The Feminine Mystique | Study Guide

Betty Friedan

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The Feminine Mystique | Chapter 10 : Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available | Summary



This chapter disputes a fundamental notion of the mystique—the role for women in the home is equal to the role of men in society—by examining the nature of work, the chronic fatigue and depression of full-time housewives, and the increase in the number of full-time housewives in the 1960s. In 1930 women constituted nearly half of the professional workforce; by 1960 the numbers had dropped to 36% despite the fact the number of women graduating college had tripled. Anecdotally, Betty Friedan measures the happiness of middle-class housewives and predictably finds those who combine meaningful work outside the home with homemaking enjoy better mental health than those whose lives are limited to home and family, no matter the level of education they have achieved.

Strains on suburban homemakers include lack of privacy in open house plans, where the messiness of everyday life is scattered throughout rather than contained in rooms with walls and doors. Also, monotonous work, "unpunctuated by triumph or disaster," is a source of chronic fatigue and depression. This is true whether it is the repetitive work of the full-time homemaker or that of a man on an assembly line. Monotony breeds boredom, emphasized when the intelligence of the worker exceeds the job requirements. Predictable results include alcoholism, obesity, chronic fatigue, and lack of interest in sex. With only the home and family on which to focus all of her energies and abilities, "the young American wife—easily, inevitably, disastrously—began to dominate the family," to the distress of all members of the household.


Although the examples in this chapter speak specifically to middle-class America, the domination of the mystique raises questions about women's roles in family life that persist in present time. Betty Friedan makes observations about the role of men with respect to shared housekeeping, the effects of housework expanding to fill available time, and the effects of the supermom on children and the institution of marriage. Her conclusions sometimes seem so familiar it is easy to uncritically accept them as givens, as simply "the way things are." But this chapter holds promise in its critical examination of family and gender roles, and most of all, in its insistence on meaningful work and social engagement as essential to the individual psyche and the good health of society at large.

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