♀ 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 Sex-Directed Educators

Photograph by  diepuppenstubensammlerin  via  Photopin  ( cc ).

Photograph by diepuppenstubensammlerin via Photopin (cc).

This is the seventh 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.

When I was in college we used to joke about women getting their “MRS degree”—a stupid, sexist joke predicated on the notion that most women at an evangelical college probably want to get married more than they want to get a degree. Most of the students came from conservative backgrounds, so many of the women probably had been conditioned to assume they would marry soon after college and start cranking out the babies. Certainly a vague sense of unease began to creep across each class of women as they neared matriculation without serious prospects in that direction. No one discouraged women from taking their studies seriously, though. Everyone I knew would have been appalled at the idea of deliberately steering women away from academia.

In the 1940s and ’50s, though, educators and guidance counselors were doing exactly that. Having bought into the oversimplified lie of functionalism, society decided that because women needed to be “feminine” to be happy girls should be encouraged to skip serious academic or professional study. In part they were reacting to what many saw as a failing of the earlier feminist movement: that enabling and supporting education for women broadened their horizons and made them discontented with domestic life. Betty Friedan quotes Lynn White, former president of Mills College:

On my desk lies a letter from a young mother, a few years out of college:

“I have come to realize that I was educated to be a successful man and must now learn by myself to be a successful woman.” The basic irrelevance of much of what passes as women’s education in American could not be more compactly phrased… The failure of our educational system to take into account these simple and basic differences between the life patterns of average men and women is at least in part responsible for the deep discontent and restlessness which affects millions of women….

It would seem that if women are to restore their self-respect they must reverse the tactics of the older feminism which indignantly denied inherent differences in the intellectual and emotional tendencies of men and women. (Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. Norton & Company, 1997, p. 159)

White and others advocated that women, instead of preparing for a career outside the home, should take courses—actual college courses—that would prepare them to be wives and mothers. Friedan refers to them as “the sex-directed educators”:

Instead of opening new horizons and wider worlds to able women, the sex-directed educator moved in to teach them adjustment within the world of home and children. Instead of teaching truths to counter the popular prejudices of the past, or critical ways of thinking against which prejudice cannot survive, the sex-directed educator handed girls a sophisticated soup of uncritical prescriptions and presentiments, far more binding on the mind and prejudicial to the future than the traditional do’s and don’ts. (157–158)

This, of course, applied only to girls who actually chose to go to college, but more and more women began to opt out of higher education as a result of this sort of ideology. High school guidance counselors began to steer young women away from further education or encourage them to take less academically-rigorous courses, even during their secondary education.

When Dr. James B. Conant went across the nation to find out what was wrong with the American high school, he discovered too many students were taking easy how-to courses which didn’t really stretch their minds. Again, most of those who should have been studying physics, advanced algebra, analytic geometry, four years of language—and were not—were girls. They had the intelligence, the special gift which was not sex-directed, but they also had the sex-directed attitude that such studies were “unfeminine.” (161)

Even some middle schools had started conditioning girls to think of themselves in gender-essentialized terms, using a lesson plan called “The Slick Chick”, which taught the “do’s and don’ts” of dating to girls as young as eleven.

Though many have nothing yet with which to fill a brassiere, they are told archly not to wear a sweater without one, and to be sure to wear slips so boys can’t see through their skirts. It is hardly surprising that by the sophomore year, many bright girls in this high school are more than conscious of their sexual function, bored with all the subjects in school, and have no ambition other than to marry and have babies. (162)

How unsurprising, then, that fewer and fewer women were going on to college. Among Indiana high school graduates in 1955, 85% of the boys who ranked in the top 10% of their classes went on to college; for girls that number was only 64%. Girls also dropped out of college at a higher rate than boys; the graduation rate for women in the ’50s was 37%, as opposed to 55% for men. Because colleges were growing more and more selective, the girls who were accepted tended to be among the strongest academically, and they were therefore less likely to drop out because of academic failure. Rather, they were quitting to get married. (162–163)

Even among those who did graduate from college, an attitude of disinterest in academics began to grow, forcing the few women who retained a passion for their studies to pretend a blitheness they didn’t feel. Friedan visited many colleges and universities, talking to women across the country, and she found them disturbingly disconnected from the ostensible purpose of attending college. Whereas Friedan recalls staying after class, or up late in the dorms, with her classmates, talking about politics, art, religion, sex, and philosophy, the college girls of the late ’50s and ’60s were talking about dates they’d been on, boys they’d met, and their future plans for marriage and children. They were no longer interested in “issues”, or at least had to pretend not to be.

