In the 1950s, educators were shocked to realize that more women than ever before were going to college, but they were not going to prepare themselves for careers. Two out of three young women who entered college dropped out. Those who stayed were only interested in finding a husband—a pursuit which began as early as freshman year.
College became the arena where women competed to find mates and fulfill what they had accepted to be their destiny: to fulfill their sex function by getting married and having children. Their educations were secondary to that pursuit.
Statistics showed that college presidents, scholars, and educators were leaving women’s colleges. Some women’s colleges had closed down. The president of Sarah Lawrence College, a women’s college, talked about making it co-educational. Some said that college “should no longer be wasted on women,” and the president of Vassar College, another institution for women, predicted the end of American colleges for women.
Young women’s lack of interest in their intellectual development had not been met with concern as much as neglect and acceptance. Educators assumed that women neither wanted nor needed education. They failed to recognize that this assumption was a product of a broader bias in culture that was constantly reinforced with messaging.
Initially, Friedan thought that the reports were exaggerations or merely the result of the deterioration of some institutions. She noticed the problem during a visit back to Smith College. One recent graduate told her that, in spite of the expectation that they go to college, a girl who was serious about her studies would be regarded as “peculiar, unfeminine.” They did not talk about serious ideas as Friedan’s generation had, but instead talked about their dates.
Friedan did not realize how much things had changed since the last generation of women graduated from college. Freud’s view that intellectual women were “unnatural” had taken hold and formed young women’s behaviors and attitudes toward higher education. Thus, many young women had chosen to work, instead, on making themselves more attractive to men.
The female students regarded college as something to get out of the way with haste so that their “real” lives as housewives could begin. They had learned that if they wanted to have a normal, “adjusted” life they should devote themselves to getting married and having children and should not become “seriously interested” in anything else. Some had learned this lesson at home, others from their peers. However, the message was also communicated to them by professors.
Young female students did not see college as the place where they could learn more about themselves and the world. They saw it as the place which kept them from joining the only world they thought mattered—the household. They did not see the purpose of learning who they were in college, for they had been told who they were: future wives and mothers.
Under the influence of the feminine mystique, educators and administrators had discouraged critical thinking in young women. They worried, based on the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Margaret Mead, that a proper education would only doom women to frustration when they inevitably became housewives.
Supported by popular scholarship, some educators accepted the biased notions that women’s social function as wives and mothers made a conventional education unnecessary and even potentially harmful.
The sex-directed educator had embraced the views of Freud and Mead, which validated the feminine mystique and encouraged “adjustment within the world of home and children.” Some really believed in the “mystique” as social scientists had “handed it to them.” Others did not find confirmation of their own prejudices within the theories, but had no reason not to accept them.
Educators played a key role in reinforcing gender bias. Even those who had not “bought in” to the feminine mystique conformed to it, perhaps thinking that women preferred domesticity over intellectual pursuits or because they were less concerned with women’s intellectual development.
Those few women who were college educators or presidents either conformed to the feminine mystique, or their authority was questioned. They did not speak on their experiences as women. They did not usually become the presidents of women’s colleges; that role usually went to an older man. Sometimes they became the heads of departments at universities where the graduate students were usually male.
Female educators conformed to the mystique to maintain their own positions, which they easily risked losing to a man. They tried to distance themselves from their identities as women to survive in a world that had been constructed for the intellectual development of men.
The female scholar was suspect because she did not work solely to support her household. Sometimes, in her self-defense, she wore very feminine clothing, such as frilly blouses. Friedan observed this habit among female psychoanalysts.
Female scholars overcompensated with feminine clothing, not wanting to be mistaken for deviant, “masculine” women.
The sex-directed educator accepted responsibility for education being the cause of the housewife’s frustration. They encouraged a “feminized higher education” to counteract the “masculine” forces in the culture, such as “egotistic individualism” and “quantitative thinking.”
