Social scientists’ insights did not “[destroy] the old prejudices” that oppressed American women, but instead, validated them. Instead of rooting cultural bias out of Freud’s theories, social scientists fit their “anthropological investigations into Freudian rubric.” This, along with “functionalism” (i.e., the attempt to make social science more “scientific” by defining institutions in relation to their function in the society), froze women into culturally-defined roles.
Instead of studying social behavior, social scientists accepted gender conventions as natural, engrained, and necessary to the functioning society. They invented the theory of functionalism to justify gender inequality. Their fault was in conforming their studies to fit the conventions instead of working to understand them impartially.
Books, such as Marriage for Moderns, promoted the notion of the sexes as complementary. The book insisted that the only proper response to differences between the sexes was ‘adjustment.” Therefore, the textbook argues that women should leave their careers and apply their skills to the maintenance of the household, which has equal use for their talents, in teaching, interior design, “and a host of other things.” Some women could pursue careers, but only after there had been “profound alterations” in the structure of the family.
Contemporary literature offered women marital advice, encouraging them to conform to their roles. Women were convinced that there was value in the feminine mystique due to the notion that they had a place, a role that had been created especially for them. If women wanted to work, they would have to change the structure of the family as they knew it.
Some sociologists, such as Mirra Komarovsky, recognized the infantilization of girls, which made them more co-dependent as adults. She endorsed the continued infantilization of women to make it easier for women to adjust to their “transition from the role of daughter to that of the spouse.” Komarovksy claimed that girls are more attached to their parents, but she could not find evidence that there are more problems “with the wife’s parents that with the husband’s.”
Even female social scientists encouraged the “mystique” through their work. Komarovsky, who probably saw herself as “exceptional” in relation to other women and who accepted Freudian theories about female behavior, did not view dependency as the problem, but insisted that a girl’s independence could create problems in adulthood.
Functionalists simply described things “as they were” instead of seeking deeper truths. Though they did not always accept Freud’s notion that biology was destiny, they did accept the notion that women were whatever society said they were.
Functionalists justified society’s biases about gender instead of examining how society determined those roles and why they may have developed in the way that they did.
Friedan identifies Margaret Mead as the “most powerful influence on modern women” due to her influence as a scholar and her support of functionalism. She was a critical figure in the social sciences. Her ideas were taught in medical schools and read in women’s magazines.
Margaret Mead’s status as both a woman and a social scientist encouraged women who read her work to trust her voice. However, her work served primarily to reinforce gender bias, Friedan argues.
Mead tended to glorify the female role in relation to its biological function. At times, she looked at anthropological theory from Freud’s view. In other instances, she provided the functionalist’s view, arguing that it was better “to preserve the sexual biological limitations established by a culture.” Sometimes, she argued for both the Freudian and functionalist positions and warned that women face a danger in trying to “realize a human potential which their society has defined as masculine.”
Mead encouraged women to limit themselves to domesticity and childbearing by convincing them, through her work, that there was no nobler effort. Like other social scientists, she advocated conformity through the sex role. If women did not conform, they risked being regarded as deviant. This was dangerous because so many women were already at risk of social isolation.
After 1931, it became clear that Mead was using Freudian theory in her anthropological explorations of other civilizations. She identified “the superstructure” on which “a civilization depends, with the penis,” while “feminine creativity” was defined “in terms of the passive receptivity of the uterus.”
Mead associated men with the active, public sphere, and women with the domestic sphere. Because women could “house” life in their wombs, she concluded that they belonged at home.
Mead used primitive civilizations, such as Samoa and Bali, to justify her notion that biology was destiny. She then applied her observations to 20th-century America. Her depiction of these societies demonstrated that they were shaky places held together by “endless taboos and precautions” that everyone obeyed.
Mead did not recognize the ways in which her biases informed studies of both the “primitive civilizations” and her understanding of American life. She also failed to recognize that the demands of American life differed from other societies.
Mead’s role as the spokesperson for femininity might have been less important if women had learned from the example of her life instead of her work. She made her way in a “man’s world” through using her unique knowledge as a woman. Her mother and grandmother were educated professionals and she encouraged women to choose, “with free intelligence,” to have children.
Mead depended on her gender to advance in her career, for she could provide the “woman’s perspective.” Though she believed that women should make the individual choice to have children, her encouragement of functionalism still made childbearing seem ordained.
Regarding childbirth and child-rearing, Mead encouraged breast-feeding and thought that women should say “yes” to child-bearing as a conscious choice and not as a burden imposed on their flesh. Mead’s ideas about childbirth and child-rearing helped inspire a “cult” of procreation. She was quoted out of context by “lesser functionalists” who found confirmation of their own prejudices in her work.
Like Freud, Mead’s work was misused by scholars who advocated the feminine mystique. Still, Mead had made that possible through her idealization of femininity. Though she believed that women should choose to have children, the language of her work pressured women to say “yes” to childbearing.
By the 1960s, Mead voiced concern over what she called the “return of the cave woman,” or the retreat of women to “narrow domesticity.” She either did not acknowledge or was not aware of her own role in persuading women to retreat. Still, she did not lose her habit of ascribing “a sexual specialness to everything a woman does.”
Mead’s did not want women to define themselves wholly within the context of domesticity, but she wanted women to see their female identities through the lens of their biological function of childbearing, forgetting that some women cannot have children and others do not want to.