Friedan posits that the perpetuation of housewifery and the feminine mystique occurred when industry leaders realized that women were the chief consumers. There was no conspiracy to oppress women, but instead “the subversion of women’s lives in America to the ends of business” was merely a means to an end, a way to keep the “affluent economy” going by exploiting the housewife market.
Postwar economies were driven by consumerism. Advertisers convinced women who were dissatisfied with some aspect of their lives that they could fix the problem through the purchase of products. Suburban housewives, who were often dissatisfied and had a lot of disposable income, were an ideal market.
American businesses exploited the “uncreative” lives that many housewives led by making them think that they could find joy and purpose in buying things.
Shopping gave bored housewives something to do—hunting for bargains or looking for innovative products.
Using a national survey of 4,500 wives, a publisher of “a leading women’s magazine” divided American women into three categories to learn their opinions about electrical appliances. They included “The True Housewife Type,” “The Career Woman,” and “The Balanced Homemaker.”
Though Friedan dismisses the notion that advertisers conspired against American women, they did carefully target women with specific lifestyles and planned ad campaigns to appeal to each type.
The True Housewife Type, whose existence was justified by housework, represented the largest market for appliances. However, she was sometimes reluctant to use devices that rendered her old-fashioned methods obsolete. Marketers found that this group of women was diminishing and would probably continue to new fields of interest and education that were becoming available to women.
The True Housewife “type” was an old-fashioned woman, perhaps rural or older, which would explain the diminishing demographic. More couples lived in the suburbs than in the country, closer to amenities, and women were getting married younger and learning sooner about available appliances.
The Career Woman represented a minority that advertisers did not want to become larger. She had often never had a job, but she thought that housework was a waste of time and, if her children were older, she would have spent more time outside of the home and might have gotten a job.
The advertisers’ purpose was to convince this woman, who did not believe in the role created for her by the feminine mystique, that she was better off at home. If they could engage her curiosity enough, she would stay where she “belonged.”
“The Balanced Homemaker” was the ideal type for advertisers because, unlike “the true housewife,” she had some outside interests and was open to the help that appliances offered. She could be encouraged to believe that homemaking was an “art” that “should be the goal of every normal woman.”
This type accepted her sex role and believed that housewifery was an occupation. The appliances did not really offer “help” because she still spent most of her time on housework, but they made her feel that she got more done.
Seventy-five percent of all consumer advertising was directed at housewives. Product designers created new gadgets that contributed to giving them a sense of achievement and yet, maintained housework as their main purpose. The “manipulator” with whom Friedan consulted uses the advertisement of a baking mix as an example of the way in which advertising could capitalize on American women’s need to do creative work. Instead of merely baking bread, she could use the mix to create many different baked goods and thus feel creative. Advertisers were supposed to de-emphasize the ease with which she could do this to avoid her “underlying guilt” over feeling that she never did enough.
Housewives who were bored in their roles needed gimmicks that helped them feel creative, but not so creative that they got the idea that they should be doing other things with their lives. After all, they were still using a prepared mix. The “guilt” that advertisers de-emphasized was derived from her sense of being outwardly defined. She existed to address the needs of her family who would always appreciate new things to eat. Therefore, the creativity was still directed outward, for the family more than her own satisfaction.
By the mid-1950s, consumer surveys had revealed that the Career Woman was gone. She was replaced by a less sophisticated consumer who did some work in the Parent-Teacher Association, or PTA. She thought she was the equal of men, but found in housework a way to express her “femininity and individuality.” Advertisers needed to manipulate her feeling of never having enough to do and her desire to feel creative. The only trouble was that this type could not be influenced by her neighbors, but tended to “use her own mind and her own judgment.”
This type was a woman who quietly wanted to work, and therefore found ways to be useful in the community without disturbing her sex role. The feminine mystique had convinced her that she was more useful at home. However, she maintained her individuality, which made her less vulnerable to peer pressure.
Advertisers and manufacturers tried to convince housewives that housework was fun. They made her feel like an expert in her field by giving her different products to perform different tasks. They also emphasized her perceived “know-how” by helping women use their minds and create various household cleaning tricks.
Advertisers marketed appliances and cleaning devices to convince women that each was more efficient than the next at finding and clearing dirt. They marketed cleaning products, too, in ways that explained their removal of dirt as a complex science to appeal to this type’s curiosity.
To maintain women’s interest in housework, which many of them hated, sellers marketed more products and made the instructions more complicated. Sellers also exploited housewives’ “guilt over the hidden dirt” in their homes and encouraged a sense of achievement for every household task completed.