A dark-eyed senior in a raincoat admitted, as a kind of secret addiction, that she liked to wander around the stacks in the library and “pick up books that interest me.”

You learn freshman year to turn up your nose at the library. Lately though—well, it hits you, that you won’t be at college next year. Suddenly you wish you’d read more, talked more, taken hard courses you skipped. So you’d know what you’re interested in. But I guess those things don’t matter when you’re married. You’re interested in your home and teaching your children how to swim and skate, at and night you talk to your husband. I think we’ll be happier than college women used to be. (153)

As a result, fewer and fewer women had any real direction or purpose after bearing and raising children. They had never done the hard work of advancing fully into adulthood, choosing instead to embrace the childish dependence of being kept women with no need to form outside interests or determine their own passions and strengths. As their children began to leave the nest, they found they had nothing to do—no real identity. A study of Vassar graduates conducted in 1956 found some disturbing trends:

  1. Twenty or twenty-five years out of college, these women measured lower than seniors on the “Development Scale” which covered the whole gamut of mental, emotional, and personal growth. They did not lose all the growth achieved in college (alumnae scored higher than freshmen) but—in spite of the psychological readiness for further growth at twenty-one—they did not keep growing.

  2. These women were, for the most part, adjusted as suburban housewifes, conscientious mothers, active in their communities. But, except for the professional career women, they had not continued to pursue deep interests of their own. There seemed some reason to believe that the cessation of growth was related to the lack of deep personal interests, the lack of an individual commitment.

  3. The women who, twenty years later, were most troubling to the psychologist were the most conventionally feminine—the ones who were not interested, even in college, in anything except finding a husband. (177)

Friedan ultimately blames women themselves for rejecting education and career when it was offered to them, albeit in misleading pseudo-scientific terms. But I don’t know that I agree. Women should certainly be able to choose early marriage and limited education if they want, without being judged. But the choice should be informed, not based on well-meaning lies—or it doesn’t really qualify as “choice”.

♀ The Functional Freeze, the Feminine Protest, and Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead

This is the sixth 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.

Yesterday I had a conversation about innate differences between the sexes—specifically: do they exist, beyond the obvious biological level? Since one tactic of feminism is to at least minimize the attention given to any differences between men and women, feminists tend to operate on a practical level as if those differences do not exist. And maybe they don’t. I remain skeptical about the whole thing, since I think most of the available evidence we have on the subject is tainted by sociological assumptions. Conclusive evidence may be practically unattainable. I do think, though, that society as a whole overemphasizes any differences that do exist, which I suspect to be at least fewer and less significant than most people assume.

In the previous chapter of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan covered Freudianism and its contribution to the marginalization of women. In chapter six, she moves on to functionalism, the school of sociology that developed as Freud’s ideas moved into the mainstream. The functionalists attempted to make sociology more scientifically credible by “studying institutions as if they were muscles or bones, in terms of their ‘structure’ and ‘function’ in the social body.” (Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. Norton & Company, 1997, p. 127) This resulted in little actual progress, though:

By studying an institution only in terms of its function within its own society, the social scientists intended to avert unscientific value judgments. In practice, functionalism was less a scientific movement than a scientific word-game. “The function is” was often translated “the function should be”; the social scientists did not recognize their own prejudices in functional disguise any more than the analysts recognized theirs in Freudian disguise. (127)

While the functionalists moved beyond Freud’s view of “biology as destiny”, they only got as far as “societal norms as destiny”. Despite accurately describing social structures, they never critiqued them, contenting themselves with telling people how to “adjust” instead. (129) In this, they may actually be more culpable than Freud, who at least thought he was expressing a scientific, unchangeable reality. The functionalists acknowledged the potential for equality but dismissed it for reasons of convenience.

For example, functionalism correctly identified the social purpose of complementary roles in marriage—the husband responsible for earning money that would keep the family and household operating, the wife responsible for the actual operations. But it never moved beyond this fairly obvious insight to a deeper analysis of the system, except to point out that if the wife stopped taking care of operations the husband would no longer be free to fulfill his role:

When men and women engage in the same occupations or perform common functions, the complementary relationship may break down. (Bowman, Henry A., Marriage for Moderns. New York, 1942, p. 21)

This ignores the possibility of achieving a better future at the cost of short-term inconvenience or upheaval—a process I think may actually be underway right now.

