The Feminine Mystique | Study Guide

Betty Friedan

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The Feminine Mystique | Chapter 12 : Progressive Dehumanization: The Comfortable Concentration Camp | Summary



Clinicians, social scientists, and analysts are concerned by the passivity, boredom, and softness in American children. Conformists to a fault, the youth seem unmotivated and vacant. They don't have the discipline to excel or compete for places on a team or on a college application. These unappealing attitudes are viewed as a change in the American character. Initially, this endemic laziness was attributed to historical events: the threats of the McCarthy era, the horror of the atomic bomb, Soviet excellence in the space race. Emotional passivity was visible in "bearded beatnikery"—a reference to the beatnik subculture of the 1950s and '60s whose members are often stereotyped as disaffected and self-involved. During this time, juvenile delinquency rose in slums and in middle-class communities. Promiscuity, vandalism, riots, venereal disease, and dropouts from high school and college were characteristic of the behavior of the "gimme" generation. Men exhibited characteristics generally relegated to women, including passivity and a weak sense of self. Betty Friedan also cites a doctor who studied the behavior of American men captured in the Korean War. The captives displayed an inability to adapt an absolute lack of compassion for fellow prisoners—something not seen in previous American wars.

According to Friedan, these soulless men were raised by mothers who substituted their own dreams for fixations on the well-being of their children. Taking the term from biology, these mother–child relationships are designated as being symbiotic, which describes when two organisms live as one. Children raised in such circumstances suffer "dehumanization," including a lack of connection to experience, as they are simply acting out the passions of equally empty mothers. Early marriages and the emotional dependence of women resulted in a rise in the rate of separations, child battering, psychiatric hospitalizations, and suicides. Finally, Friedan compares the situation of these women—without selves, confined in traps of their own making—to concentration camp victims. She maintains they are similarly deprived of the opportunity to live, trapped in a brute existence, and caught in the struggle for survival.


While the suffering of families is real and the case histories presented are compelling, the citation of the mystique as foundational to the changing character of the average American in a 15-year period after World War II bears scrutiny. The idea of maternal behavior as the key to national character is not an easy sell. There are many other stories that the very same statistics could tell, and Betty Friedan's story ignores. In particular, she does not consider the millions of women in poverty whose struggle for survival precludes the time and the energy to overmother their children or sexually dominate their husbands.

This is not to say Friedan's analysis of the mystique is not a powerful one, and one that held promise in the early 1960s: in understanding the mystique, it could be changed. And the spirit of the 1960s did offer prospects for change. Undeniably, much has changed. There has been an increase in women in professional schools, in government, and in corporate life. At the same time, the number of stay-at-home housewives has had millennial growth: 23% of married women were at home full time in 1999 and 29% in 2014, suggesting that in an era (such as the present) when women have work and other interests outside the home, women also have the freedom to stay at home during child-rearing years. The conditions for feminist equality are not the same today as in 1963. But Friedan's analysis was earthshaking at the moment in which it was needed, and it still offers food for thought in the present.

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