According to Friedan, the feminine mystique took hold after World War II, when both men and women sought the comforts of home and family. The Cold War had created uncertainty. Young men who were too old to return home to their mothers still desired nurturing affection. Young women who had felt lonely during the war were especially vulnerable to the “mystique”—and, when men returned home, had the choice of staying in careers or of having a husband and family.
The baby boom took place in every country immediately after the war, but the number of American women with three or more children doubled in twenty years. The number of children born to teenagers rose 165 percent. Educated women led the race to have the greatest number of babies.
To make up for their lack of a creative outlet outside of domesticity, women had children. Society, which had convinced women that having children was the most important thing they would ever do, encouraged this.
After the war, women who had been able to afford household servants decided to do all the chores themselves. GIs returned to fill jobs that had been occupied by women while they were gone. Those women who continued to occupy jobs faced discrimination and opposition, which sent some of them “scurrying for the cover of marriage and home.”
Women began to believe that housework was their true calling. Initially, this may have been an attempt to help returning GIs feel more secure. Women who remained at work faced anger for their unwillingness to participate in the effort to make returning soldiers feel “at home.”
Friedan blames the retreat of women to the home on the “personal retreat” that both men and women seemed to make after the Second World War. Women who had stayed in jobs and fought sexual discrimination during the Great Depression preferred to retreat into sex and love just as men found it easier to forget about their war experience and retreat “into helpless conformity.”
Both American men and women became more isolated in the postwar years due to the desire to conform to an ideal of suburban life. Women, who had been more politically active during the 1930s, had become more passive and less interested in engaging with the world outside of the home.
Social scientists and writers found that, for many people, it was “easier and more fashionable” to think about psychology and private problems, such as sex, than to pursue public purposes. The arts, including painting and theater, became devoid of meaning. According to the playwright Tennessee Williams, it seemed that no reality existed for a man except for his sexual perversions and the fact that he both loved and hated his mother.
People retreated to the private sphere and only concerned themselves with private matters, even to the point of obsession. This obsession with private life, fostered by the popularity of psychoanalysis, made people less interested in what they could offer the rest of the world. This tendency toward seclusion reinforced the feminine mystique.
Clergymen and psychologists both reported a retreat into “privatism,” or concern only with one’s private life and thoughts. This explained both the popularity of Freud’s theories and the revival of popular interest in religion. These ideologies, in addition to the move to the suburbs, the five children, and the do-it yourself and “beatnik” trends signaled a collective disinterest in addressing political and social needs.
This inward turn—the concern with private life and thoughts—ironically, did not inspire anyone to think outside of their socially prescribed roles. Even the “beatniks” often replicated traditional gender roles within their unconventional way of life.
In repeating Freudian phrases, which many Americans had read literally, they could pretend that they had understood their problems when they had barely begun to face them. The mother was particularly to blame for problems in the child who sometimes grew into a “neurotic,” “alcoholic,” or “suicidal” adult. She was portrayed as a “nagging” wife and a mother who was simultaneously “rejecting” and “overprotecting.”
Because women bore the overwhelming amount of responsibility for the rearing of children, they were also the first to blame if their children grew up to be unhappy, maladjusted adults. Freudian psychoanalysis reinforced this with its idea of the “devouring mother.”
The negative view of mothers coincided with the increased independence of women during the war. American GIs returning home could see that American women were more independent than the German and Japanese women they had met. Thus, the neuroses of children “past and present” were blamed on the increased individuality and independence of these women.
Returning GIs had expected women to play nurturing roles. If they were more independent, they would be less likely to conform to this role. The GIs, failing to understand key societal differences, had compared American women to those whom they had met in distressed nations—women who were dependent out of desperation.
Many women, especially educated women, were frustrated and taking it out on their husbands and children. More American men, women, and children were visiting psychiatrists and mental hospitals. The Freudian rationale blamed this on women having been “masculinized” by their educations. However, the neuroses of soldiers, supposedly stemming from childhood, could not be blamed on career women. The GIs’ mothers had been “self-sacrificing, dependent” housewives. Research showed that they had little interest in anything beyond home, family, and beauty routines.
Instead of examining the construction of their households, American families retreated further within and consulted psychoanalysis to uncover their problems, which merely reinforced the “mystique.” Former GIs expected their wives to play the role of their mothers, who had been constant presences when they were growing up.
Evidence showed that the GIs had been raised by mothers who had never “reached or were encouraged to reach maturity” and had “devoted too much of their lives to their children.” By the mid-1940s, the feminine mystique was encouraging a new generation of women to do the same thing.
The feminine mystique had encouraged a cycle in which dependent women raised boys who became men who expected dependency and self-denial from their future wives, based on the examples their mothers had set.
