Women who forfeited their existences to live according to the feminine mystique suffered from the problem that has no name. They adjusted to an image and, in doing so, also “evaded” the freedom that frightened them. Throughout the world, “normal feminine adjustment” entails not realizing the full possibilities of one’s existence. The housewife lacked a personal purpose which extended into the future, a purpose that would help her achieve self-realization.
Women who accepted the feminine mystique defined themselves according to their youth and fertility. The “mystique” had convinced women that they had little value beyond what their bodies could offer. Having no other way to identify themselves, women feared getting old, which they thought meant no longer having a purpose.
If the fundamental need is neither that of pleasure or the service of a biological function, but instead the development of one’s human nature, then a woman’s existence is in danger, despite having lived according to the tenets of femininity which encouraged her to find fulfillment in being a wife and a mother.
American women had obediently done the things that society had expected of them, believing that cooperation would prevent unhappiness when the reality of their lives had proven the opposite.
In American culture, the development of women had been stunted at “the physiological level,” with no needs met other than those for love and sexual pleasure. Their needs for strength, self-esteem, achievement, and confidence in their abilities were not met. Being a housewife did not grant women self-esteem because the “occupation” did not allow for the full expression of women’s abilities.
Advertisers had tried to convince women that the right household products could help them meet their unmet needs. However, housework was not real work, but, for many women, just a diversion to distract them from feeling as though their lives were going to waste.
Women can never know sexual fulfillment or human love until they achieve their full strength as human beings. The feminine mystique, which granted women the choice between “being a woman” and engaging in human development, limited the range of possibilities.
The “mystique” drew a distinction between womanhood, which was related to biological function and feminine role play, and humanity.
Psychologist A.H. Maslow studied the relationship between sexuality and “dominance feeling,” or “self-esteem,” among women in the 1930s. He found that the more “dominant,” or self-confident, women tended to enjoy their sexualities more. They were not oversexed, but more comfortable with themselves.
Women with higher self-esteem were better able to relax and learn what they liked sexually instead of believing that they were fulfilled through the satisfaction of men.
Maslow found that high-dominance women were not conventionally “feminine” because they felt free to choose how to express themselves. On the other hand, low-dominance women did not break rules. High-dominance women were also less “self-centered’ and tended to direct their concerns toward others and “to problems of the world.” The low-dominance woman was “other-directed”—that is, she behaved according to others’ expectations and, therefore, did not feel as comfortable as the high-dominance woman with getting angry.
“Low-dominance women” felt obligated to fulfill the expectations of femininity which required women to be pleasant and agreeable. Being “other-directed” required the repression of one’s true feelings in favor of being “nice” or “polite.” Women with high self-esteem believed that their feelings were as valid as those of a man and were based on personal responses, not their gender.
For Maslow, there was a link between “strength of self and sexuality.” The problem, though, was that women lived in a society that hardly made self-actualization possible for women, which reduced their likelihood to experience pleasure from love and sex.
Women who felt good about themselves were more likely to experience sexual pleasure, but society encouraged women to focus on their sense of inadequacy, instead.
In American society, love is usually defined as the fusion of egos—"a giving up of individuality rather than a strengthening of it.” However, in self-actualizing people, love strengthens individuality. These people are also more likely to be honest and experience intimacy. The feminine mystique had promised women fulfillment through an abdication of selfhood. However, their problems were largely due to the suppression of their beings.
By abdicating selfhood, women formed obsessive and unhealthy attachments to others, particularly their husbands and children, which fostered resentment and threatened their relationships. Women who saw themselves as individuals were more likely to seek love based on their wish to share themselves, not out of a “parasitic” need.
A study by Alfred Kinsey showed that increased freedom for women coincided with an increased ability to reach orgasm. The study also showed that women who had educations beyond college had orgasms “all or almost all” of the times they had sex, while those who had married before the age of twenty were least likely to have orgasms.
Women who were better educated were more likely to know about their bodies and to understand their personalities well enough to know what kind of intimacy they desired. Younger, less self-aware women did not have this advantage.
Women’s rights coincided with greater sexual fulfillment for men and women, for they had validated women’s subjectivity. The feminine mystique had rendered women as passive objects of a man’s sexual pleasure.
Women’s rights movements sought to help women see themselves as individuals with valid personal experiences that were separate from others’ needs.
Other studies, particularly that by Ernest W. Burgess and Leonard S. Cottrell, showed that women’s chances of marital happiness increased when “their career preparation increased.” The sociologists found that, the higher a woman’s income was at the time of her marriage, the likelier she was to be sexually satisfied.
Women with stable incomes felt self-reliant and valued. Friedan insists that wage-earning is essential to building a woman’s self-esteem and independence. With less economic dependence on men, sex was something women could enjoy rather than another form of unpaid labor.
Helene Deutsch, an eminent psychoanalyst, suggested, at a psychoanalytic conference, that maybe “too much emphasis had been put on the orgasm for women” and that, perhaps only “a more diffuse fulfillment” than orgasm was more realistic for women.
It is possible that Friedan is taking Deutsch’s comment out of context, but Friedan’s point is that the analyst was trying to convince women that sexual pleasure was less important than security in their sex role.
In contexts not concerned with women, analysts believed that passive people who feel empty psychologically and who have not developed “adequate egos” cannot experience orgasms due to fears of “their own non-existence” which are triggered by the loss of control.
If women who had surrendered to the “mystique” were, as Friedan posited, similar to prisoners in a concentration camp, then they would have been too desensitized by their living conditions to experience sexual pleasure.
If sex had a “depressive” quality for some Americans, particularly for the female “sex-seekers,” it was because people were using sex as a means to search for a sense of identity. Friedan argues that people are most likely to achieve self-actualization through work and by being in the service “of a human purpose larger than themselves.” Work could be seen as “the key to the problem that has no name.”
In her definition of work, Friedan acknowledges the value of community service, but insists that women must find paid work, for our capitalist society demonstrates a person’s value through money. She does not give as much credence to the notion that women could find great purpose in volunteering.
Traditionally, American women had worked, as pioneers on the frontier, and “beside their husbands in sweatshops and laundries.” To European travelers, American women seemed “less feminine” and “childlike” compared to European women due to their willingness to share in work, as well as their participation in education.
Before conforming to the “mystique” Friedan notes that white American women played a more equal role to men—a role which did not permit their infantilization. This willingness to work was unusual among white women because of slavery.
The South African writer Olive Schreiner warned, at the turn of the century, that the “quality and quantity” of women’s social functions were decreasing “as fast as civilization was advancing.” If women did not share equally in work, their minds would weaken, their offspring would weaken, and, eventually, all of civilization would “deteriorate.”
Schreiner had forecast the research that Friedan uncovered in the middle of the twentieth-century. Women who did not work passed their boredom and purposelessness onto their children who would grow into less concerned and less productive citizens.
To break out of the housewife trap, or the “comfortable concentration camp,” women could not find their identities through others, but had to find it in work that made use of their capacities. Only that personal commitment could help them fulfill their “unique possibilities” as distinct individuals.