The Feminine Mystique | Study Guide

Betty Friedan

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The Feminine Mystique | Chapter 3 : The Crisis in Woman's Identity | Summary

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Summary

This chapter begins with a personal anecdote—a life-changing moment in which Betty Friedan acknowledges that at age 21, she had no plan for her adult life. Offered a prestigious graduate fellowship at Berkeley, she walked away. Part of her decision rested with the comment of her current boyfriend (also a graduate student) who announced nothing could come of their relationship because he could never reach her level of achievement. Talking with Smith College seniors 15 years later, Friedan found that the same attitudes prevailed: young women immersed in the life of the mind and ideas about the world were unable to choose a future vocation. This group of college seniors were either engaged, waiting to get married, or researching situations in which they might find appropriate mates. Friedan acknowledges her generation and her mother's generation consisted of women who had relinquished impossible dreams for careers and made do with busy domestic lives.

Daughters, rejecting their mothers' disappointments, found models in readily available glossy public images. In magazine ads and TV commercials, feminine power was purchasing power, amidst a wealth of labor-saving devices and beauty-enhancing products. The alternatives were grim: "The old maid high school teacher, the librarian, the one woman doctor in town, who cut her hair like a nun."

The crisis for girls who have no real choice is that they are protected from the trials of adolescence. For the psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson, youth—meaning boys—suffer the major trauma of adolescence: the identity crisis, which is the time when boys forge a central perspective and direction. The conclusion is that the identity crisis is a developmental necessity for "youth." Friedan concludes the chapter noting girls—though offered the ideal of women's fulfillment—are in no way prepared to face the Eriksonian turning point. This point is embodied in the crisis that leads from an immaturity called femininity to full human identity.

Analysis

Full human identity is the value that replaces 1950s' style successful femininity. The chapter has a singular focus: in citing Erikson, Friedan stresses a developmental crisis—the identity crisis—as the initiation of a life stage to which women are not privy. Girls, educated to seek intellectual fulfillment and male privilege, flee into marriage because they are not permitted the crisis. Betty Friedan urges a reversal of the notion that femininity must be protected at all costs, and advocates for the identity crisis as a turning away from the immaturity of femininity in order to become fully human. The definition of 1950s' femininity includes the idea of escape into maternity and domestic life. The rhetorical contrast is the notion of becoming "fully human." How could one fail to choose the latter? The crisis of women's identity, then, is the crisis of not experiencing an identity crisis. In other words, femininity means complacency and arrested development.

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