The most influential of these thinkers, at least with regard to the role of women in society, was Margaret Mead. (Friedan 135) Mead completed extensive anthropological research among three different tribes in Papua New Guinea: the Arapesh, among whom both men and women displayed traits traditionally considered “feminine”; the Mundugumor, both of whose sexes were “aggressive” and “masculine”; and the Tchambuli, whose women Mead claimed were more dominant and independent (this claim has since been disputed). (136) Despite these findings, though, Mead did not (in general) advocate equality or eradication of gender stereotypes. In some of her writing, she hints at the possibility of gender equality:

Just as society now permits the practice of an art to members of either sex, so it might also permit the development of many contrasting temperamental gifts in each sex. It would abandon its various attempts to make boys fight and to make girls remain passive, or to make all children fight…. No child would be relentlessly shaped to one pattern of behavior, but instead there should be many patterns, in a world that had learned to allow to each individual the pattern which was most congenial to his gifts. (Mead, Margaret, From the South Seas. New York, 1939, p. 321)

For the most part, though, Mead skewed functionalist, particularly glorifying the reproductive functions in women. She even attributed the male urge to accomplish and create to a sort of “uterus envy”—a subconscious awareness that women were superior because of their ability to create and nurture new life similar to but opposite Freud’s penis envy. (Friedan 140–141) In her Male and Female, she asks:

If little boys have to meet and assimilate the early shock of knowing that they can never create a baby with the sureness and incontrovertability that is a woman’s birthright, how does this make them more creatively ambitious, as well as more dependent upon achievement?

In a way, this reversed Freud’s subjugation of women, portraying them as superior to men because of their reproductive function. But as any good feminist knows, essentializing one aspect of femininity still keeps women in bondage:

In her insistence that women are human beings—unique human beings, not men with something missing—she went a step beyond Freud. And yet, because her observations were based on Freud’s bodily analogies, she cut down her own vision of women by glorifying the mysterious miracle of femininity. (Friedan 145)

Mead’s emphasis on reproduction meant that she retained a belief in the importance of defined gender roles; women needed to be at home fulfilling the ever-so-important function of making and raising new humans. Moreover, because women were privileged with this role, they owed it to men to let them have the less-important but still necessary function of achieving and accomplishing.

This is what Friedan refers to as “the feminine protest”—an elevation of what society called femininity over masculinity, in opposition to the “masculine protest” that functionalists claimed led women who envied men to take on typically “masculine” characteristics. (127) In response to functionalism, particularly Mead’s writings, women embraced their “femininity” and ability to create life, making a lifelong pursuit of this gender essentialism. (147)

Mead eventually began to reject the real-life impact of this philosophy, though, lamenting in 1962 the “return of the cavewoman”:

Why have we returned, despite our advances in technology, to the Stone Age picture? … Woman has gone back, each to her separate cave, waiting anxiously for her mate and children to return, guarding her mate jealously against other women, almost totally unaware of any life outside her door… In this retreat into fecundity, it is not the individual woman who is to blame. It is the climate of opinion that has developed in this country…." (Mead, Margaret, American Women: The Changing Image. 1962)

But despite Mead’s contribution to the perpetuation of the feminine mystique, Friedan credits her with good intentions, and even—to an extent—positive results:

Perhaps the feminine protest was a necessary step after the masculine protest made by some of the feminists. Margaret Mead was one of the first women to emerge into prominence in American life after rights for women were won… And she was able to say with conviction: it’s good to be a woman, you don’t need to copy man, you can respect yourself as a woman… It was a step forward in the passionate journey—and one made possible by it—for educated women to say “yes” to motherhood as a conscious human purpose and not a burden imposed by the flesh. (Friedan 147)

♀ 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.  ↩<



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 Passionate Journey

Lucy Stone

Lucy Stone

This is the fourth 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.

I peeked ahead at this chapter while I was reviewing the previous chapter, so I knew in advance that Betty Friedan was not yet ready to begin directly addressing the problems of her day. In “The Passionate Journey” she re-tells in brief some of the stories of the first-wave feminists.

