Suburban housewives in the 1950s and early-1960s each struggled alone with the problem that has no name. It was a feeling of dissatisfaction, of wondering, while she made the beds and packed her children’s lunches, if this was all she would ever do with her life.
Both the voices of tradition and of “Freudian sophistication” told women that they should “glory” in their femininity by focusing on marriage, rearing children, learning how to buy the best appliances, cooking gourmet meals, ensuring that their husbands lived long lives, and making sure their sons stayed out of trouble.
Women were overwhelmed with messages telling them to conform to the domestic role, which exploited women for corporate interests and for their free domestic labor within the home. Women were responsible for the care of everyone but themselves.
Truly “feminine” women pitied career women and devoted their ambitions to finding husbands instead. By the end of the 1950s, “the average marriage age” had dropped to 20. Some girls were getting married in high school and some young women still in college were having babies, starting families that would have four, five, or six children.
Young women were identifying femininity with their biological function of childbearing. Their own development was seen as a secondary priority to that of raising a child. Making matters worse, women seemed eager to prove their fertility by having as many children as possible.
Many women never left their homes, except to shop, take their children places, or attend an event with their husbands. Some held part-time jobs as sales clerks or secretaries, but usually only to help with household expenses, or to support their husbands or sons who were pursuing higher education.
The desire to fulfill an unattainable domestic ideal had isolated housewives. They left the home only to fulfill the needs of others. Income which they earned did not really belong to them but went toward the household.
The image of the suburban housewife was part of the American Dream. The culture had convinced women that consumerism—the right to choose cars, appliances, and supermarkets—made them equal to their husbands. The housewife’s only concern was to have the perfect home. She had little concern for what went on outside of it. On census reports, these women designated “housewife” as their occupation.
The purchase and maintenance of objects became women’s jobs, keeping them too busy to concern themselves with anything that went on outside of their homes. Convincing them that they had legitimate occupations kept many of them from seeking work outside of the household.
Women who reported dissatisfaction believed that something must have been wrong with their marriages or with themselves. They did not understand their problem, which had nothing to do with sex, and classified themselves as “neurotic”—others denied that any problem existed at all.
Women explained their dissatisfaction as a flaw or blemish that had to be removed, as though it were a spot of dirt in the house. When that did not work, they convinced themselves that their anxiety had no real cause.
Friedan talked to women all over the country who reported similar feelings of dissatisfaction. The problem that had no name was a feeling of emptiness that women tried to numb by taking tranquilizers, redecorating the house, moving to another house, having an affair, or having another baby.
Women attempted to self-medicate with drugs. When that did not work, they retreated more deeply into their homes, using housework to distract from their feelings. Others sought fulfillment by developing passions for lovers or fixating on their children.
News media that explored the problem attributed it to superficial causes, such as “incompetent appliance repairmen.” Most others blamed education which they believed had failed to prepare women for their roles as housewives. Some advocated eliminating four-year education for women altogether, while others suggested preparing for domestic work with high school workshops on household appliances.
Media trivialized the problem, hoping to avoid the notion that gender roles were to blame. Functionalism was so deeply rooted in culture that some people believed that education which did not reinforce women’s domestic role was useless. Suggested coursework also supported women’s roles as consumers.
The problem that has no name was dismissed by some who argued that housewives had an advantage in not having to go to work. Others said that their condition was simply an aspect of being a woman. Still others thought that these women were more advantaged than previous generations due to their ability to take part in their husbands’ lives, such as accompanying them on their business trips.
The perceived “advantage” lay in being dependent on men. Though some women had the benefit of traveling when they accompanied their husbands on business trips, they went with little else to do but appear as accessories to their husbands. They had no purpose of their own.
According to some psychiatrists, unmarried women patients were happier than married ones. However, single, divorced, and widowed women were “frenzied” in “their desperate search for a man.” They joined political clubs, learned to play golf, and partook in other activities that they believed usually attracted men, all with the aim of meeting one.
The feminine mystique encouraged women to misrepresent themselves in an effort to find husbands. Unmarried women sought out activities that they believed attracted men to avoid the stigma of being alone.
Friedan does not accept the notion that American women in the 1950s should have been happier because they had more material advantages than their predecessors. On the contrary, buying more things could only make them feel worse. Women with the problem that has no name spent their lives in pursuit of the feminine mystique. The older ones, in their forties and fifties, had other dreams, which they gave up. The young ones in their twenties never had any other dream.
The constant consumption of products could not address women’s sense of purposelessness. Advertisers, social scientists, and psychoanalysts contributed to the notion that women were most content in their domestic roles. Women in their twenties, raised on the feminine mystique, never knew anything else, while older women accepted it in order to conform.
Being housewives had made American women’s lives frantic. They spent all day doing chores or performing services for their families. They reported feeling “trapped,” waiting at home all day for their husbands to come home and hoping that, at night, they would feel “alive” through sex. In addition to seeking fulfillment through their husbands, they also sought it, through her children, whose lives they micromanaged.
Due to an inability to find satisfaction through personal interests, housewives directed their energies outward. A lot of their excess, pent-up energy was exhausted through sex. They were allowed this outlet due to its role in the fulfillment of women’s sex-role function: that of procreation.
Doctors in the 1950s reported patients with “housewife’s fatigue.” These very tired women slept “as much as ten hours a day” and many took tranquilizers regularly.
In their excessive state of boredom, women convinced themselves that they were tired. Some induced sleep to avoid facing the dullness of another day in their purposeless lives.
Having interviewed many women who were listening to their inner voices, Friedan believes that they were realizing a truth that had eluded experts, such as educators and psychiatrists. Friedan notes that her discoveries present challenges to widely-accepted standards in feminine normality, adjustment, fulfillment, and maturity—standards according to which many women are still trying to live. Beginning to understand the problem that has no name is “far more important than anyone recognizes,” and “may well be the key to our future as a nation and a culture.”
The truth of women’s lives could not come from self-appointed experts, but from women themselves—who needed to be trusted with reporting on their own experiences. The experts had validated the feminine mystique and convinced women that an inability to live according to its standards signaled maladjustment and abnormal behavior. This pressure to conform had silenced women and made them ashamed of their problem.