The central problem of The Feminine Mystique is the prevalence of American women in the post-World War II era who identified as housewives, not only viewing themselves in relation to their husbands and children, but also seeking personal fulfillment through their performance of tedious and repetitive housework. Domesticity had created what Friedan calls a “trap” that prevented women from growing into fully self-actualized individuals with knowledge of their abilities beyond housework and mothering, and interests beyond the confines of their homes. Messages in media, particularly the women’s magazines to which women looked for advice, catered to the notion that the domestic world was the only one that mattered. Friedan explains the ways in which society had equated domesticity with femininity, forcing women into roles they believed they had chosen, but had not.
Housework, a simple fact of daily life, had become a calling for white, middle-class women in postwar America, but an unfulfilling one, particularly for women who had obtained college educations. Though these women had obeyed convention—whether by leaving their jobs at munitions factories after the war, or by forfeiting their educations in favor of husbands—housework had left them with the conflicting sense of having both too much to do and nothing at all to do. In her research, Friedan discovered that full-time housewives took more time to complete housework than career women, and they spent less time on leisure. Whereas the career woman found time to read in the evenings, the average housewife found this impossible due to the feeling of having too many tasks to perform around the house. The preoccupation with housework seemed to take up more time and energy than the labor itself. According to Friedan, housewives frequently expended more energy on housework than necessary just to make up for their boredom. The problem was not a lack of things to do—for, housework technically never ends—but, a lack of anything substantive to do. What’s worse, housewives’ identification through others—their husbands and children—made them feel guilty about time that they dedicated to themselves, often leading them to spend more time than necessary on a single chore.
According to an article in McCall’s magazine from April 1957 titled “Is Boredom Bad for You,” the “cure” for domestic boredom was to find “honest enjoyment in some part of the job such as cooking or an incentive such as a party.” The author also mentions “male praise” as a “good [antidote] for domestic boredom.” Friedan cites the article as an example of how the feminine mystique sought to convince housewives to regard their housework as a “job”—equal to other jobs in its occasional drudgery, but with the external benefits of parties and male praise. Meanwhile, the article never addresses the internal problem of chronic dissatisfaction which led to problems such as alcoholism, overeating, and the abuse of tranquilizers.
The feminine mystique had coaxed women into believing that their activities within their homes comprised the only world they needed to know. A properly feminine woman was solely dedicated to domesticity. During the Eisenhower era, women’s magazines, which usually had male editors, promoted images of women who had no other purpose in the world than “snaring a husband” and committing to life as a housewife. The “mystique” led to the creation of a “happy housewife heroine” who contrasted with the spirited career women of the 1930s and 1940s. The magazines published stories about women who were younger, both “in looks” and in their “childlike kind of dependence.” When they envisioned the future, it was exclusively with family-planning in mind. When they talked about money, it was never anything “boring, like taxes or reciprocal trade agreements, or foreign aid programs”—though they knew about these things; rather, it was how to increase their allowances. Stories such as “The Sandwich Maker” showed a woman using her creativity and entrepreneurial spirit to start a lunch service. However, the story concludes with the woman abandoning her successful but overwhelming enterprise in relief after finding out that she is pregnant. The “happy housewife” in these stories usually found work to be “too much” and was relieved to revert back to her “job” as a mother, while letting her husband be the “boss” of money.
The “mystique” had forced women to choose between being career women and wives and mothers, whereas the New Woman of the 1920s and 1930s had had both a “passionate determination to live her own life”—and to love a man. By the 1950s, taking an individual interest in one’s own pursuits and learning about the world beyond the home had come to be seen as “unfeminine.” Women’s magazines avoided publishing articles about the issues of the day—such as desegregation or the Cold War—due to the belief that their readership lacked an interest. The goal of the magazines seemed to be to keep women’s perspectives narrow—to confine their minds to the home as securely as their bodies had been. A woman who was interested in the issues of the day might be tempted to participate in them, thereby disrupting the static mode of life that made her “feminine.”
Friedan illustrates the domestic sphere as a feminine-centered world that has little to do with women or their realities. Rather, it is a world based on an idea of how women ought to live. The solution for boredom in domesticity, according to Friedan, did not lie in digging deeper into one aspect of housework to find enjoyment, but rather in ceasing to valorize housework at all. Furthermore, she insisted on doing away with the image of the housewife—a woman defined by her relationship to housework—in favor of an image of womanhood based on women’s actual capabilities and desire to contribute to the world in meaningful ways, a desire which necessitates that women move beyond the limits of the home.
Domesticity and Femininity ThemeTracker
Domesticity and Femininity 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 image of woman that emerges from this big, pretty magazine is young and frivolous, almost childlike; fluffy and feminine; passive; gaily content in a world of bedroom and kitchen, sex, babies, and home. The magazine surely does not leave out sex; the only passion, the only pursuit, the only goal a woman is permitted is the pursuit of a man. It is crammed full of food, clothing, cosmetics, furniture, and the physical bodies of young women, but where is the world of thought and ideas, the life of the mind and spirit? In the magazine image, women do no work except housework and work to keep their bodies beautiful and to get and keep a man.
The feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity. It says that the great mistake of Western culture, through most of its history, has been the undervaluation of femininity. It says that this femininity is so mysterious and intuitive and close to the creation and origin of life that man-made science may never be able to understand it. But however special and different, it is in no way inferior to the nature of man; it may even in certain respects be superior. The mistake, says the mystique, the root of women’s troubles in the past is that women envied men, women tried to be like men, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love.
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.
The expectations of feminine fulfillment that are fed to women by magazines, television, movies, and books that popularize psychological half-truths, and by parents, teachers, and counselors who accept the feminine mystique, operate as a kind of youth serum, keeping most women in the state of sexual larvae, preventing them from achieving the maturity of which they are capable.
Only men had the freedom to love, and enjoy love, and decide for themselves in the eyes of their God the problems of right and wrong. Did women want these freedoms because they wanted to be men? Or did they want them because they were also human?
Did women really go home again as a reaction to feminism? The fact is that to women born after 1920, feminism was dead history. It ended as a vital movement in America with the winning of that final right: the vote. In the 1930’s and 40’s, the sort of woman who fought for woman’s rights was still concerned with human rights and freedom—for Negroes, for oppressed workers, for victims of Franco’s Spain and Hitler’s Germany. But no one was much concerned with rights for women: they had all been won. And yet the man-eating myth prevailed.
“Normal” femininity is achieved, however, only insofar as the woman finally renounces all active goals of her own, all her own “originality,” to identify and fulfill herself through the activities and goals of her husband, or son.
Girls who grew up playing baseball, baby-sitting, mastering geometry—almost independent enough, almost resourceful enough, to meet the problems of the fission-fusion era—were told by the most advanced thinkers of our time to go back and live their lives as if they were Noras, restricted to the doll’s house by Victorian prejudice. And their own respect and awe for the authority of science—anthropology, sociology, psychology share that authority now—kept them from questioning the feminine mystique.
In the foxholes, the GI’s had pinned up pictures of Betty Grable, but the songs they asked to hear were lullabies. And when they got out of the army they were too old to go home to their mothers. The needs of sex and love are undeniably real in men and women, boys and girls, but why at this time did they seem to so many the only needs?
But what happens when a woman bases her whole identity on her sexual role; when sex is necessary to make her “feel alive?” To state it quite simply, she puts impossible demands on her own body, her “femaleness,” as well as on her husband and his “maleness.” A marriage counselor told me that many of the young suburban wives he dealt with make “such heavy demands on love and marriage, but there is no excitement, no mystery, sometimes almost literally nothing happens.”
According to Kinsey, the majority of American middle-class males’ sexual outlets are not in relations with their wives after the fifteenth year of marriage; at fifty-five, one out of two American men is engaging in extramarital sex. His male sex-seeking—the office romance, the casual or intense affair, even the depersonalized sex-for-sex’s sake…is, as often as not, motivated by the need to escape from the devouring wife. Sometimes the man seeks the human relationship that got lost when he became an appendage to his wife’s aggressive “home career.” Sometimes his aversion to his wife finally makes him seek in sex an object totally divorced from any human relationship. Sometimes, in phantasy more often than in fact, he seeks a girl-child, a Lolita, as sexual object—to escape that grownup woman who is devoting all her aggressive energies, as well as her sexual energies, to living through him.
And so progressive dehumanization has carried the American mind in the last fifteen years from youth worship to that sick “love affair” with our own children; from preoccupation with the physical details of sex, divorced from a human framework, to a love affair between man and animal.
We have gone on too long blaming or pitying the mothers who devour their children, who sow the seeds of progressive dehumanization, because they have never grown to full humanity themselves. If the mother is at fault, why isn’t it time to break the pattern by urging all these Sleeping Beauties to grow up and live their own lives? There will never be enough Prince Charmings, or enough therapists to break that pattern now. It is society’s job, and finally that of each woman alone. For it is not the strength of the mothers that is at fault but their weakness, their passive childlike dependency and immaturity that is mistaken for “femininity.”
The comfortable concentration camp that American women have walked into or have been talked into by others […] denies women’s adult human identity. By adjusting to it, a woman stunts her intelligence to become childlike, turns away from individual identity to become an anonymous biological robot in a docile mass. She becomes less than human, preyed upon by outside pressures, and herself preying upon her husband and children. And the longer she conforms, the less she feels as if she really exists. She looks for her security in things, she hides the fear of losing her human potency by testing her sexual potency, she lives a vicarious life through mass daydreams or through her husband and children. She does not want to be reminded of the outside world; she becomes convinced there is nothing she can do about her own life or the world that would make a difference.
In our society, love has customarily been defined, at least for women, as a complete merging of egos and a loss of separateness— “togetherness,” a giving up of individuality rather than a strengthening of it.
A woman today who has no goal, no purpose, no ambition patterning her days into the future, making her stretch and grow beyond that small score of years in which her body can fill its biological function, is committing a kind of suicide.
Perhaps women who have made it as “exceptional” women don’t really identify with other women. For them, there are three classes of people: men, other women, and themselves; their very status as exceptional women depends on keeping other women quiet, and not rocking the boat.
“What we need is a political movement, a social movement like that of the blacks.”
It seemed to me that men weren’t really the enemy—they were fellow victims, suffering from an outmoded masculine mystique that made them feel unnecessarily inadequate when there were no bears to kill.