Friedan observes a “frightening passivity” and “boredom” in American children who perform all the activities they are supposed to perform, but without interest. Students in college were especially “apathetic.” They were disinterested in their courses, which they took merely to find certain jobs, and were incapable of planning activities. A curriculum geared toward the students’ interests was no longer suitable, for they had no strong interests.
Young people lacked the vibrant and curious personalities of previous generations. They treated school not as a learning opportunity but as something to train them for the work that they would need to do to earn money to be good consumers. Building a financial prospect was their only interest.
The new passivity was evident, according to Friedan, in the apparition of the “bearded, undisciplined beatnik,” as well as in the rising rates of juvenile delinquency, school dropouts, contractions of venereal disease, and illegitimate pregnancies.
Sex without interest had resulted in a lack of concern for healthcare, but Friedan does not mention how a lack of sex education also contributed.
Those who studied the passive behavior did not blame it on boredom, but on a deterioration of character that was also visible among American GIs who were prisoners of war in Korea. The new GIs became inert in the camps—they did not acquire food or firewood or bother to keep themselves clean.
The GIs’ superiors had the typical view of elders—that the succeeding generation was less hearty than they. They relied on an anecdotal example to validate their view.
Friedan attributes the passivity in boys and girls to mothers who live within the feminine mystique, which dictates that they should live through their children and suffer their children’s distresses and failures as though they were their own. Pop psychology had encouraged this fusion of mothers and children through the promotion of the “symbiosis” concept, which insisted that a mother’s constant loving care was necessary for a child’s emotional growth and should be available “for an indeterminate number of years.”
The “symbiosis” concept had convinced mothers that the best way to parent was to identify completely with the experience of their children. This method discouraged the child’s understanding of him or herself as a distinct individual and resulted in confusion of the mother’s role, which, through her identification, seemed to be that of a peer, not a parent.
The “symbiosis” resulted in disturbed children who were “acting out” the wishes and fantasies of their parents. Parents trying to realize their dreams through their children is nothing new, but the difference in the 1950s was that the mothers were “infantile” and sought gratification through their children because they did not know how to gratify themselves.
Children tried to conform to their parents’ expectations instead of forming their own desires. This differed from previous generations due to the excessive presence of the mother and her over-reliance on her children for her own sense of validation.
According to the psychiatrist Andras Angyal, there are two ways of evading growth: noncommitment and vicarious living. An uncommitted person goes through life “playing a role,” taking on jobs and marriages without being committed to any of them. Vicarious living denies one’s own personality in favor of another, perhaps the one that is most popular at the time.
Many housewives had assumed the role without thinking about whether they wanted to or if the role was suited to them. To conform to the feminine mystique, some women pretended to take an interest in housework and mothering when they would have been better suited to other things.
To Friedan, noncommitment and vicarious living were the methods by which women who were trapped in the feminine mystique lived their lives. Playing roles had left them confused about who they really were; in a few cases, it led to suicide.
The absence of a sense of identity had left some women so lost that they felt no reason to continue living. The feminine mystique had left them with no sense of purpose.
In the 1950s, “the housewife’s syndrome” included mild symptoms, such as “bleeding blisters” and “nervousness,” as well as more severe conditions, such as heart attacks, bleeding ulcers, hypertension, and psychotic breakdowns.
Just as anxiety could create reproductive dysfunction, it also resulted in other maladies. The “mistaken choice” had not only resulted in a kind of psychic death, it threatened one’s mortality.
The greater rate of breakdowns existed among “housewife-mothers” who shared certain characteristics in common. They had quit high school or college and came from backgrounds that had traditionally encouraged dependency among women. They had never done anything on their own, so they had never learned how to handle the stress of hard work. They had no ambitions other than to marry an ambitious man.
The women Friedan describes were completely reliant on their husbands, due to their lack of an education and the fact that they had never pursued any independent activity. Unlike some other women, they had no memory of independence before marriage. This made them feel more deeply trapped by the “mystique” and more convinced that there was no other option for women.
Sometimes, in their drive to be very good wives and mothers, “housewife-mothers” ended up playing a very “masculine,” dominant role. The housewife-mother dominated her children’s lives, nagged her husband to perform household tasks, managed the finances, and supervised education and recreation.
Because she relied on her husband and children to feel successful and worthwhile, they had to conform to her image of what success looked like. Therefore, the home and the family had to maintain an appearance of excellence.
An investigation into an affluent Westchester community with a “world famous” school system discovered graduates with excellent grades who performed poorly in college. Investigators discovered that the students’ mothers had been doing their homework, even writing their term papers.
