The Feminine Mystique


Jill W. Bishop; U of M ID # 1758728; AmSt1003/American Cultures
Submission 5, Part 2 = Journal on Lesson 9 *************************************************************

In 1963 Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique describing the image of women in their role as housewives, the role elevated to an ideal existance for American women in post World War II suburban homes. "By the end of 1949, out of three heroines in the women's magazines ...[was] shown in the act of renouncing her career and discovering that what she really wanted to be was a housewife."1 While the media provided "innumerable paeans to "Occupation: Housewife"2 Friedan observed a hollowness which she called "the problem that has no name." She then described the feminine mystique:

The feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity. ...[and] accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love. [It] makes the housewife-mothers, who never had a chance to be anything else, the model for all women; it presupposes that history has reached a final and glorious end in the here and now, as far as women are concerned. Beneath the sophisticated trappings, it simply makes certain concrete, finite, domestic aspects of feminine existence--as cooking, cleaning, washing, bearing children--into a religion, a pattern by which all women must now live or deny their femininity.3


To address complaints of wasting a college education and elevate a housewife's status, the prevailing wisdom replied that as a homemaker a woman's role as "the nurturer, the creator of children's environment is the constant recreatory of culture, civilization, and virtue."4

My mother's life illustrated Friedan's feminine mystique and closely fit Elaine May's depiction of the 1950s containment policy when "...policymakers [and] ...the creators of the popular culture ...pointed to traditional gender roles as the best means for Americans to achieve the happiness and security they desired."5 She agreed with woman in the KLS who "... found the community activities one gets involved in (PTA, Girl Scouts, League of Women Voters, Women's Club, Church) keep you as busy as a job and are equally stimulating."6 Satisfied in her role as a housewife she was willing to "accept [her] ...domestic role as the center of [her] ...identity."7 I remember my mother once telling me how early in her marriage she was anguished over not knowing who she was other than daughter/wife/mother, and my father assured her that that was exactly who she was -- those roles defined her identity. In the 1940s, for her, that was a satisfactory answer. She also once told me that she thought women had the better part of the deal in a marriage, that the wife/mother/homemaker role was a far better assignment than husband/father/provider.

I was raised on my mother's truisms, and I have conveyed many of them to my daughters by both word and example. Of course they also are influenced by the movement for women's liberation from the constraints of the feminine mystique, but they (and I) continue to feel the tug toward believing many of the myths surrounding the wonderful, mystical aspects of being a woman. The canons of women's liberation are presently politically closer to the forefront in the media and society's consciousness, but the conflicting myths of the feminine mystique are deeply embedded.

Friedan implied that the ideology of feminine mystique served to keep women in a subservient position. She asked, "Why, then, does the image deny the world? Why does it limit women to "one position, one role, one occupation"?"8 She did not paint a clear picture of a future ideal society where all members needs were met, she merely articulated a problem, pointing out that women were not the happy homemakers that they was portrayed as being. Women then sought "...a similar balance of spheres and equal power"9 in marriage and careers outside the home. But even though they were liberated from the stronghold that kept women chained to the home, full of "...determination to forge an independent identity as [women] for whom career opportunities had opened up...",10 they still believed in the feminine mystique, in the "...homemaker role as significant, important, and fulfilling."11 So then women "...suffered from double duty and remained responsible for the lion's share of child care and housework."12

When I read the excerpt from Friedan's Feminine Mystique I felt uncomfortable realizing that I had "bought into" much of the belief system for which she expressed such contempt. I realized that many of the aspects of a woman's role that she criticized were important to me, because my mother was right about some aspects as my role as a woman.

Since my children are nearly raised and my marriage is deeply set in established (traditional) patterns, I now look at the role of a woman in America in terms of my daughter's lives -- and other young women. I hope they don't listen to just my mother's truisms, nor to Friedan's. At the moment they seem to believe they can do it all; have rewarding careers, raise a family, run a home. And with a partner to share the load, maybe they can.

Friedan's book gave voice to dissatisfaction that blossomed in the women's movement that peaked in the late 1960s. As a wife and mother in the 1970s and 1980s I felt the strong influence of both the containment ideology and the liberation ideology. My daughters reflect the liberation ideology far more, but they are still living in the shadow of containment, not only the post-war propaganda and my mother's truisms (often conveyed through me), but centuries of tradition in western civilization.

In Nancy Spector's letter to Ms. in 1979 she declared that "people (correctly) assume that [her jobs outside the home, teaching college Engish and writing] demand a high level of ingenuity, commitment, education, and love. ...[ Similarly,] parenting is a job that demands a high level of ingenuity, commitment, education, and love."13 It IS a serious responsibility to raise children well--the most important responsibilty a person has to her(or him!)self and to society.

While the singular choice of being a mother-housewife robbed many women of fulfilling their potential to be anything else, Friedan's and much of the women's movement's contempt for that role led too many away from it. In striving to reach their potential as people, many women gave up active participation in parenting that caused later regret. My neighbor, Louise, an attorney and mother of one child, confided to me one day that she wished more than anything that she had had more than one child, and having a career is not all it's cracked up to be. I could tell that she felt hoodwinked by the women's movement.

The feminine mystique is alive in America today, although it is losing its influence. The people who lived in its heyday fifty years ago, like my mother, are still around spreading their truisms. Their children (my generation) are still around repeating those truisms to their children, at the same time they are preaching the conflicting truisms of the women's movement. Today's young adults are probably listening more to the message of liberated women rather than homebound wives; my daughters are. But I also know women of many different ages who are satisfied to serve their families' and community's needs rather than work outside the home, and others would very much like to live that way but cannot because of financial demands.

The availablity of women in the 1940s and 1950s to provide numerous services to families and communities established expectations of housewives in the home and community. When many women established careers and joined the workforce outside the home, all manner of needs of children and organizations were left wanting. Families and other institutions had come to depend on their availablity, and now schools and governments are striving to fill needs previously met by housewives.

Neither my mother nor Friedan had the key to a woman's happiness, but in my opinion they each told part of the answer, albeit defined too narrowly. The mistake both my mother and Friedan made was in trying to spell out the role of all or most women. My mother said happiness was at home, Friedan said happiness was outside the home. But women are unlikely to be satisfied if they are restricted either to or from the home and family.


1 Betty Freidan, "The Feminine Mystique" America Since 1945, Marcus and Burner, eds. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991) 213.

2 Friedan 211.

3 Friedan 213.

4 Friedan 212.

5 Elaine Tyler May Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1988) 90.

6 May 85.

7 May 87.

8 Friedan 209.

9 Arlie Hochschild, "Joey's Problem: Nancy and Evan Holt" America Since 1945, Marcus and Burner, eds. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991) 348.

10 Hochschild 356.

11 May 53.

12 May 223.

13 Mary Thom, ed., "Letters to Ms." America Since 1945, Marcus and Burner, eds. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991) 289.

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