Friedan offers work outside the home as the true antidote to the problem that has no name. She does not advocate for just any kind of work (since purposeless work would only reinforce a woman’s sense of purposelessness), but for work that allows a woman to display her talents and to build relationships with people outside of the home. The feminine mystique had convinced women that their sole purpose was the performance of housework—menial tasks that took women out of the world. Friedan argues that work outside of the home was critical in helping women feel less isolated, and in helping them to construct an adult identity.
Notions of proper femininity dictated that if a woman performed any tasks outside of the home, they should be duties related to their children, such as becoming a member of the Parent-Teacher Association. However, for many women, domestic and community-related duties did not suffice in satisfying their creative energy or their urges to make a difference in the world. Very often, women directed their need for work-related achievement into their children, with detrimental results. Popular psychology had promoted the “symbiosis” concept, which “strongly implied that the constant loving care of the mother was absolutely necessary for the child’s growth.” The merging of mother and child had, instead, stunted both, creating mothers who lived vicariously through their children and children who could not form their own identities due to the constant interference of the mother. The children of such overly attentive mothers developed passivity, allowing their mothers to manage their responsibilities. Friedan uses the example of a “world famous” school system in affluent Westchester County, New York whose stellar graduates had gone on to be poor students in college. An investigation revealed that their mothers had been doing their homework, even writing their term papers, throughout high school. The mother’s need for achievement supplanted the child’s own, creating a generation of youth that eschewed responsibility in favor of “kicks,” or temporary enjoyment, which sometimes led them to delinquency.
Friedan uses these reports not only to undermine ideas in pop psychology which reinforced the feminine mystique, but also to illustrate the ways in which an absence of fulfilling work for women created unhappiness all around, with women resenting their husbands for not helping with housework and smothering their children’s potential for self-actualization. Friedan reasoned that, if women had real opportunities for self-actualization—that is, if they felt engaged in matters beyond themselves and their immediate relations—they and their families would report more satisfaction. According to one “massive and famous” sociological study that Friedan cites, happiness and sexual satisfaction in marriage corresponded with professional achievement. Women in professional careers, including teachers, lawyers, and doctors, reported more personal satisfaction than those who “held skilled office positions,” such as being a secretary or file clerk. Happiness corresponded not only to professional achievement, but also to income. In other words, the higher a woman’s income, the more likely she was to report satisfaction in her marriage. A skilled office worker was, therefore, less likely to be satisfied than a professional, but far likelier to report marital satisfaction than a woman who had learned a vocation, a woman who performed menial work to supplement family income, or a woman who had never worked.
Though it seems that Friedan supports a capitalist model of achievement—arguing that fulfilment will come through economic productivity and that higher levels of income can contribute to a woman’s happiness—she also allows for the possibility that rewarding work does not necessarily have to be a salaried job. Work, in whatever form it took, was a pursuit that helped a woman feel like she was a part of the world and had something valuable to contribute to it, independent of her biological function as a woman.
Work Quotes in The Feminine Mystique
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.
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.
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?
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.