Unreal Choices: On The Feminine Mystique
“The book,” Friedan writes, “came from somewhere deep within me and all my experience came together in it: my mother’s discontent, my own training in Gestalt and Freudian psychology, the fellowship I felt guilty about giving up, the stint as a reporter which taught me how to follow clues to the hidden economic underside of reality, my exodus to the suburbs and all the hours with other mothers shopping at supermarkets, taking the children swimming, coffee klatches. Even the years of writing for women’s magazines.”
Today, we take many of The Feminine Mystique’s conclusions for granted. But it is striking to observe just how carefully and methodically Friedan builds her case. She begins, powerfully, with this justly celebrated paragraph, which sounds like it was written for posterity:
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?”
Friedan focused on two successive generations of women. Those in their 40s and 50s—including, at the margins, Friedan’s own graduating class—felt the pain of having given up their dreams of a career in favor of domesticity. By contrast, younger women, raised in the heyday of the mystique, had been inculcated “from earliest girlhood” with the notion that their only permissible dream was to marry and have children.
In the evolving cultural imagination, career women were associated with the stigmatized notion of spinsterhood. Familial bliss and intellectually fulfilling paid work were deemed mutually exclusive. The results of this conditioning—so universal then, so alien to us now—were statistically measurable: in the falling average age of marriage for women (20 and sinking), the rising number of children per household and the growing tendency for women to drop out of college, abandoning an education that seemed to serve mainly to enhance their dinner-party conversation.
By 1960, as Friedan was writing, the anomie afflicting these housebound women was starting to be reported by mainstream media, but in dismissive, defensive tones. “From the beginning of time, the female cycle has defined and confined woman’s role. As Freud was credited with saying: ‘Anatomy is destiny,’” Newsweek opined. Why, the magazine asked, could all these economically privileged American women not accept these restrictions “with good grace?”
Such pleas for women to desist and defer only buttressed Friedan’s assault. Paving the way for what would become feminist consciousness-raising, she wrote, somewhat awkwardly, that the constraints on the American woman were, first and foremost, “chains in her own mind and spirit…chains made up of mistaken ideas and misinterpreted facts, of incomplete truths and unreal choices.” In her attack on the “happy housewife heroine” portrayed by women’s magazines, Friedan shoulders some blame. “I helped create this image,” she confesses, but she knows better now—realizes, she writes sardonically, that “a baked potato is not as big as the world.” She recapitulates the history of the first wave of the women’s movement, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in a chapter titled “The Passionate Journey.” Striding through this chapter is Nora, the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House (1879), a symbol of confinement and eventual liberation. In densely argued passages that reveal her academic training and inclinations, Friedan issues a series of indictments: of culture-bound Freudian psychology and its contemporary popularizers; of functionalist social scientists, including Margaret Mead, who confound the descriptive with the normative; and of what she calls “sex-directed educators” who, among other failings, have diluted college with courses like “Marriage and the Family.”
And yet, as Friedan writes, “A mystique does not compel its own acceptance.” The aftermath of war, loneliness and fear helped convince the American woman to embrace her “mistaken choice,” sending her “back home again to live by sex alone, trading in her individuality for security.” The words are incendiary, serving as prelude to one of Friedan’s most powerful arguments: that women are “a target and a victim of the sexual sell.”
It is this sexual sell that “powers it all”—that, Friedan argues, helped transform the energy of the earlier feminist movement into the lethargy of the mystique. Friedan is no conspiracy theorist, she avers, but she writes: “Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that women will buy more things if they are kept in the underused, nameless-yearning, energy-to-get-rid-of state of being housewives.” (In her 2006 preface to the fifteenth anniversary edition of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Susan Faludi advances a similar argument, complaining that “the feminist ethic of economic independence has become the golden apple of buying power.”) At this crucial point, Friedan turns investigative reporter and visits a professional marketer, who allows her to read his research and analysis. It reflects, she says, “a shrewd cheerful awareness of the empty, purposeless, uncreative, even sexually joyless lives that most American housewives lead.” The American woman needed to be told that household devices and products would save her time without rendering her superfluous, that they would instead enhance her creativity or demonstrate her technical expertise and mastery. It was a delicate marketing dance. In the end, in yet another enduring phrase (a recasting of “Parkinson’s Law”), Friedan would declare that “housewifery expands to fill the time available.”
Friedan’s rhetoric grows apocalyptic at times, overheated, fueled by fury. The household of the 1950s was, for her, a “comfortable concentration camp,” in which women sought a destructive symbiosis with their husbands and children, victimizing them in the process. The mystique left devastation in its wake. What could change this grim picture? Only a new “life plan,” with each woman finding “creative work of her own,” Friedan concludes.
* * *
The Feminine Mystique and the reinvigorated women’s movement of the early 1970s shook my household, as they did so many others. In a letter to a friend, my father complained mildly that my mother had “discovered Women’s Lib” and was now asking him to share cooking duties. He wasn’t alone: my sister and I were corralled into regular housecleaning chores.
While we labored, my mother, more restless than ever, returned to her dissertation and spent many hours working at a nearby college library. But without a community of teachers and classmates, she felt isolated. Self-doubt and her native perfectionism overwhelmed her. Blaming her dissertation adviser for his lack of support, she put the project aside.
Nevertheless, in her 60s, she finally was able to secure a teaching job. She spent a semester, maybe two, as an adjunct at a local private university—she proudly saved every pay stub—and then a few years teaching night classes at a noncredit extension school for adults. She put as much time and effort into preparing those courses—on subjects like “Fiction Into Film” and “Japanese Culture”—as the most diligent college professor. When her teaching ended, she avidly resumed her own studies, auditing college courses in German, Greek, art history and a dozen other subjects.
During my mother’s final illness, she often boasted to her nurses that both her daughters had attended Harvard, a mark of her success as a mother. She was taking stock, imagining a life well lived. But she also trekked to the attic to unearth her old graduate school papers, which she had kept for almost six decades. After my mother died, my sister and I faced the melancholy task of emptying the house, the prison that she had grown to love and refused to leave. In a dressing-room closet redolent of mothballs and filled with thrift-store clothing, I discovered an old leather satchel. It contained hundreds of handwritten and typed pages, every note and draft of her unfinished dissertation.