The Feminine Mystique | Study Guide

Betty Friedan

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The Feminine Mystique | Chapter 5 : The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud | Summary



Betty Friedan notes the antifeminist position has taken on the authority of Freudian discourse, albeit a popular version of Freud. Troubling to Friedan is the idea the mystique is "broadcast by the very agents of education and social science that are supposed to be the chief enemies of prejudice." In other words, scholars who are supposed to be in the business of objective truth are themselves propagating the myth of the feminine mystique. Freudian thinking, which once served women's emancipation, has become the "ideological bulwark of the sexual counter-revolution."

Many examples are offered to confirm the notion Freudian theory is sociologically and scientifically out of date—and problematic in that Freud himself was a member of a repressive culture. She names the difficulties. They include Victorian determinism, a simplistic approach to cause and effect; the borrowing of physiological language to describe psychological events; and the reduction of human development to sexual terms. She also examines Freud's relationship to his own mother and to his wife, Martha, as part of her analysis.


This is an angry chapter, and Betty Friedan's passionately negative view of Sigmund Freud gained lasting traction. It was reproduced in the work of early second-wave feminists, and continues to some degree into the present. Friedan's reading of Freud, so rich in details, supports the notion of how knowledge is tailored to a particular time and place. A reductive view of Freud (which is what most readers get, because few are motivated to read all 24 volumes of the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud and the decades of commentary that follows) lends the authority of genius and of psychoanalytic theory, as Friedan asserts, to generalizations about the inferiority of women.

Similarly, Friedan's negative reading is a product of her own historical context. Though Friedan could not see it, in Freud's work there can be found a respect for the difference between the biological sexes that, in fact, makes the case for women's expansive gifts. Similarly, penis envy, in a less polarized culture than that of Friedan's America, may be viewed as a catalyst for operating outside of sexual stereotypes: women can be more or less like men and vice versa in contemporary America. And unlike in Friedan's era, the difference between biological sex and gender is now recognized. So are not only bisexuality but also the whole spectrum of human possibilities that test the Freudian categories, while not necessarily challenging their underlying principles. Thus, a contemporary reading of Freud could challenge Friedan's critique of Freudian theory in a host of ways by showing it is not, in fact, as complicit with the mystique as she suggests.

In Chapter 3, in fairness to the origins of feminist passion, Friedan lists a number of leading feminists of the first wave who were educated, sponsored, and supported by either their fathers or leading male intellectuals in the family circle. She neglects to mention Freud's mentorship of his youngest daughter, Anna, who became a well-known analyst and pioneer in developmental theory.

Still, in this chapter, fueled by her reassuring outrage, Friedan drives her point home about the perpetuation of antifeminist insults (man-eater, man-hater, castrator, natural monster). She shows how these insults are designed to constrain women from demonstrating traditionally male attributes: intellectual capacity, curiosity about the world, governing energies, and capacity for management.

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