This more “feminine” education would encourage women to define themselves in relation to others. It was meant to counteract messages from the postwar era which increasingly espoused the pursuit of science and individual expression.
“Feminized higher education” might include disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, and psychology to help women explore “the quiet and unspectacular forces of society and of the mind,” but it would also include the “minor arts”—never fine art, which was deemed “masculine”—such as, ceramics or textiles, which required more work from the hand than from the brain. The minor arts also appealed to a woman’s love of beauty, which they connected with “the processes of living.”
The focus on “minor arts” were a way to convince women that they were being creative without distancing them from domesticity. Ceramics and textiles were items that had everyday use in the home. Fine art was “masculine” because it encouraged critical thinking and engagement with the world and currents in culture.
The sex-directed educator believed that a young woman should begin studying home economics in high school and continue in college, “with greater intensity and imagination.” Young men could receive this education, too, but it was not to interfere with “their valuable college time.”
Educators who accepted or advocated the feminine mystique believed that women should receive educations that were compatible with their sex roles.
American educators who investigated “the waste of our national resources of creative intelligence” found that too many high school students were taking “easy how-to courses” and that most of those who should have been studying math, science, and foreign languages were girls. They had the intelligence to do the work, but they viewed such subjects as “unfeminine."
Young women became convinced, through messages from the dominant culture, that being intellectual made them unfeminine and would likely diminish their chances of finding a mate. Though they were smart enough to challenge themselves, they did not want to appear to be.
The influence of sex-directed education was most pronounced in high schools where women were discouraged from pursuing a professional field of study. If they were accepted to universities to study professional fields, such as architecture, guidance counselors continued to discourage them by saying that they would not find work. Young women were, instead, encouraged to go to junior college where the work was easier and they could learn all they needed to know in preparation for marriage.
Educators and administrators dissuaded young women from being ambitious. College was a place to obtain a husband, not to learn a profession. The isolation of women from professions was due not only to bias in the fields they wished to enter, but also the bias that existed at learning institutions which assumed that gender conformity mattered more to women than having a career.
Women were dropping out of college at a faster rate than men to get married. The average age of first marriage had dropped to the youngest in American history. Meanwhile, “with the advent of science and education,” the average age of first marriage was rising in Asia and Africa. Also, the annual rate of population increase in the United States was among the highest in the world.
Though the United States had become the world’s most powerful and advanced nation after World War II, women were steadily becoming less powerful, educated, and self-actualized than women in other developed countries.
Education, according to Friedan, is necessary for personal growth. For the girl, her evasion of growth in college was due to having an “exclusively sexual” view of identity. College, for her, was simply the place where she could fulfill her sex role.
Girls viewed their worth not according to who they were but according to their ability to attract a man and hold on to him long enough for them to marry so that she could then have children.
Educators expected boys to achieve “personal autonomy and identity” through their goals. Even if those goals were not realistic in the beginning, the expectation was that they would change in college. Educators did not expect to see that development in girls.
Educators expected evolution in boys, but they believed that girls were fixed in their sense of identity. Due to acceptance of the feminine mystique, educators did not see that girls could be as misguided about their goals.
Instead of inspiring a desire for autonomy in young women, sex-directed educators encouraged them to fulfill their desire for achievement through men. They gave them “a potpourri of liberal-arts courses” that would give them a veneer of sophistication and encouraged them to join programs well below their abilities.
The purpose of this superficial education was to make the women impressive wives—just cultured enough to impress their husband’s co-workers and to know how to cook interesting meals and decorate with good taste.
Economists revealed a study that predicted that there would be a decline in employment “for the uneducated and the unskilled.” They predicted that women would spend twenty-five years or more working outside of the home. Still, women were unfazed and, with the encouragement of sex-directed educators, only expected to be housewives.
Women never expected that they would have to work outside of the home and, if they had to, they convinced themselves that it was temporary or only to help generate more household income.
