Friedan begins her study of the lives of presumably white, middle-class women in suburban postwar America through her exploration of the problem that has no name. Friedan first recognized the problem during a visit to her alma mater, Smith College, when she conducted an informal survey among fellow alumnae who reported discontent with their post-graduate lives. She decided to expand her study and noticed that women all over the nation were reporting similar feelings of boredom and dissatisfaction, despite the belief that suburban women had ideal, comfortable lives.
Most women silently bore the problem. Some thought that there was something wrong with them for not being satisfied with their lives. Friedan notes the complicity of the media in promoting the feminine mystique and for blaming women’s serious emotional problems on small, mundane matters, such as “incompetent repairmen.” Worse, advertisers and women’s magazines promoted an ideal of femininity— “the happy housewife” heroine—with which many white, suburban women tried to identify.
The “happy housewife” was an enthusiastic consumer who spent her days in department stores and supermarkets buying the latest appliances and cleaning supplies. Through her interviews with researchers and “manipulators”—advertising consultants who exploited housewives’ feelings of inadequacy and boredom to sell them products—Friedan uncovered the ways in which ad firms sought to perpetuate the feminine mystique with the aim of ensuring that housewives, who were the most important American consumers, would continue to buy household products.
Though appliances were designed to reduce the amount of time spent on housework, homemakers still tended to spend more time on housework. Social experiments and studies revealed that housewives were spending excessive time on housework to make up for feelings of boredom and to provide them with a sense of achievement. By turning housework into a job and labeling their “occupations” as housewives, Friedan believed that they were turning chores—tasks that a child could perform—into their life’s purpose, to their own detriments.
Women had not always identified as housewives. In fact, they had played from active roles in American life throughout history. Many of the mothers and grandmothers of Eisenhower era housewives had been suffragists who protested for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote. However, history had maligned the reputation of the early feminists, leading their descendants to distance themselves from their images as independent, intellectual, and politically-active women. The early feminists, such as Lucy Stone, had discovered their plights through their work to end slavery. For their activism and dismissal of traditional modes of femininity, they were branded as “man-hating.”
In the postwar era, the popularity of Sigmund Freud’s theories in psychoanalysis contributed to the view that active, intellectual women were perverse, or suffering from penis envy. Social scientists also reinforced the feminine mystique. Friedan focuses on the work of anthropologist Margaret Mead who based her ideas about gender on functionalism, or the belief that traditional gender roles were necessary to help ensure that men and women served a complementary function in society, just as each part of the body served a function.
Sex-directed educators—that is, teachers, professors, and college administrators—also reinforced the feminine mystique. Instead of encouraging young women to learn to think critically and to pursue serious scholarly work, educators directed women toward courses in home economics and “marriage and family” to help them avoid the risk of feeling maladjusted to their roles as homemakers.
Contrary to the perception that education had ruined women for housework, a majority of female college alumnae who were surveyed reported being very satisfied with their educations in the liberal arts, but they regretted that they had not done anything with what they had learned. To make themselves feel like they were a part of the world, they bought things. When that did not work, they used sex to “feel alive.” Many married women reported having affairs. Their husbands also had affairs, both casual and more serious romances, sometimes with female employees in their offices, to escape from their home lives. The stereotype of “the devouring wife,” as sexist as that of “the devouring mother,” drove men to seek out affairs with or fantasies of girlish women—Lolita types—who helped them forget about their wives’ aggressive demands at home.
The result of the feminine mystique, according to Friedan’s research, was not greater satisfaction in marriage or a stronger sense of purpose in the sex-defined role. On the contrary, career women with graduate degrees tended to report higher levels of satisfaction in their marriages, as well as more orgasms. Instead, the “mystique” had led women to forfeit themselves in favor of playing a feminine role. Friedan likens this collective loss of identity to life in a concentration camp. Though Friedan is aware that the analogy is a bit extreme, in her view, the loss of identity among camp prisoners is not unlike that among housewives.
To recover their lost sense of identity, Friedan insists that women must work. This does not mean that women should simply work to support their families, for that would be another way of remaining in “the trap.” Instead, they must find work that fulfills them. She also insists that paid work is best, for it communicates to women that they have value.
Friedan offers other solutions for women in recovering their identities, particularly the necessity of giving up their status as “housewives.” Women, she writes, should see housework for what it is—chores to get out of the way as quickly and easily as possible. She also advocates for colleges offering course programs designed for women who have been out of school for many years, as well as maternity leave and child-care programs that would allow women to keep employment while still caring for their children.
In the epilogue, Friedan examines how her own life changed as a result of the publication of the book. She had planned to go back to school to get a PhD. She experienced isolation and suspicion in her Rockland County, New York suburb when the other wives and mothers realized that she had embarked on a career as a writer. In 1969, tired of telling other women to empower themselves without following her own advice, she divorced her husband. In the following year, she helped co-found the National Organization for Women (NOW) and served as its first president. She also helped to organize the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) and campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), in addition to a number of other political causes.
In contemplating her ability to overcome her fear of flying, she realized that when a person found one’s purpose in life, they no longer feared death. The oppression of women had resulted in a lot of energy that had been “locked up” in outmoded gender roles, which prevented women from finding their true purposes. Friedan saw the sexual revolution of the late-1960s and early-1970s as an opportunity to free both men and women.