The Feminine Mystique | Study Guide

Betty Friedan

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The Feminine Mystique | Chapter 7 : The Sex-Directed Educators | Summary



In the years following World War II, more American women were attending college than ever before, but two out of three dropped out before finishing. Among the most able, almost none were interested in graduate or professional degrees. As a result, disillusioned faculty resigned; a number of women's colleges went out of business; male university professors recommended that student spots in colleges should not be "wasted" on women; and women's colleges with high academic standings talked about admitting male students. Visiting Smith in 1959, Friedan reports students confided that girls who studied hard were considered peculiar, intellectual discussion was barred in some college houses, and most students were biding their time until they found the right man. Common worries were that "educators were guilty of defeminizing American women, of dooming them to frustration as housewives and mothers" or to "celibate careers, to life without orgasm." In elite colleges across the country, women educators and college presidents were forbidden by the mystique to speak of personal experiences. Female faculty adopted frilly blouses or flowered hats in advertisement of their femininity. Courses with high intellectual content were considered inappropriate for women because they were "masculine" (fine arts, pure science, abstract theory), while sociology, anthropology, and psychology, along with the applied or minor arts (ceramics, textiles) were "feminine." The result was a sex-directed curriculum: the goal, to educate women not to be scholars but to be wives and mothers.

Poor educational choices for girls begin in high school, with family minded courses that could be taught again with "greater intensity" at the college level. High school students were offered courses in dating dos and don'ts, and how to dress (wearing brassieres—needed or not—and slips under all dresses and skirts to conceal the body proper). "Exceptional" was a term reserved for the disabled and for the genius. Conformity was the goal for all others.

Thus, the girl "growing up with brains and spirit learns ... to watch her step ... not to be herself." Surveys and popular accounts offer confirming results from the era of sex-directed education: developmentally, girls' mental, emotional, and personal growth is stunted. Finally, education cannot be made the scapegoat: "In the last analysis, millions of able women ... chose, themselves, not to use the door education could have opened for them." Betty Friedan closes, "The choice—and the responsibility—for the race back home was finally their own."


The passage that ends the chapter is a remarkably strange undercutting of a persuasive argument. Nonetheless, the chapter is filled with examples from real life, scholarly books, and interviews with teachers and students. These demonstrate points of view that are counterintuitive to contemporary readers, silly to a point that it tests common sense or belief. Still, convincing evidence is there that sex-directed education, in most cases, arrested the development of American girls across several decades. The exceptions were girls handicapped by physical disabilities (such as blindness or deafness and mental problems), including "genius." Adversity, as is noted in this chapter and confirmed in current common knowledge and common sense, offers a developmental boost. That is, the life challenges of a compromised body or an unusual mind boost resistance to the infirmity and encourage resistance as an existential habit. So, just as college girls who conformed to the advice to preserve their femininity (by not working too hard or becoming too smart) developed lazy habits and abandoned intellectual curiosity; exceptional girls engaged in the struggle for survival were the best candidates for the development of strong identities. Exceptional girls, according to Friedan's research, often suffered depression and related emotional struggles, which required psychiatric counseling, a predictable effect of nonconformity. From this group comes the examples of women who survived the feminine mystique and found paths to fulfillment in careers across many disciplines; in most cases, without fear of celibacy. To survive with a divided consciousness is both a penalty and a reward of the retrograde thinking about women in an era of global change and progress.

Also notable in this chapter are interviews with women who had completed college and those who dropped out. The consensus was regret at not working harder, learning more, and finding meaningful work. Betty Friedan makes the point that, despite the arrested development that characterized the early years of these women's lives, there are many late arrivals to intellectual curiosity.

The turn at the chapter's end is, thus, a stern reminder and a profound conviction that no matter one's beginnings, the prospects for choice and responsibility are fundamental to the human condition, and stress can be a catalyst for change. And, it is never too late in an individual's life to act in one's own behalf.

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