The Feminine Mystique | Study Guide

Betty Friedan

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The Feminine Mystique | Chapter 11 : The Sex-Seekers | Summary

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Summary

A damaging effect of the mystique, the American woman's sexuality has become, to her, "the only important thing in life," the thing that makes her feel alive. Betty Friedan says the "mounting sex hunger of American women has been documented ad nauseam"—everywhere from academic studies to the media. In magazines, novels, ads, and television, the American woman has been reduced to her sexuality. When a woman places "her whole identity on her sexual role," everything in her life is affected. Most problematic: the "frustrated sexual hunger of women has increased" because their sole fulfillment of the sexual role is in the home. The "sexual disinterest of American men and their hostility to women" increased in the period of this study. From 1950 to 1960, the interest of men in the details of intercourse was exceeded by that of women, who were reading fiction best sellers and "health" features in women's magazines. Incidences of hysterectomy, menstrual complaints, and difficult pregnancies correlate with lives that revolved "almost exclusively around the reproductive function."

Advertisers, using sexual messages, cater to sexual hunger when selling products that have nothing to do with sex. Sex is depersonalized and women are objectified. Men feel bored and inferior (given the sexual demands of their wives) and at the same time oppressed by the housewives' domineering expertise with domestic matters and child-rearing. Men turn to infidelity in a need for self-assertion. With mothers who dominate and unfulfilled wives who identify themselves by their husband's successes, men come to hate the parasitic nature of women. In fact, popular accounts of Freud label dominating mothers as the cause of homosexuality in men.

Analysis

There is a lot of dated psychologizing with respect to sexual relations in this chapter—and a lot that rings true. Beside the commentary on heterosexual relations, there are remarks on homosexuality that are only useful as historical artifacts. Betty Friedan was publicly unsympathetic to lesbians. She attempted to establish NOW (National Organization for Women) as a feminist organization that would be less threatening without them—a matter of politics, she maintained, but troublingly exclusionary nonetheless.

The main idea of this chapter is "sex without self ... casts an ever-darkening shadow" over women's identities and that of their children, while at the same time, alienating men. This idea does bear examination in the light of the present. Friedan asserts that male hostility in the period she studies is directly related to the housewife's increased and misplaced sexual demands. Those demands are substitutes for her emptiness, her lack of independence, and an inability to fulfill herself. Male hostility also arises from the housewife's sense of superiority in her domestic achievements: a fashionable home, well maintained, and all childcare responsibilities and concomitant knowledge. But given the long history of patriarchal dominance, placing blame for male hostility on women's behaviors specific to this era, however conditioned they might have been, may be a difficult argument for some readers.

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