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The Feminine Mystique | Key Figure Analysis


Margaret Mead

Mead was best known for her work in cultural anthropology, including Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935), and Male and Female (1949). Friedan praises Mead for the understanding that "male" and "female" are fluid terms in the psychological sense, meaning men can demonstrate "feminine" characteristics and vice versa. But she condemns the use put to Mead's functionalist perspective (that is, conflating women's social role with their biology). This objection becomes "the cornerstone of the feminine mystique"—the way women are kept in their place.

Sigmund Freud

Freud invented the "talking cure," a form of therapy that uses verbal interaction between the patient and therapist, and left his work (collected in 24 volumes) in a complete edition, called The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (1948). A major figure in 20th-century thought, Freud famously asked the question: "What does the woman want?" Friedan takes great issue with his work—especially the way Freudian theory reduces human development to sexual terms—as well as the ways in which 20th-century social scientists have used his theories as a means of cementing retrograde ideas about women's roles.

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin

Her major work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), was revered as a groundbreaking feminist text; it calls for equality in education for men and women. Her work Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), draws on her personal experience, as does her novel Mary: A Fiction (1788). Friedan uses her to demonstrate the importance of education to women's free thinking.

Henrik Ibsen

Considered the "father of realism" in the theater, Ibsen's revolutionary work touched on the conventionally unexamined ills of culture, including incest, venereal disease, and women's struggles in plays that were, at once, dramatically brilliant and highly entertaining. His best-known work, A Doll's House (1868), is about a beleaguered housewife who breaks free of a dominating husband. Ibsen denied he was a feminist, although the play was seen in that context. Friedan sees Ibsen's main character in A Doll's House, Nora (the doll-wife who, against great odds, liberates herself) as a model for women in the 1960s.

Lucy Stone

Self-supporting, she started school at Mount Holyoke College in 1839 in an innovative work/study program, and she finished at Oberlin College at age 25. A brilliant lecturer, from 1847–93 she tirelessly worked for women's suffrage. Stone fought with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton over the 15th Amendment. They reconciled in 1890 when their competing suffrage associations were unified as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Friedan holds her up as an example of a masculinized woman: notorious for wearing pants and "brandishing an umbrella," she only married the love of her life after a long wait, and she never took his name.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Educated at the Johnstown Academy and at Emma Willard's Troy Female Seminary (now the Emma Willard School) in New York, Cady received a legal education from her father. Cady married the abolitionist, Henry Stanton, and with him had seven children. A celebrated orator, speechwriter, and author, Stanton wrote Women's Bible (1895) and Eighty Years and More (1898), and collaborated on a three-volume History of Woman Suffrage (1881). Friedan holds her up as a feminist example of the passion in which the personal and the public were joined, and her anger transformed into positive energy.

Carrie Lane Chapman Catt

Catt was the only woman in her graduating class at Iowa State Agricultural College; later, she served as Superintendent of Schools in Mason City, Iowa. Widowed in 1886, she married George Catt in 1890. She was a skilled strategist who directed the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and founded the League of Women Voters in 1920. Friedan uses her as an example of an early feminist whose political activities were strongly supported by her husband.

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