Early research by Alfred Kinsey had linked women’s sexual frustration to education. A decade later, his research said the opposite, showing, based on 5,940 case studies, that “the number of females reaching orgasm nearly 100 percent of the time, was related to education.” The more educated a woman was, the likelier she was to be sexually fulfilled.
More educated women were likelier to have greater knowledge of their bodies, as well as the confidence to express themselves in intimate moments. Women who had devoted themselves to the feminine mystique would perform for men’s pleasure while neglecting their own.
Studies that suggested that children who were being neglected and rejected did not get as much publicity as those that showed that working women were happier and more mature mothers than those who did not work. Though studies showed no more delinquency or school truancy among the children of career women than among those of housewives, reports still warned that delinquency was more common among the children of working women.
Some research was biased to uphold the feminine mystique. Though working mothers were often happier mothers than those who had devoted themselves full-time to their households and families—and statistics confirmed this—social scientists refuted their own research to discourage women from pursuing careers.
Many studies were presented as “proof” that women could not combine the demands of work and motherhood. However, one researcher, the psychologist Lois Meek Stolz found that the children of mothers who work are less likely than housewives’ children to be “disturbed,” to “have problems in school,” or to “lack a sense of personal worth.”
Work not only benefitted women, but also children, who learned to be more self-reliant. Without their mothers performing all tasks for them, children felt more confident in their abilities and developed self-esteem. Working women experienced the same benefits.
In American culture, the notion of the always-present mother prevailed. It is possible that the constant presence of mothers, of women who only existed as mothers, contributed to their children’s neuroses. The famed Dr. Spock contrasted this tendency with that of Russian women who seemed to have more “stable” children while also having a purpose in their lives beyond motherhood, usually a professional pursuit.
The “always-present mother” may have made children feel secure, but their mothers’ co-dependency reinforced their own co-dependency. Moreover, the constant watchful presences of their mothers created anxiety, for the children would worry about acting in ways that would displease their mothers.
One study looked at strongly maternal women who had produced sons so infantile that one twelve-year-old boy had temper tantrums when his mother refused to butter his toast. The findings revealed that the mothers used the children to satisfy “an abnormal craving for love” and devoted all their attention to the children, especially if they were sons. These mothers and their husbands were also the children of domineering mothers.
Women trapped in the feminine mystique had co-dependent mothers and only knew how to parent in that way. Because their spouses had had similar mothers, there was no countering influence. Thus, the children of these women expected their mothers to perform all tasks for them—even those they could perform themselves—due to being accustomed to overprotection.
Researchers checked on the mothers and their “infantile” children years later and found that the pathological behavior had stopped because the mothers, “by circumstance,” had found an activity of their own, and that the children had found “an area of independence” that did not involve their mothers.
Work and hobbies created outlets for individual expression, as well as the ability of mothers and children to build relationships beyond the household. This built self-sufficiency which discouraged the co-dependent behavior.
The sociologist Arnold Green discovered, through his study of a predominately Polish town in Massachusetts, that children thrived with more independence and freedom from the home and parents. Neuroses arose in children whose mothers had absorbed their personalities. Green had mainly looked at these occurrences in sons, and many people had seen the son’s inability to achieve independence as tragic, but they did not feel this way about daughters.
The “symbiosis” effect had not fostered healthy “togetherness” and it had not made children feel more secure. Instead, it created anxieties in children who did not have the privacy to form their own identities. Green’s finding showed that some independence from parents was essential to foster growth, but a bias against girls did not recognize their equal need for independence.
No one worried over the “waste of a human self” in women, but instead “applauded” a woman’s acceptance of her “role as a woman.” Women who felt their lack of selfhood did not understand the feeling, thus, it became the problem that has no name. They sometimes looked to their children to fix the problem, which perpetuated the cycle of dependency.
When women dedicated their lives to their families, people viewed them as caring and dedicated to their roles as homemakers. However, this selflessness had not created, in many of them, satisfaction with their life choice. This resulted in an unhealthy attachment to their children whom they believed gave them purpose.
The pressures of American life “kept a man from feeling like a man.” He took his frustrations with “never-ceasing competition” and “purposeless work” out on his wife or mother. He rationalized his participation by saying that he was “in it for the wife and kids” and believed that his wife was lucky to be able to stay home. Men accepted the feminine mystique because it promised them mothers for the rest of their lives.
Men, too, were trapped in lives they did not want and worked in jobs that did not fulfill them, due to the pressure of being good providers—that is, making enough money to afford a house in the suburbs and all of the things they believed their wives wanted to consume. Each spouse believed that the other had an advantage.
Women traded in their individuality for security because freedom scared them. They were the daughters of mothers who made it hard for them to grow up and they existed in a culture that told them that they did not have to. The nation depended on “women’s passive dependence, their femininity.”
Women who obeyed the feminine mystique had repeated the cycle of previous generations of women who allowed the culture to convince them that they could avoid the hardships of life through choosing to fulfill their sex role.