Friedan recalls preparing to graduate from Smith College in 1942 and being unsure of what to do next. She knew that she did not want to return home and live according to her mother’s example, which was rooted in traditional domesticity, but she was also unsure of her original ambition of becoming a psychologist.
Friedan’s uncertainty is common to anyone on the verge of adulthood, facing the prospect of entering the world alone and doing something productive with one’s life. However, the only female image of productivity she had was that of her mother.
Friedan had won a graduate fellowship to study at the University of California-Berkeley but gave it up to satisfy a boy whom she loved. She then married, had children, lived as a suburban housewife, and worked for newspapers with “no particular plan.” While talking to Smith seniors in 1959, she noticed similar confusion among them. Many of them knew that they would become housewives and would not use their educations. The only thing the younger Friedan knew and which these young women seemed to know is that they do not want to be like their mothers. However, they had failed to learn lessons from their mother’s lives, which had been limited by the feminine mystique.
To avoid “growing up,” Friedan, like many women, chose to get married. This was a way to avoid making any choices about what to do with the educations they had earned. When they were in love, the men often made these choices for them. The “mistaken choice,” as Friedan calls it, satisfied men’s desire for a constant nurturing presence and solved the problem of women’s fear about the outside world. In their avoidance of becoming like their mothers, these women had repeated the same steps.
The younger women reported fears of growing up. They did not want to be housewives but had no other role models. In Friedan’s youth, the only other women were “old-maid” high school teachers, the librarian, and a doctor who had a haircut like a man’s. Though these women taught Friedan to respect her mind, they were alone. They did not have a family life or a part to play in the world.
Young women believed that, to be career women, they either had to make themselves masculine or make themselves content with being alone. They did not know women who had happy domestic lives and good careers. Furthermore, the career women they knew were isolated in their careers.
Friedan reasons that these dual images would not have so much power if young women were not facing a crisis in identity which experts blamed on the poor conditioning of women for their designated roles. Growing up to ride bicycles and play baseball, studying math, going away to college, and living alone in cities had made them think that they could do what men did. They found themselves ill-suited to their roles as housewives as a result.
The upbringing of girls differed significantly from expectation of who they would be when they became women. Girls were encouraged to take part in physical activity and do well in school. That conditioning was incompatible with the expectation that they would become inactive and disinterested in further enrichment outside the realm of domesticity as adults.
“Forty percent” of Friedan’s graduating class at Smith had career plans, but quietly envied women who had left college to marry early. Later, those who had abandoned their educations regretted not learning more about who they were before marrying. They suffered most from the problem that has no name.
Women quietly envied each other, not realizing that they were suffering from the same problem: the lack of self-fulfillment. Both groups submitted to the same expectation of marriage, though women who knew less felt more isolated.
The feminine mystique encouraged women to remain “in the state of sexual larvae,” never achieving maturity through the growing pains that are encouraged in men as a part of their personal evolution. Women’s awareness of their identity crisis was, in Friedan’s view, the first step in their maturation, and in their urge to abandon biology as destiny in favor of forming a “full human identity.”