Many American housewives believed that they suffered alone from dissatisfaction and were relieved to discover that there were women all over the country who reported similar feelings. They took comfort in talking to Friedan instead of continuing to live in silence. Though the popularity of Freudian psychoanalytic theory had led some to believe that the problem was about sex, it was not. Friedan also noted that women had more difficulty describing the problem that has no name than they did talking about sex.
Many American housewives had been convinced that the only appropriate role for them was that of homemaker. They assumed, based on appearances, that other women were content in that role, which only reinforced their sense of being different. In talking to Friedan, they realized that their discontent was common, though still a source of shame.
American women lived their lives according to a popular image that left something out. For Victorian women, that missing element was sex. Friedan looked to women’s magazines to find out what that missing element was for American women. Friedan examines “a typical issue” of McCall’s magazine, the fastest-growing magazine in the Eisenhower era, from July 1960. In it, she finds articles on courtship and marriage, motherhood, dieting tips, sewing patterns, and a guide on how to find a second husband. Friedan contrasts the prevalence of these articles with the current events of the day, including the Cuban Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, and breakthroughs in visual art and the sciences.
Women’s magazines encouraged the isolation of women into domesticity. As the nation’s role in the world grew more expansive, the role of women became smaller and narrower. The magazines reduced the concerns of the average woman to staying slim, finding a man, having a child, and learning how to create a comfortable home for her family. The average housewife, it seemed, knew nothing about the world beyond her doorstep.
Friedan reports attending a meeting of magazine editors, most of whom were men. They claimed that housewives were not interested in world affairs, “unless it’s related to an immediate need in the home.” Their discussion reminded Friedan of the Nazi era slogan, “Children, Kitchen, Church,” which decreed that women should only be concerned with domestic life and not with what goes on outside of the home.
Men were making the decisions about what women read, and their ideas of what interested women were informed by their own sexist bias. Friedan notes the irony of American editors—working in the nation that had liberated Europe from the Nazis—reiterating the Nazis’ ideal of family, based on constrictive gender roles.
Friedan contrasts contemporary short fiction with short fiction from the 1930s, which told stories of spirited career women. These women were adventurous, independent, determined, and still loved by men. They were less aggressive in their pursuit of men and very engaged with what went on in the world. Men loved them for their spirits and their looks.
The short fiction published in the 1930s offered more complex views of women and, most importantly, portrayed them as individuals who were self-defined as opposed to depending on their relationships with men to gain a sense of their own identity. Moreover, men loved them for their distinct identities.
The New Women of 1930s fiction were almost never housewives. They were also not always young. Those who were young tended to be ambitious and defiant of convention. There was usually some conflict between the protagonist’s work and her love of a man—a conflict that she usually resolved by keeping her commitment to herself, since the right man would support her goals.
Protagonists of 1930s magazine fiction were the antithesis of the child-brides of post-war fiction. The inclusion of mature characters demonstrated that women could continue to have interesting lives beyond their child-bearing years. The young characters had active lives that did not include looking for husbands.
By 1949, editors began to publish more stories that promoted the feminine mystique. These stories encouraged women to use their talents inside of the home instead of pursuing jobs. Social scientists warned that the pursuit of careers and higher education could lead to the “masculinization” of women.
In keeping with functionalism and Freudian ideas about “normal” women preferring passive roles, magazine editors reinforced domesticity as women’s natural state and created images of femininity within their pages that existed only in the domestic sphere.
The feminine mystique, according to Friedan, “says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of her own femininity.” It classifies femininity as “mysterious” and “intuitive” and possibly “superior” to the nature of men. The root of women’s unhappiness was in trying to deny their natures and be like men. It suggests that women can only find fulfillment “in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love.”
Femininity had not only been constructed as something natural (as opposed to socially taught) it was also envisioned as something mystical. By convincing women that they were in some way “superior” to men, those who wanted to uphold the feminine mystique tried to manipulate women into thinking that they were advantaged.
The “happy housewife heroines” had no vision of the future beyond having babies. Any ambition they exhibited was quickly extinguished by their primary “job” as mothers. Friedan uses the example of “The Sandwich Maker,” a short story from an April 1959 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal. to illustrate the point. In the story, a housewife starts a lunch service to earn her own income, becomes overwhelmed by the work, then quits when she learns that she is pregnant. She decides to let her husband be the “boss” who concerns himself with money.
Stories such as this one reinforced the woman’s “functional” role. They discouraged her from fulfilling any creative or entrepreneurial talents that she may have had. This story also suggested (rather overtly) that financial power should rest with men. If the household was a corporation, the husband was the “boss” and the wife was his employee—or, as some feminists suggested, his slave, since she was compensated not with money but with food and shelter.
Previous archetypes of women had included the pure, virginal woman on the pedestal and the sinful woman of the flesh. By the postwar era, the new contrast was between the career woman and “the child-bride heroine.” The new sin to exorcise was the pursuit of a separate self.
