Friedan uses this phrase to describe a chronic sense of dissatisfaction among white, middle-class women in the postwar era. Toward the end of the book, she explicitly defines “the problem” as “simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities.” She first observed “the problem” when conducting a survey among fellow Smith College alumnae and noticed it again when interviewing other women from around the country. Friedan also describes it as a “strange stirring” and a “yearning” that took root among women in the middle of the twentieth century. It was a feeling that they often contemplated quietly or when alone, but occasionally shared with other women who also reported feeling unfulfilled by housework and the work of child-rearing. Reports of discontented homemakers disrupted the popular image of the happy housewife promoted by advertisers—pretty women who “beamed over their foaming dishpans.” Many actual housewives did not fit this image, but instead described a sense of emptiness. Not knowing the source of “the problem,” they cast blame on their husbands or children. Others diverted their attention away from their dissatisfaction and emptiness by redecorating, having affairs, moving to another neighborhood, or having another child. The “problem that has no name” stands in for the multifarious feelings of dissatisfaction that characterize the American housewife’s daily life, which she cannot seem to attribute to any one root cause—precisely because the sources of her unhappiness are so deeply engrained in her materialist, patriarchal culture.
The Problem That Has No Name Quotes in The Feminine Mystique
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?”
It is no longer possible to ignore that voice, to dismiss the desperation of so many American women. This is not what being a woman means, no matter what the experts say. For human suffering there is a reason; perhaps the reason has not been found because the right questions have not been asked or pressed far enough. I do not accept the answer that there is no problem because American women have luxuries that women in other times and lands never dreamed of; part of the strange newness of the problem is that it cannot be understood in terms of the age-old material problems of man: poverty, sickness, hunger, cold.
The feminine mystique permits, even encourages, women to ignore the question of their identity. The mystique says they can answer the question “Who am I?” by saying “Tom’s wife...Mary’s mother.” But I don’t think the mystique would have such power over American women if they did not fear to face this terrifying blank which makes them unable to see themselves after twenty-one. The truth is—and how long it has been true, I’m not sure, but it was true in my generation and it is true of girls growing up today—an American woman no longer has a private image to tell her who she is, or can be, or wants to be.