The Feminine Mystique | Study Guide

Betty Friedan

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The Feminine Mystique | Chapter 8 : The Mistaken Choice | Summary



Culture does not cast a magic spell. Historical circumstances help explain the society's general readiness for the feminine mystique. World War ll ended in the greatest trauma perhaps the world had ever known: the atomic bomb. Soldiers, young and old, were returned to home and hearth. Most were too old to return to their families of origin, and freed by the G.I. Bill, many could afford marriage, children, and college education immediately upon their return. Girls, lonely women, and war widows were as ready as the men. The postwar baby boom was a worldwide phenomenon, but "it was not permeated in most other countries, with the mystique of feminine fulfillment." Nor did it lead elsewhere to the even greater population explosion of the 1950s, the rise of teenage marriage, and the increase in family size.

At the same time that femininity was the ideal, women were blamed for the wartime and postwar problems of men—particularly mothers. One false step in parenting could make the difference between a healthy individual and one incapacitated by neuroses. Working mothers were, according to studies, "responsible for juvenile delinquency, school difficulties, or emotional disturbance in their children." Other doctors saw maternal overprotection as the problem, with a poorly functioning, neurotic son as the outcome. The ideal of maternity and the protection of the peace of the home were, thus, essential to the returning soldier and his future children.

Missing from this unremitting attack on women were narratives of the nonsexual pressures on men: the "rat race" of the workplace. Still, the questions for women remain. Why does the American woman "seek the sanctuary of the home ... to live by sex alone"? Why does she make the "mistaken choice"? And a hint of an answer: "Powerful forces in this nation must be served by those pretty domestic pictures that stare at us everywhere." Women's passive dependence, their femininity, "makes American women a target and victim of the sexual sell."


Leaving no stone unturned, Betty Friedan considers the logic of historical circumstance for the 1950s' idealization of femininity, and then returns to the psychoanalytic and sociological reasons for blaming "Mom" for the widespread masculine neuroses. Yet, these explanations are not definitive. The question of the mystique as a purely American phenomenon is not solved here, although the end of the chapter provides a new phrase: "the sexual sell."

Chapter by chapter, Friedan ranges across disciplines, cites surveys that support her opinions without noting contrasting examples, and interrupts with personal disclosures and observations. She does not fulfill a familiar rhetorical logic in her argument. Instead, she creates a rhetoric by framing her arguments with compelling invented phrases, often beginning with hints of the chapter's conclusions and finishing with a reference to the invented diction of the section to follow. The opening paragraph to this section cites the exclusively American nature of the mystique and points to another crux of her investigation: the question of the purveyors of the mystique—that is, who promotes the mystique and why. In the chapter's last words, she points to this question again in her use of the term "the sexual sell." The term suggests not literal prostitution, but the nonsexual, typically American, capitalist origins of the mystique.

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