The Feminine Mystique | Study Guide

Betty Friedan

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The Feminine Mystique | Chapter 9 : The Sexual Sell | Summary



While by the 1960s most women have access to opportunities for fulfillment outside of the home, the question remains: why do "so few have any purpose in life other than to be a wife and mother"? Economic logic prevails: women are the purchasing agents of their households. The perpetuation of the feminine mystique "makes sense (and dollars)." Housewives—that is, women whose abilities are underused, whose nameless yearning is unfulfilled—buy more things. And because women yield the majority of purchasing power in the United States, "75% of consumer advertising budgets is spent to appeal to women."

Around 1945 Betty Friedan points out, the study of the psychology of the American housewife originated in the Institute for Motivational Research in upstate New York. The stated goal was the manipulation of the housewife-consumer who "can be given a sense of identity, purpose, creativity, the self-realization, even the sexual joy they lack—by the buying of things." Using a survey of 4,500 women, the Institute created categories and strategies for selling to each group: the True Housewife Type, the Career Woman, the Balanced Homemaker. By the early 1950s the manipulators had discovered pay dirt: teenagers and young married women constituted a group more "insecure, less independent" and thus, easier to sell. The chapter closes with chilling observations: "Perhaps, it is only a sick or immature society that chooses to make women 'housewives,' not people." The fact men and women can retreat "into that thing-ridden house and make it the end of life itself," willfully ignoring the "great challenges of society," is a sign of this sickness.


The narrative grows increasingly emotional, warming to the subject of a conspiracy with a profit motive against the American woman and the American girl. And in case the reader misses the message, Betty Friedan is as blatant as any ad in which a furnace, stove, or automobile is designated "sexy" by virtue of the swimsuit model used for the sell. Friedan strips readers down with the ease of a priestess in an ancient and terrifying cult. "We sacrifice our girls to the feminine mystique," she states, by "grooming them ever more efficiently through the sexual sell to become consumers." This practice drives the profits to which "our nation is dedicated."

The most disturbing point of this chapter comes out in the sections on research into the psychology of consumption. The commentary exposes what, for Friedan, is the center of the problem: the origin and program of the mystique. She shows it to be a conspiracy against independent thought for women and against the career-oriented woman, a conspiracy whose success is indisputable right up to the present. The designation "trophy wife" in 21st-century America is a sad commentary on the lasting power of an economic plot against women.

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