherent characteristics or simply on cultural expectations. Maintaining intellectual honesty in this regard may surprise us.

I mean, maybe women like gooey, romantic movies because we keep telling them they’re supposed to.







  1. Friedan is here referring to the first-wave feminists.  ↩<



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