The mothers’ obsession with their children’s academic success caused them to miss the point of education: the enrichment of their children’s minds. This purpose mattered less than satisfying the mother’s need to see her children outperform others—at least “on paper.”
Children who never achieve selfhood usually have emotionally immature mothers. The mother’s constant care of her children is not a natural response, but the result of her idea of what good mothering ought to look like.
Mothers had learned this idea from social scientists who had advocated functionalism and the “symbiosis” concept. Freudian theory suggested that this was the only normal way for them to attain a sense of achievement.
Young women whose overly involved mothers had pushed them into early sexuality became housewives who continued to evade emotional growth. In some communities, such as Bergen County, New Jersey, the rate of marital separation, which precedes divorce, was 100% during the 1950s. This was the result of early sexualization. Millions of young people in the 1960s married before the age of twenty. Girls married because they did not want to work anymore and young men married to get regular sex and “a motherly woman in the house.”
By marrying before they had achieved a sense of individuality, couples relied too much on their partners for satisfaction. Young men did not want partners as much as they wanted mothers, to replace the overly-involved mothers whose homes they had just left. The feminine mystique had created a cycle in which people shirked personal growth in favor of the comforts of sex and motherliness.
As women became more passive, men became more hostile. If a woman felt hostile toward her husband, she did not “dare” take it out on him but exercised her hostility on their child. The University of Colorado Hospital reported 302 cases of child battery within a single year. Experts predicted that child abuse would become a more frequent cause of death than diseases, such as “leukemia, cystic fibrosis, and muscular dystrophy.”
Frustration with the sense that circumstances could not change led some mothers to take out their frustrations on their children. Friedan makes a generalization here, not accounting for numerous other factors—poverty, mental illness, alcoholism—that would have contributed. However, immaturity could have been a factor, too.
Immaturity in human relationships had resulted in youth worship, a “sick love affair” with one’s own children, sex that was “divorced from a human framework,” and a series of stories that portrayed love affairs between humans and animals. This would continue as long as the feminine mystique encouraged women to avoid their own growth in favor of a “passive childlike dependency.”
Men and women could not get to know each other, for they had never gotten to know themselves. To avoid self-knowledge, they took refuge in childhood. The fascinations with children and animals may have been a form of transference: an expression of women’s desire to be doted upon unconditionally.
Friedan insists that being a housewife often resulted in “a sense of emptiness” and “non-existence” similar to that experienced by prisoners in Nazi camps who “surrendered their human identity.” Friedan turns to reports on the observations of the psychoanalyst and educational psychologist Bruno Bettelheim who noted that when prisoners entered the Nazi camps, they were cut off from their adult interests. The only world that mattered was that of the concentration camp. As they became more preoccupied with their basic animal needs, such as their waning sexualities, they lost their human identities.
Friedan makes this shocking connection to awaken the reader, for whom the shock of the Holocaust would have been relatively recent, to the depth of damage that obedience to the feminine mystique wreaked on women’s psyches. In Friedan’s view, the Holocaust was a human rights tragedy, but society’s determination to oppress women was also a violation of human rights. Society’s indifference to the problem suggested that women had been deemed less than human.
It brought the prisoners some comfort to know that everyone was in the same circumstance. However, no camaraderie grew out of this knowledge. They instead became filled with rage. Yet, they did not turn this rage against the officers who imprisoned them; instead, they took their anger out on each other. They had been manipulated to trap themselves in the prison and to feel empowered only when they could dominate someone weaker than they. Those who survived the concentration camps did so because they retained some memory and attachment to the world beyond the camp.
Friedan uses this analogy to suggest that women were more likely to victimize each other than they were to challenge the system that conspired to keep them from being full participants in society. Women who went mad or who committed suicide had lost touch with reality outside of the feminine mystique, just like prisoners in the Nazi camps. Women who “survived” the mystique retained memory of who they were before they conformed.
Of course, American women were not “being readied for mass extermination,” but they had suffered “a slow death of mind and spirit.” If educated women were unable to “adjust” to their role as housewives, then, according to Friedan, they must have outgrown the role.
The descent of women from boredom into hopelessness was the result of being forced into circumstances that denied their agency in aspiring to a full life of their choosing. Life had been determined for them, as it was for the prisoners of Nazi camps.
By forcing themselves to adjust to the role, women were walking into a concentration camp where they became less than human, vulnerable to outside pressures, and fearful of losing their sexual potency. To escape the “camp,” Friedan insists that women needed to “recapture their sense of self” and “begin to grow.”
The feminine mystique was the “concentration camp” in which women functioned only as sex objects and consumers. Like the prisoners of Nazi camps, they were marked, but in this case by biological characteristics that doomed them to limited existences.