Friedan went in search of a real-life example of the happy, modern housewife. In some instances, she found women who had transitioned from housewifery to careers. In other instances, she found women who fit “the new image of feminine fulfillment,” but Friedan wondered if they were truly fulfilled. In one upper middle-class community, “there were twenty-eight wives,” some who had graduated from college and others who had quit. Their husbands were professionals. Only one wife was a career woman, the others were devoted to family life and spent a little time doing community work. Most had had natural childbirths, breast-fed their babies, and were pregnant at or near the age of forty. They were so devoted to the feminine mystique that they encouraged their daughters to become “a wife and mother, like mummy.”
Friedan found women who had devoted themselves to the ideal of femininity. Though their husbands still retained contact with the world outside of their families and their communities, most of these women were relatively isolated and mostly communicated with other women like themselves. This isolation led them to see their roles as not only normal, but natural. The sole “career woman” was an outlier in the group. Because so many women viewed their gender roles as “normal,” they expected their daughters to perform the same role and instilled the message into the children before they were old enough to challenge the message.
When Friedan looked deeper, she saw that “sixteen out of twenty-eight” of these women were in analysis. Most were taking tranquilizers, and a few had attempted suicide. Others had been hospitalized for depression or psychosis. Twelve of them were having extramarital affairs “in fact or fantasy.” These housewives, who were envied for their homes, marriages, and children, could not find fulfillment in anything. They had a sense of purpose when their children were little. Some, therefore, continued to have children, but they knew that they could not keep having babies just to feel like somebody.
Though these women represented an ideal and worked hard to create the appearance of happiness, they were discontent. Their longing to express themselves creatively manifested in having more children, which was the only way in which they believed they could contribute to the world. Because their sense of creativity relied on their sex function, they could only feel a sense of value by having children.
Friedan noted that the housewives in this community were always busy with chores, chauffeuring their children, gardening, or helping with homework. She studied two households in which two wives in their thirties lived. Mrs. W. was a full-time housewife who was busy for most of the day with household duties. Mrs. D. was a microbiologist who did her chores before work. Friedan wonders why Mrs. W. claimed never to have additional time, not even to read in the evenings, when she lived in a house that was the same size as Mrs. D.’s.
To feel as though they were doing something important with their lives, women constantly performed tasks around the house or in service of their families. Because housework did not consume the time of an actual job, they had to expand it to make it feel more substantive. The result was that they had little time left to perform other activities.
Friedan found the same pattern when comparing women who identified as “housewives” to career women, both in the suburbs and in the cities. Housewives always seemed to spend more time on housework—a phenomenon which Friedan attributed to the expansion of housework, “mother-work,” and other household duties to make up for her lack of a function in society. Appliances did not, in fact, save the housewife time. Instead, they compelled her to spend even more time on household chores than her mother did. The boredom and the “empty feeling” that housewives experienced led them to perform more chores than necessary.
Women had conformed to the idea that they were serving their social function as wives and mothers who were committed to housework. However, serving this function did not stimulate them or relieve their feeling of not having anything to do. Due to their commitment to the feminine mystique, they dedicated themselves to performing more chores instead of finding other ways to occupy their time.
Women, Friedan discovered, tended to move to the suburbs after deciding to give up a “job or profession” to become “a full-time housewife.” On the other hand, a woman who pursues a “definite professional goal is less likely to move to the suburbs.” Women in the suburbs tend not to take on interesting community work out of fear that it will take time away from their families. Thus, the interesting volunteer jobs, particularly leadership posts, are filled by men.
American families believed that suburban life was most compatible with family life. Women gave up their active lives in the city to settle full-time in their homes and into the work of maintaining their homes. Though they were interested in serving others outside of the family, the “mystique” convinced them they should remain at home.
Friedan notes the popularity of open-plan houses and how they do not really offer any privacy—they are “one free-flowing room where women can expand their housework and never really be alone.” The housewife convinces herself that she must always watch after her children, lest they be deprived of something in her absence.
The “symbiosis” concept fostered the idea that the mother should always be present—always visible, even—to her children so that they would never feel abandoned. This idea was even manifested in the architecture of the time, which eliminated the boundaries that gave a sense of privacy.
The trend of “togetherness” convinced many women that the key to happiness lay in sharing in their husband and children’s lives. They insisted that their husbands share the housework, but that still did not compensate for the feeling housewives had of being “shut out of the larger world.”
When husbands helped with housework, they were fulfilling one role in their lives among others. For women, the performance of household chores was their only role. Their commitment to their singular role insulated them from society.
A male Minneapolis schoolteacher undermined the notion that a housewife’s work was an “interminable chore” by taking over a suburban home and performing all necessary chores and other household duties within a day. Studies validated his claim that women were working “more than twice as hard as thy should.”
When a working man performed the same work that a housewife performed each day, his example proved that, when one was free of guilt or was dedicated to other things in life outside of housework, they could perform household chores easily and quickly, then move on to other activities.
Housewives complained of an incessant “tired feeling” which doctors either dismissed or attempted to treat with pills, vitamins, injections, diets, or tranquilizers. Other doctors found that women got “as much or more sleep than they [needed]” and attributed the feeling to boredom.
To avoid having to face the dullness of their day-to-day lives, women retreated into sleep. This preference for sleep suggests a wish for death, or unconsciousness, to avoid the incessant sense of purposelessness.
Women’s magazines published ideas for “cures” for fatigue, including more praise from husbands, not demanding too much from oneself, and trying to find honest enjoyment in one aspect of the job, such as cooking. For the housewives whom Friedan interviewed, the problem was not having too much to do, “but too little.” Those who had nothing to do passed the time by drinking alcohol or eating excessively.
Boredom had resulted in harmful and addictive behavior. Women relied on food and alcohol to provide them with comfort or to give them something to do. Women’s magazines reinforced the mystique by encouraging women to focus more on housework to feel happy or to remain “other-directed” by relying on praise.
Some social critics commented that when men performed chores, the chores interfered with their careers. However, Friedan found that men did not allow housework to interfere with their careers. When men did housework, it was because their wives worked or made a career out of housework, which made them unable to complete all tasks. When housework did expand to fill a man’s available time, it seemed to be an excuse “for not meeting the challenge of their own careers.”
Housework could serve as a distraction for either gender in instances in which boredom took over one’s life. Friedan’s study shows that women were not naturally more inclined to do housework, but focused on it more out of the sense of having nothing else to do. Men were more likely to help with housework when their wives were not housewives who made chores their job.
Women who could afford servants fired them so that they could dedicate more time to housework, due to an inability to find any other activities that would give them a sense of purpose. Though the housewife expanded her time available to perform housework, it still presented little challenge or stimulation to the adult mind. Some housewives tried to make up for the lack of a challenge by becoming home “experts.” This made the women hard to live with, for the wives sometimes treated their husbands like “part-time servants.”
The tendency to become domestic “experts” was the result of advertising, which made housewives feel that housework was a career of sorts, as well as of the feminine mystique more generally, which had convinced women that the household was their rightful domain. The sense of expertise convinced them that there was no better way to spend their time, an attitude that impacted their sense of intimacy with their husbands.