Both the career woman and the highly sexual woman presented a threat due to their focus on their own satisfaction. The virgin and the “child-bride” were defined in terms of men and reinforced the feminine mystique’s obsession with youth.
For a time, the concept of “togetherness,” initially promoted by McCall’s magazine suggested that women have no independent self but live for and through their husbands and children. However, some male critics of the idea of “togetherness” resented the idea of becoming a part of the world of women, for men had more important things to do in society.
The concept of “togetherness” was a manifestation of the “symbiosis” concept. However, it told women that their lives were only worthwhile in relation to others. Men, who had been taught to prize masculinity and individuality, felt limited by ideas of “togetherness.”
Once, in a moment of editorial boredom, McCall’s ran an article in 1956 called “The Mother Who Ran Away.” To their surprise, the article brought the highest readership of any other printed article. They realized that many of their readers were unhappy, but were, by then, paralyzed by the feminine mystique that magazines like McCall’s had promoted.
The story offered a fantasy that many women seemed to share. They did not exactly want to abandon their families, whom they loved, but they wanted to “run away” from the limitation on their existences. To escape is to discover freedom, which the mystique denied women.
When women’s magazines ran political stories, they were about Mamie Eisenhower’s wardrobe or improvements in education and children’s recreational spaces. An article about the prospect of nuclear war brought it “down to the feminine level” by reporting on the distress of “a wife whose husband sailed into a contaminated area.”
To avoid tempting women to think outside of the domestic sphere, magazine articles related all world events to what went on inside the home. “Feminine” interests were directed outwardly to the needs of children or the desire to look attractive.
The belief among magazine editors was that their readers could only identify with women whose lives were rooted in domestic concerns. Friedan recalls wanting to write an article about an artist. To ensure that the readership could “identify,” she focused on the artist’s cooking, how she fell in love with her husband, and painting a crib for her baby—rather than the hours the artist spent working on her craft.
Magazines discouraged stories about women with their own interests and careers, both to avoid the resentment of readers who did not have that liberty, and to reinforce the mystique, which discouraged individual, intellectual pursuits. If the artist painted, it was for her baby and for a practical purpose.
The only career woman who was welcome in the magazines was the image of actresses. However, even by the 1950s, her image had changed. Popular actresses from the 1930s and 1940s were spirited, driven, and complex, while those from the 1950s had a child-like sexuality and often played roles as child-like brides and housewives. Even in writing about an actress, the focus was on her role as a housewife. If she were single, divorced, or childless, Friedan recalls that writers focused on how her career had cost her feminine fulfillment.
The feminine mystique encouraged women to play the feminine role. Actresses, too, demonstrated particular feminine roles through their public images and film roles. Because their lives were on public display, they could serve as cautionary tales for women who wished to pursue careers. However, by the mid-century, the most popular actresses exhibited a child-like sexuality and dependency, not spirited individuality.
Friedan recalls meeting the editor of a women’s magazine, a woman older than she, who recalled how the stories about spirited career women had been written by women, while men who had returned home from the war wrote the stories about the happy housewife heroine. They had channeled their longing for the comforts of home into these stories.
Both male and female writers constructed female images that they wanted to see. Female writers created female characters who fit their own self-images as ambitious women. Male writers did not identify with their heroines but satisfied a wish or fantasy in creating them.
Some female magazine editors acknowledged the role they played in validating the feminine mystique. One blamed it on psychoanalysis, which had made them “feel embarrassed about being career women” and made them objects of pity among “college guest editors.” Some female writers wrote fiction based on their lives as housewives and identified themselves as “just housewives.”
Female magazine editors complied with the feminine mystique to avoid feeling too different from mainstream society’s expectations of how women should be. Though they pursued careers, they conveyed the idea that it was preferable to be a housewife, for that image coincided with “normal” femininity.
Popular images of white, middle-class American women splintered into three parts. The first was the “masculinized” career woman who makes the same amount of money as her husband and sees a psychiatrist to discuss how her career has emasculated her husband and made him impotent and alcoholic. The second was the discontented suburban housewife who was envious of her husband’s career. The third was “the housewife-mother” who rejoiced in her feminine role.
Images of the career woman and the discontented housewife were based on the idea that these women suffered from penis envy. If they could accept their feminine role, they would be content. Envy for a husband’s career was supposedly envy for his masculinity—not envy of his freedom and earning power. The career woman had, on the other hand, taken the masculine role.
The new image of women, according to Friedan, was based on “mindlessness” and materialism: "two cars, two TVs, two fireplaces.” It was an image that insisted that women were not individuals. They were, “by definition,” excluded from forming their own identity and from adding their voices to humanity.
The emphasis on having two of every household item was a gimmick to convince women that, through consumerism, they could retain their individuality. However, they could still only attain an understanding of selfhood in relation to the household.