♀ The Crisis in Woman's Identity

Photograph by Johanna Ljungblom.

Photograph by Johanna Ljungblom.

This is the third 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 first post here and the second post here.

At last.

My coverage of the first two chapters of The Feminine Mystique was very academic because the chapters were academic—not stylistically, but in that Betty Friedan was largely reporting observations and the results of research rather than expressing a theory or opinion. Based on my understanding of the book and its purpose, this seems like necessary groundwork without which her thesis would be much less compelling.

That thesis makes its appearance in this, the third chapter, and we know it to be the thesis because Friedan labels it, right there in the text:

It is my thesis that as the Victorian culture did not permit women to accept or gratify their basic sexual needs,[1] our culture does not permit women to accept or gratify their basic need to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings. (Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. Norton & Company, 1997, pp. 77)

In fact, Chapter 3 is Friedan’s thesis chapter. The thesis statement arrives nearly at the end, also doubling as the explanation for both the problem posed in the chapter and the rise to prominence of the Mystique itself.

Once again harking back two decades, Friedan recalls her experience graduating college and facing truly adult decisions for the first time. Starting on a fellowship that would ultimately lead her to a professional career as a psychologist, she gave it up after a year—for a boy. Years later, now having married, borne children, and moved to the suburbs, she realized that in abandoning psychology she had abandoned her identity, or at least, the quest for her identity. (69–70)

In talking with the class of 1959 at Smith College, her own alma mater, Friedan learns that the identity crisis that so afflicted her has only grown worse. Many undergraduates have no clear aspirations at all, not wanting to embark upon careers that they will only have to give up when they get married and have children. Some take the easy route by getting engaged early so they can marry straight out of college and let their husbands make all their decisions, but even these “lucky” ones seem resentful of their own choices. “They know they’re not going to use their education”, says one young lady to Friedan later on, in private. “They’ll be wives and mothers. You can say you’re going to keep on reading and be interested in the community. But that’s not the same. You won’t really go on.” (70–71)

Therein lies the root of The Problem That Has No Name. Women, paralyzed by the fear of encountering life, of making this choice rather than that choice, and living with their choices, fall back on refusing, in essence, to grow up. They marry and become childish mothers of children, secure in the knowledge that adults—their husbands—will make all their decisions and keep them safe, warm, clothed, and fed. (76–77)

And the reason women turn back from adulthood, giving up on the hard business of determining their own identity, is lack of vision deriving from poor modeling. They know they don’t want to be like their mothers: frustrated, empty women unable to have careers or lives of their own. (72) Conversely, the other most common models available to them—spinster teachers, librarians, college professors—have sacrificed love and family on the altar of career or intellectual pursuits. (75) Mass media and the culture at large tell them that their biology and anatomy determine their role; what Friedan calls the “public image” of femininity is strong and clear. (72, 79) But the “private image”, their own, personal vision of themselves, having no clear source or inspiration, remains vague and therefore seemingly unattainable. (75)

Friedan spends much of the last few pages of this chapter pointing out that this problem—the problem of finding identity—applies to men as well. This naturally resonates with my own experience, as does her point (as usual, somewhat implicit): that our society is structured so that men have little choice but to forge their own identity, whether they have adequate modeling or not. While sociologists of Friedan’s day had recognized this identity crisis in the male population, they had so far blamed the same symptoms in women on the misplaced ideals of feminism:

All this gave girls the feeling they could be and do whatever they wanted to, with the same freedom as boys, the critics said. It did not prepare them for their role as women. (75)

While possibly not in the next chapter, Friedan seems poised to soon beginning proposing solutions to The Problem, and it doesn’t take much knowledge of second-wave feminism to see that those solutions must come from women themselves rather than from culture, media, or government.

Having, so it seems, reached a turning point in the book, I feel surprised by how strongly the situation of the 60s (as described) resembles the culture in which I grew up: conservative evangelicalism. I expected to read a history lesson, to grow in my understanding of the developments that led to our present situation.[2] Instead, I find that I am, in many ways, reading about our present situation. The cultural tendency to define women by their anatomy may have diminished over time, but it persists still, even quite strongly in some sub-cultures.


  1. Again, I say, “At last”.  ↩

  2. See the end of my post about chapter 1.  ↩

If you appreciated this post, you might also like my new series of fantasy short stories featuring the immortal woman whose adventures we now know only through scattered myths and legends. Read them for free starting at the Her True Name story archives!

♀ The Happy Housewife Heroine


This is the second 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 first post here.

Having drawn a rough image of the problem facing American women of the 60s, Betty Friedan backs up two decades to explore the transition from the optimism and potential of the earlier women’s movement to the malaise and restrictions of her day. A journalist by profession, Friedan naturally turns to her own field for answers, analyzing magazine stories from four women’s magazines in the year 1939: Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, and Woman’s Home Companion.

In contrast to the July 1960 issue of McCall’s, whose contents Friedan handily lists (Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. Norton & Company, 1997, pp. 34–35), magazines of the late 30s and early 40s did not revolve entirely around cooking, housekeeping and child-rearing while shunning politics and world issues. What they did contain was fiction—story after story of feminist role models: tough, smart, adventurous women who put career over romance in a way that seems almost moralistic: “If she kept her commitment to herself, she did not lose the man, if he was the right man.” (38–39)

Friedan posits that these stories represent fantasy fiction for the housewives and mothers of the day:

These magazines were not written for career women. The New Woman heroines were the ideal of yesterday’s housewives; they reflected the dreams, mirrored the yearning for identity and the sense of possibility that existed for women then. And if women could not have these dreams for themselves, they wanted their daughters to have them. They wanted their daughters to be more than housewives, to go out in the world that had been denied them. (40)