Easily the most entrancing chapter of the book for me (so far), chapter 4 gives me a history lesson during my history lesson, beginning in 1848 at the first Woman’s Rights Convention. The list of woman’s grievances against man, formulated at the convention, reads long and takes deliberate cues from the Declaration of Independence. Its claims amount to not a repression or diminishing but a dehumanizing of women. (Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. Norton & Company, 1997, pp. 84–85)

He has compelled her to submit to laws in the formation of which she has no voice… He has made her, if married, in the eyes of the law, civilly dead. He has taken from her all right to property, even to the wages she earns… He closes against her all the avenues of wealth and distinction which he considers most honorable to himself… He has created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society are not only tolerated, but deemed of little account to man. He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and to her God. He has endeavored in every way that he could to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.

No wonder relatively ordinary women felt compelled to rise up and demand redress, with no property rights, no right to education, no right to vote, and a double standard of morality that condemned as heinous in women that which was tolerated in men. (84) Friedan easily dispels the notion that the early feminists were man-eaters or man-haters; the majority of the movement’s leaders loved and married, and they fought to achieve personhood for woman, not the overthrow of man. (82) In rejecting the model of femininity dictated to them by society, though, they reshaped themselves in such a way as to be unrecognizable to the patriarchy of the day, which vilified and mischaracterized them to a degree that in hindsight seems laughable: “red harlot of infidelity”, “woman a thousand times below a prostitute”, “unnatual monsters”. (86–87)

Their actual character reads differently. Lucy Stone, whom opponents described as “a big, masculine woman, wearing boots, smoking a cigar, swearing like a troooper”, was actually small, soft-spoken, and conventionally-dressed. Although she resisted marriage for a long time, it was not through bitterness or even lack of opportunity, but from fear of losing herself as a person. Pursued across the country by Henry Blackwell (whose name she never took), she refused at first to marry him even while admitting she loved him, but at their wedding, the minister said, “The heroic Lucy cried like any village bride.” (89)

Stone put herself through Oberlin College by saving up the $1.00 a week she earned over the course of nine years by teaching. Even there she was not permitted to speak in public, so she practiced on her own out in the woods. (88) Likewise, Elizabeth Blackwell fought an uphill battle to become a woman doctor, pushing to participate in dissection of the human reproductive system despite her gender—although she then, rather paradoxically, elected not to walk in the procession at commencement “because it would not be ladylike”. (96) Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Cady Stanton received their education courtesy of benevolent fathers. Mary Wollstonecraft and Ernestine Rose sought out prominent philosophers of their day. (93) The education denied to them became—once they had forced their way into it—a tool used to liberate themselves and others.

This advantage highlights the most important lesson I took away from this chapter: the importance of privilege in obtaining equality. Although many of these women bootstrapped their way into their education and all faced cultural barriers to its completion, some had money that assisted them. And nearly all the pioneers of feminism Friedan mentions were white women; in fact, many of the earliest to join the movement had also worked as abolitionists. (89, 92)

The call to that first Woman’s Rights Convention came about because an educated woman, who had already participated in shaping society as an abolitionist, came face to face with the realities of a housewife’s drudgery and isolation in a small town. Like the college graduate with six children in the suburb of today, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, moved by her husband to the small town of Seneca Falls, was restless in a life of baking, cooking, sewing, washing and caring for baby. (92–93)

Of course, the early feminists would have achieved nothing without hard work and perseverance, but many started with the privileges that accompanied being white, educated, and comparatively wealthy. Without these privileges, the movement may have taken decades longer to achieve its goals, as no more privileged group came to their aid the way they came to the aid of the slaves.

Furthermore, women ultimately depended on men to enact the legislation that would give them the rights they so fiercely sought, just as the slaves depended on the whites in power to emancipate them from their owners. Short of bloodshed, every oppressed people group must persuade their oppressors to stop oppressing them. They can hold rallies, preach sermons, sign petitions, even engage in civil disobedience—effectively, annoying those in power until they give in (or at least listen with an open mind). But the privileged group have the final word, until they voluntarily give up their privilege and proactively enact equality for those they formerly dominated.

As a person born with the privileges of being male, cisgendered, straight, white, educated, comparatively wealthy, and a member of the dominant religion of our culture, I need to always remember this.

♀ The Crisis in Woman's Identity

Photograph by&nbsp;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

Transient

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!

