The Feminine Mystique | Study Guide

Betty Friedan

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The Feminine Mystique | Main Ideas


A Lost Generation

Housewives in the 1950s, lost in a complex of identical homes, had also lost their dreams. Betty Friedan embraces her readers in the opening paragraph, listing women's shared and mundane activities—making beds, shopping, eating peanut-butter sandwiches—and gently chides their dependence on experts to direct their excessively empty (and paradoxically, materially full) dreams. Her sample housewife's agenda moves from the ordinary, "buying a dishwasher," to the absurd: cooking "gourmet snails" and building a swimming pool with one's own hands. Thus, readers are introduced to the effects of "The Problem That Has No Name."

The Sexy No-Stoop Kitchen

Capitalist pornography—the creation of desire for "stuff"—operates as well as authentic porn any day, and in fact, every day. The manufactured eroticism of kitchen appliances holds the same satisfaction for the woman in the kitchen as her husband's fulfillment when he has won a $1 million settlement for a client in his legal practice. Carefully advertised and brilliantly marketed, the objects of desire that are at arm's reach without having to stoop—curvy toasters; tall, erect double-door refrigerators; roly-poly coffee mugs; clear, exotically fragrant lotions and elixirs—demonstrate that desire, by its very nature, cannot be fulfilled. The excessive frenzy of consumerism in which the homemaker is encouraged to partake (or required to partake, if she's to be a "good" homemaker) merely mirrors and enhances her existential emptiness.

Anatomy Is Destiny

The idea that "anatomy is destiny" suggests women's roles are inextricably linked to their biology. This is the foundational assumption about the female body in the humanistic "sciences," notably psychoanalysis, cultural anthropology, and social psychology. Sigmund Freud (the founder of psychoanalysis), anthropologist Margaret Mead, and others explore—and sometimes exploit—this idea as the rationale for the sexual division of labor. However, feminism in all eras resists the popular and reductive accounts that have dominated and defined women's roles in society.

Sex and the Arty PhD

The statistician and pollster Alfred Kinsey notes for women that multiple orgasms come with multiple advanced degrees. Influenced by Kinsey's report, Friedan promises greater sexual pleasure for women liberated by higher education. The Kinsey Report names and counts all aspects of human sexual behavior, and addresses frequency and range of creative sex play in relation to social class and education. Friedan points out The Kinsey Report was like permissible pornography, conjuring (for a 1950s' audience) in its naming and its lists, indiscreet images of multiple bodies engaged in multiple, conventionally private practices. For both researchers, good sex is a social good; for Friedan, it is an aspect of women's liberation that affects all humankind.

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