Women in the 1930s saw the world opening before them, their potential expanding, seemingly without limit. But over the next decade, the narrative of “The New Woman” began to disappear from women’s journalism, to be replaced by a different set of scripts. The last such story Friedan can find dates only back to 1949. “Suddenly”, as Friedan puts it (redeeming this magical-thinking expression with only a partial explanation)[1] magazines began printing stories about housewives with inferiority complexes. (41–42)

Well-rounded but not career-driven, educated but not intellectual, obsessed with producing children and managing a household to the exclusion of all else, the Happy Housewife Heroine may doubt the significance of her station, but only so she can later repent and joyfully re-accept husband, family, and home as her chosen work. Friedan recounts, for example, the story of a woman tempted away from her “duty” by a career-woman friend. At the friend’s urging, she gives up breast-feeding and begins to ignore her baby when he cries. She even considers taking a job outside the home. Naturally, she realizes the error of her ways when her husband discovers the baby crying and shivering because the window has been left open in her room. The moment is so powerful that her mannish friend also repents and returns to her own home and child. (46–47)

The “career woman” thus put in her place, magazines moved on to stories discouraging women from too much community activity—or even having minds of their own. Friedan points out that “The end of the road, in an almost literal sense, is the disappearance of the heroine altogether, as a separate self and the subject of her own story.” (47) Life Magazine, in a June 1959 profile, quotes a housewife: “If he doesn’t want me to wear a certain color or a certain kind of dress, then I truly don’t want to, either. The thing is, whatever he has wanted is what I also want… I don’t believe in fifty-fifty marriages.” (62)

Having discouraged women from having lives or thoughts of their own, women’s magazines correspondingly grew more and more vapid and inane, leading Friedan to wonder if women were being conditioned into imbecility. (65) She notes a hopeful sign, though:

The growing boredom of women with the empty, narrow image of the women’s magazines may be the most hopeful sign of the image’s divorce from reality. (66)

By the time of Friedan’s writing, women had already begun to revolt, even if only subconsciously and without a definite goal to revolt to. As a stunt, Redbook in September 1960 asked women to write in if they felt trapped, promising them $500 for the response. They received 24,000 responses.

Looking back over the transition, Friedan asks:

Why did so many American women, with the ability and education to discover and create, go back home again, to look for ‘something more’ in housework and rearing children?

The 50s and 60s were great periods of discovering and expansion for mankind, but women shrank and retreated from the world. (67) The closest Friedan ventures to an explanation (in this chapter) is to tie the shift to the return of the G.I. “‘Most of the material used to come from women writers,’” says an older female magazine editor Friedan interviews. “‘As the young men returned from the war, a great many women writers dropped out of the field. The young women started having lots of children, and stopped writing.’” (54)

This editor (not identified by name) claimed that the stories of “the spirited career girl” came primarily from female writers and editors, while the fluffy housewife protagonist sprang from the minds of the men who later replaced them. No surprise, then, that the scripts being dictated to women conformed to the fantasies of soldiers returning home in hope of a comfortable domestic life. (54)

But Friedan seems reluctant to lay much of the blame for propagating The Feminine Mystique at the door of the press. Indeed, throughout the chapter she reports the frustrations of many (male) editors with the limited subject matter and points of view available to them. The editors of McCall’s claimed: “‘The irony is, what we meant to do was to stop editing for women as women, and edit for the men and women together. We wanted to edit for people, not women.’” (50)

In fact, in 1956, McCall’s tried a short article called “The Mother Who Ran Away”. It set a record in readership for the magazine. “‘It was our moment of truth,’ said a former editor. ‘We suddenly realized that all those women at home with their three and a half children were miserably unhappy.’” (50) In general, though, the editors of magazines accepted axiomatically that women were not interested, and indeed, could not even comprehend, issues or pure ideas. (50–51)

Whether from bias as an industry insider or because she accepts the sincerity of such reports, Friedan seems a little too willing to believe that the alteration in the narrative was the effect, rather than the cause, of the Mystique’s growing influence—at least at first. She admits that this attitude grew to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, citing a 1960 study that showed women to be truly uninterested in politics. (51) And even if she shows a little deference to her own colleagues, her implicit point remains valid: literature reflects culture more heavily than creates it. Friedan ends the chapter with unanswered questions:

“What gives the mystique its power? Why did women go home again?” (68)

  1. While I am reading this book more as a history lesson than for any other reason, the lackluster quality of Friedan’s storytelling abilities has proved a source of surprise and mild disappointment. She tends to ramble or editorialize without explanation, and to plant ideas that never pay off. For example, early in this chapter she draws an analogy between the Victorian repression of sexuality and the modern woman’s repression of her unmet desires: “A woman might not know what it was, any more than the Victorian woman knew she had sexual needs.” Friedan never revisits this idea, except in the vaguest and most implicit—and possibly unintentional—way.  ↩

If you appreciated this post, you might also like my new series of fantasy short stories featuring the immortal woman whose adventures we now know only through scattered myths and legends. Read them for free starting at the Her True Name story archives!

Congratulations to Melissa Mayer

The new CEO of Yahoo has given birth to a boy and named him Bogue. She plans to work from home throughout her maternity leave.

Correction I misread the linked article. Mayer has not yet named her baby; Bogue is the surname of Mayer’s husband.

Ann Romney Acknowledges, Embraces Sexism

Not the reactionary sniping I was expecting:

So how does Ann Romney get away with this? Because she framed it not as a problem to be fixed but a trial that women have to endure. She put a positive spin on it, claiming that these extra struggles make us women extra good. Instead of demanding equality, she encouraged her female audience instead to take their payment in martyrdom.

I’m not sure I agree with Amanda Marcotte’s characterization of this message as “refreshing”, but I’m at least happy to see some part of the Republican Party not engaging in denialism.