The social sciences, which had developed significantly since Friedan started researching and writing The Feminine Mystique, had not undermined the social prejudices that hindered women’s development but had instead validated them. Functionalism (a way of thinking about individuals and institutions that stressed the “function” they serve to their society) asserted that men and women must complement each other within their traditional roles so as not to duplicate functions. In other words, social scientists had encouraged the belief that women were naturally more nurturing and were therefore more interested than men in homemaking and child-rearing. Friedan argues that social scientists and educators had abandoned their responsibility to show that gender roles are constructed, instead validating the feminine mystique which presented such roles as natural.
Friedan cites noted anthropologist Margaret Mead as a leading example of a social scientist promoting functionalism through her work. Mead’s observations of “three primitive societies” had “revealed an infinite variety of sexual patterns and the enormous plasticity of human nature.” However, those observations did not impact her view of womanhood, which she defined according to “sexual biological function.” Mead had endorsed the feminine mystique in her work, which “glorified the sexual function” and asserted independence as a masculine thing that had to be unlearned by women. In the 1960s, Mead reversed her position and voiced concern over what she described as the retreat of women— “each to her separate cave”—into domesticity. While Friedan gives Mead some credit for her ideas about motherhood, such as Mead’s encouragement of breast-feeding, she blames Mead for contributing to the feminine mystique by persuading women to believe that their biology made them predestined for a domestic role. If women had retreated to their respective “caves,” it was partly due to researchers, such as Mead, giving an intellectual basis to social myth.
The colleges that middle-class women attended also encouraged them to embrace their domestic roles as their primary functions. While some professors were disappointed by the disinterest their female students showed toward their studies (a disinterest born out of a fear of being regarded as “peculiar” or “unfeminine”), others encouraged the young women’s lack of critical thinking. Sex-directed educators—that is, instructors and administrators who encouraged women to embrace training in “feminine” subjects, such as home economics—reinforced the assumption that a woman’s main desire was to have children and that college should be a training ground for her primary duties as a wife and mother. On the other hand, educators did not offer this “family-minded training” to boys because it would have taken time away from their education. Many young college women had used the prospect of marriage and children to avoid the hard work of intellectual development. A minority of those who had taken their educations seriously reported, in a survey, feeling that their educations had made it more difficult for them to be content in their roles as housewives. Conformity to such a prescribed role—which emphasized “feminine” virtues such as passivity and intuition over independence and critical thinking—was easier than doing the work of forging one’s own identity and life goals.
Friedan shows how academia, like advertising firms, was complicit in convincing women that they were meant to be housewives. While ad firms pitched the message, institutions of higher learning very often validated that message and indoctrinated women with it. If this were not enough, respected scholars reaffirmed the feminine mystique in their work, elevating it the status of research-based fact. While advertisers had no responsibility to pursue truth, scholars and educators did. The inability of social scientists and educators to distinguish the fiction of the feminine mystique from facts about human behavior merely revealed how deeply ingrained the mystique had become in people’s minds and attitudes toward women. Friedan shows how unclear the distinction had become between “natural” behavior and that which was learned and systematically reinforced.
Nature vs. Nurture ThemeTracker
Nature vs. Nurture Quotes in The Feminine Mystique
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 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?
“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.
There is also a new vacant sleepwalking, playing-a-part quality of youngsters who do not know what they are supposed to do, what the other kids do, but do not seem to feel alive or real in doing it.
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.