♀ The Problem That Has No Name

Transient

Being still quite new to feminism, I have a desperate need to educate myself about both the history and philosophy of the movement. Apart from reading two books pulled at random from the “Gender Studies” section of my local Half Price Books over a year ago, I have not made much progress in this direction, but part of the excitement of starting this site came from knowing it would force me to re-engage the more academic aspect of being a feminist. I decided to start with Betty Friedan’s watershed book, The Feminine Mystique, and I will be writing a chapter-by-chapter reaction and analysis over the next few months.

I work for a company that operates group homes for at-risk boys, many of whom grew up in foster care or residential settings. Those who have spent the most time in the Department of Children’s Services’ system—many since early childhood—frequently develop a near-inability to connect their success or failure with their own actions. For example, I recently had the following conversation with an 18-year-old adult in my care who was angry with me for telling him he had to wear dirty clothes because he had no clean ones:

ME: You could have washed them yesterday, when it was laundry day.
ADULT: I know, but I forgot.
ME: Is that my fault?
ADULT: No.
ME: Seems like it was your fault.
ADULT: It wasn’t my fault, though—I forgot!
ME: Whose fault was it, then?
ADULT: No one’s.

I spent 20 minutes talking to this young man about his responsibility to do his own laundry, but he never understood the part he played in the situation. Years in programs like the one I work for have subconsciously taught him that there will always be a grown-up around to take care of him and solve his problems. He has lost agency—become institutionalized.

Reading the first chapter of The Feminine Mystique reminded me of him:

“It’s as if ever since you were a little girl, there’s always been somebody or something that will take care of your life: your parents, or college, or falling in love, or having a child, or moving to a new house.” –A twenty-three-year-old mother in blue jeans[1] (Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. Norton & Company, 1997, p. 22)

Unlike my client, though, the women of the 1960s desperately wanted to recover agency and ownership of their destiny (although they may not have had words to express this). Also unlike my client, no one offered them help or guidance—or the help offered failed to comprehend their actual needs. (19, 21–23) And whereas institutionalization of at-risk children results unintentionally from a system designed to keep them safe and healthy despite their disadvantages, the socioeconomic structures of the 1960s were themselves actively institutionalizing women:

They were taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents. They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights—the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists fought for. (15–16)

Possibly the post-WWII prosperity contributed to the backward slide of feminism; men returned from the front and resumed operation of the economy, relegating women to roles they had only just begun to outgrow in previous decades. The practice having already been established, women continued to attend college, but no longer for any definite purpose apart from husband-hunting. (16) In fact, education only increased the restlessness plaguing women of the day. Friedan summarizes the results of a then-recent study of Barnard College graduates:

A significant minority of earlier graduates blamed their education for making them want “rights,” later classes blamed their education for giving them career dreams, but recent graduates blamed the college for making them feel it was not enough simply to be a housewife and mother. (29)

In typical establishment fashion when disruption threatens, “Home economists suggested more realistic preparation for housewives”, and “College educators suggested more discussion groups on home management and the family, to prepare women for the adjustment to domestic life.” (23) In essence, the culture at large told women to more fully commit to their lot in life in order to find happiness. No one yet realized that a sea change loomed, that existing structures would prove inadequate to cope with the problem at hand.

Not having read past the first chapter I don’t know where Friedan is headed, but I wonder if what women faced in the early sixties was an erosion of the need for women to function strictly as child-bearers and homemakers in order for our species to survive, juxtaposed with a system whose successful operation depended on keeping them in those roles.

In any case, “The Problem That Has No Name” paints a bleak picture of an entire nation of women suffering from a growing malaise—a vague, restless dissatisfaction expressing itself in myriad psychological, sexual, and physical symptoms, and which Friedan labels “The Feminine Mystique”.[2] Looking back from the crest of the third wave it’s easy to see how the root of their problem lay in a culture that regarded them as second-class humans, making it hard to understand (empathetically, though not cognitively) how they could have endured such marginalization for so long.

But I’m sure future chapters will get to that.


  1. I love that a mother wearing blue jeans was a colorful enough character in the early 60s to warrant including that detail in the attribution.  ↩

  2. Embarrassing confession: before reading this book, I had always assumed “the feminine mystique” to be a positive phenomenon; the expression sounds so nice, and people still refer in an approving way to women having mystique.  ↩