The Feminine Mystique | Study Guide

Betty Friedan

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The Feminine Mystique | Chapter 1 : The Problem That Has No Name | Summary



The first chapter probes a common malaise among American women, including both those who enjoy middle-class comforts and those "preoccupied with desperate problems of poverty and poor health." A wealth of statistics points to a shift from the first-wave feminism of the mid-19th century, which produced the New Woman of the 1920s and '30s, to the lives of women in the 15 years after World War II. Postwar prosperity produced the ranch-type suburban home, the picture window, the "no-stoop" kitchen, and women dedicated to fulfilling their femininity in childbearing and domestic skills. Five was the optimum number of offspring. Career girl" was a term of disparagement. Suburban housewives were domestic experts, and thus became the principle consumers and purchasing agents for the family."

Understanding the problem of feminine unease became the venues of psychoanalysis and popular culture. The problems were widely acknowledged by men and women, and met with responses ranging from the practical to the misogynist. Such responses included a call for more college courses on family management, jokes about taking away women's right to vote, popular and scientific advice on the technologies of sexual fulfillment, and serious consideration about not admitting women to four-year university programs; it was unfeminine to know too much.

At the same time, part of the difficulty of analyzing these problems is, they're not familiar problems that have always been experienced, such as sickness, poverty, or hunger. Rather, "The women who have this problem have a hunger that food cannot fulfill." Betty Friedan argues that total satisfaction with the roles of homemaker, wife, and mother is a myth. In reality, women are the victims of "incomplete truths and unreal choices." Finally, there are physical and emotional costs in succumbing to the myth: harm not only to women, but to their husbands and children as well.


First and foremost, it must be acknowledged the initial research came from the lives of middle-class white women—and although the psychological insights may hold true for more diverse groups, the missing study participants of women of color, families in poverty, and the LGBT community present challenges to the 21st-century reader. This is not a theory for a diverse culture; in fact, it is the opposite. On the other hand, the wishes and dreams and standards that represent the American Dream affect all, and many of these ideas persist in large swaths of our current culture. Moreover, the detailed manner in which Betty Friedan helps remind readers of the role culture plays in individual identity is important. Equally important is the notion that historically, there are moments when an outsider, as an observer of culture, knows things before the insider, the participant, does. The urge to belong makes us unselfconscious followers.

The absurdity of responses to women's problems Friedan cites reminds readers of how desperate the need to maintain the status quo was at the time of her writing, especially with respect to sex and gender roles. The stubbornness and tyranny of sex roles is posed against age-old practice that has ensured our survival. Moreover, readers see accommodations to problems change over time because the problems themselves do. Friedan reminds the reader that to think critically means to live authentically, and also to recognize a woman's troubles are passed along to all members of her intimate circle.

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