Educators who believed in functionalism thought it was more important to focus on the practical perceived needs of their students, such as understanding the roles they would play in marriage. At one famous women’s college, Friedan uses the example of the female president to demonstrate the guilt that some ex-feminists felt over encouraging a non-sex-directed education, for a minority of alumnae had complained that their educations had ill-prepared them for their roles as housewives.
Some of the guilt these educators faced was their own for not conforming to the feminine mystique. In other instances, it may have been guilt for encouraging conformity to maintain their own positions. In any case, they listened to a minority of women whose educations reminded them of how isolated they were as housewives.
The students who take courses in “family-life education,” such as “Marriage and Family,” learn bits and pieces of ideas from Sigmund Freud and Margaret Mead, but not with the necessary backgrounds in psychology and anthropology to contextualize those ideas. The courses encouraged all manner of conformity, advocating the “wrongness” of premarital sex, the notion that successful career women were atypical, that working women usually felt guilty for leaving their children at home, and that “mixed marriages” (marriages between people of different classes or religions) were unwise.
Coursework that validated the feminine mystique used bits of scholarship to sound authoritative. It taught young women that being married required self-denial. The coursework discouraged any self-exploration or fulfillment outside of marriage and childrearing. It also reinforced discrimination and prejudices by discouraging relationships between people from different backgrounds.
Lessons in functionalism were very “soothing” to young women who were afraid to break away from their childhoods and who did not want to work hard in college or develop their own views. Smart, spirited young women learned that it was unwise to talk about intellectual subjects around boys out of fear of being labeled as “brains.” Psychologists believed that women's interest “in men and marriage” were defenses against intellectual development. That development, some found, was stunted in girls as young as fourteen or fifteen who showed a drop in their IQ scores due to statements from them, also reflected in their school records, that they thought it wasn’t “too smart for a girl to be smart.”
In accepting their “functions” as wives and mothers, young women avoided any challenges that could have spurred their intellectual development. They were convinced in girlhood that it would be to their advantage to appear less intelligent to attract boys. They went to college both to meet men and to have enough sophistication to make for impressive wives, but it was thought to be unwise for a woman to strive for intellectual equality with her spouse.
The young women of the Eisenhower era faced a choice between conformity and accepting the growing pains of becoming individuals. Using a study from Vassar College, Friedan observed that, just when many women began to feel “the conflicts” and growing pains of building an identity, they discontinued their growth by leaving school. They did not develop their own interests and, years out of college, sometimes showed signs of being on the verge of nervous breakdowns. Another group of students in the same study had pursued their own interests in college and later became professionals. Their interests in men were more genuine and did not interfere with their educations.
Educated young women who conformed to the feminine mystique sometimes experienced great frustration later in life due to failing to construct identities that were separate from their sex roles. They depended on their husbands and children to compensate for their lack of personal awareness. Women who had developed that awareness in college could pursue more loving relationships with men that were not rooted in co-dependency.
Sex-directed educators offered the following solutions for housewives who outlived their husbands: a course in law to help with matters, such as insurance and estates, early retirement for men so that they could spend more time with their wives, and a “brief fling” with volunteer work or the arts. They could also take a part-time job, as long as it did not take work away from men who needed the income for their families.
Educators did not think that women who had “fulfilled their sex function” could use an education unless it was for the practical purpose of settling legal matters after a spouse’s death or of doing something to take up their extra time. Even after their husbands, the wage-earners, were gone, it was assumed that women needed jobs less than men.
Sex-directed educators saw the danger in encouraging domesticity in boys but, due to the feminine mystique, no one thought it was a tragedy when a woman did only one thing with her life. Still, according to Friedan, educators did not bear full blame. Women had made the choice to go back to the home and they were responsible for their choice.
Friedan holds women responsible for dedicating their lives to only one project while watching men pursue many. However, educators were partially to blame for encouraging women to adopt this narrow mindset.