If a woman’s “occupation” was housework, advertisers could exploit her fear of being an inefficient “employee” by convincing her to buy more effective tools to help her work. She would buy more tools that she believed made her successful.
In the 1950s, advertisers discovered the teenage market. Young women who had married out of high school were insecure and, therefore, easy marketing targets. Advertisers convinced teenaged couples that they could achieve middle-class status by buying things. Young wives could even be “safely encouraged” to get part-time jobs to help their husbands buy things.
Teenage girls who had accepted the feminine mystique and were eager to conform to the role of housewife wanted the items, or “props,” that would help them more effectively play the role. They wanted the items that signaled middle-class comfort—and they had the energy to work to obtain those items.
Advertisers exploited the teenage bride’s desire to find fulfillment and purpose in being a housewife. They exploited these desires in their campaign to sell sterling silver. They began trying to influence girls while they were still in school, using peer pressure, as well as the influence of educators, TV programs, and social clubs, to get them to buy silver. Regarding the older, more independent wife, advertisers sought to make her feel guilty for her uses of cheap, disposable materials. She was encouraged to see sterling silver as a part of herself and a tradition that she could offer her children.
Sterling silver was an item that signaled middle-class respectability. Advertisers sought out teenage girls for their impressionability as well as their eagerness to become housewives. Buying sterling would help them feel more grown-up and make it appear that they thought about the future, for the intent of buying good silver was to pass it down to one’s daughter who would perpetuate the traditions of housewifery and consumption.
The fur industry also started working on teenage girls to reverse the reputation of fur-wearing women as “predatory” and as “kept women.” Instead, they encouraged the association of fur with femininity and with women passing a tradition down to their daughters.
Fur had been associated with luxury or with a gift that men gave their mistresses. A woman who was “other-directed,” or primarily concerned with the housewife-mother role, would not focus so much on her appearance.
Fur advertisers also addressed the product’s reputation for “ego-orientation” by saying that a family would take pride in a mother who wears fur. Thus, the housewife’s guilt in doing something for herself is transformed into benefiting the whole family by looking good.
Because housewives defined their worth according to how well they served their families’ needs, including the family’s need to be proud of the housewife-mother, advertisers could convince them to buy a fur coat to improve the family’s image of her.
Any creative urges a housewife had were to be channeled into her home and family. The sewing industry combated the feeling that sewing was “dull” by creating patterns for housewives to follow. This allowed her some individual expression without being too creative, required her to use some intelligence, and played into her insecurity about not wanting “to be dressed too differently” from other women.
Advertisers wanted the housewife to feel that she was doing something that was interesting so that she would buy more patterns. However, the patterns also had to mirror the clothes that other wives wore. The twin emphases on feeling creative while being like everyone else ensured consumer satisfaction.
Surveys showed that women’s needs for “education” and their desire to be a part of the world could be satisfied through shopping. Being in department stores relieved their isolation. Buying things at a bargain made housewives feel successful.
In stores, they saw other women like themselves, which reinforced their sense of playing the right social role. They also got the opportunity to feel that they contributed financially by saving money.
The surveys revealed other desires that could be addressed through product sales, such as needs for privacy in the age of “togetherness” and the “missing sexual spark” in marriage which consumers could supposedly recover by buying products that had been advertised using sex.
Advertisers had been so successful in making housewives obedient consumers that the women believed that they could form relationships through products, as opposed to working on building intimacy.
Consumer researchers understood American housewives in ways that Freudian therapists and sociologists did not. However, they were guilty of using their knowledge of her needs for fulfilment beyond homemaking to sell her things that would never really fulfill those needs but would always keep her wanting more. The advertisers did not invent the feminine mystique, but they were “the most powerful of its perpetuators.” They flattered the housewife, diverted her guilt, and hid her growing sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction.
Advertisers appealed to housewives by showing them idealized visions of themselves—attractive women who had earned the love of their families by providing beautiful, clean homes. They distracted her from her boredom by giving her more items with which she could perform household tasks. Advertisers convinced women that they needed to consume if they wanted to be valued.
Like a “primitive culture” that sacrifices its girls to tribal gods, American culture sacrificed its girls to the feminine mystique to ensure the sales of products. The power and intelligence of women was turned against them to groom them into good consumers. Friedan wonders if it is only “a sick society,” or an “immature” one, that makes women into housewives instead of people. Maybe it is only immature men and women who can retreat from society and its challenges to live in a “thing-ridden house” and make that their life’s purpose.
America’s consumer culture, created by both advertisers and prosperous Americans who were eager to consume products to show their status, worked to create a society that turned women into a “market.” Men and women who had married too young to understand what they truly wanted out of life were vulnerable to advertisers who were eager to tell them what they should want.