Volume 50:3, 484-491
READING THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE ON THE 50th ANNIVERSARY OF ITS PUBLICATION
By Susan Kolod, Ph.D.
On the 50th anniversary of the first volume of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, what better time to reconsider Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, first published 50 years ago? This book was an important part of the Zeitgeist into which CP was born. On rereading The Feminine Mystique with the knowledge of what occurred after its publication, it is possible to appreciate how much Friedan accomplished in furthering the cause of women’s equality. In particular, her critique of the Freudian position on female development is still fresh and vibrant. But, with hindsight, it is clear what she got wrong.
My Aunt Margy, who died in 2004 at the age of 86, was a brilliant housewife. Margy’s apartment was spotless and she was an expert on cleaning products and procedures. If I couldn’t remove a spot from a blouse or get the crud off a pan, I’d call her and she knew what to do. A favorite family story about her: She got some greasy dirt on her white pants and exclaimed, “I couldn’t even Shout it out!” referencing the commercial for Shout, the laundry stain remover.
Margy once told me she would never go to a “woman doctor”—women were just not as capable or smart as men. She did not understand why I wanted a job outside the home and frequently commented on my lack of expertise regarding the removal of dirt. I was damaging the children by having a career. Margy exemplified the postwar generation of women who opted out of the work force in favor of becoming moms and housewives. These were the women Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique.
Fifty years after its publication, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique continues to influence how women think about what “makes them tick.” Friedan got a lot right, but 50 years later, it’s easy to see she got some things wrong as well.
Friedan’s book catapulted the Women’s Movement into the public eye. She identified the “problem that has no name”: the boredom, depression, and empty lives of educated women who had given up careers to care for home and children. Friedan tapped into the experience of a vast number of mid-20th century suburban women: “It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction. … As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent questions, ‘Is that all?’”(p. 15).
Friedan, who died in 2006 at the age of 86, graduated from Smith College in 1942 and gave up a prestigious scholarship for graduate school because of her boyfriend’s objection. The book was based, to a large extent, on her own experiences. Fifteen years later, Friedan interviewed her classmates and discovered that most had given up their career dreams. Instead, their resumes read: Occupation: Housewife.
Friedan raised challenging questions about psychoanalytic views of female development and psychology, then in vogue, and the ways these views kept women “in their place.” When The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, the classical Freudian view of female development was still the accepted wisdom: anatomy is destiny, and normal female development includes penis envy, faulty super-ego development, masochism, and passivity. Friedan correctly pointed out how these theories kept women in a submissive role relative to men. She writes,”How can an educated American woman, who is not herself an analyst, presume to question a Freudian truth? She know that Freud’s discovery of the unconscious workings of the mind was one of the great breakthroughs in man’s pursuit of knowledge … that only after years of analytic training is one capable of understanding the meaning of Freudian truths. She may even know how the human mind unconsciously resists that truth. How can she presume to tread the sacred ground where only analysts are allowed? ” (pp. 103–104)
Perhaps Friedan’s most brilliant insight is her analysis of the way Madison Avenue employed ideas from contemporary psychology to convince women that their essential nature is to become experts in home economics. In the mid-1940s, men returning from war needed to resume their place in the workforce. During the War, women had attained a great deal of equality and autonomy, taking the place of men in the workforce during the War. Now that the men were back, this posed a problem. How could women be convinced to return to housewifery? Enter Madison Avenue. According to Friedan, advertisers realized that, “The really important role that women serve as housewives is to “buy more things for the house” and that “women will buy more things if they are kept in the underused, nameless yearning, energy-to-get-rid-of state of being housewives” (p. 207). The trick was to convince women that homemaking is creative and a career unto itself, equal to or better than going out into the workforce.
Thus, Friedan suggests, Madison Avenue teemed up with Freud to brainwash women into believing that “occupation: housewife” was a woman’s essential nature. The goal was to help women get rid of their suppressed penis envy and neurotic desire to be equal—to help women find fulfillment as women by affirming their natural inferiority. She quotes from the report of an ad executive: “The modern bride seeks as a conscious goal that which in many cases her grandmother saw as a blind fate and her mother as slavery: to belong to a man, to have a home and children of her own, to choose among all possible careers the career of wife-mother-homemaker” (p. 220).
Friedan was particularly horrified by the focus of advertisers on “getting them young” while the woman’s mind was impressionable and before she knew any better.
From another chilling report she quotes, “Properly manipulated, American housewives can be given the sense of identity, purpose, creativity, and the self-realization, even the sexual joy they lack—by the buying of things” (p. 208) … the solution, quite simply, was to encourage them to be “modern housewives.”
“This professionalism is a psychological defense of the housewife against being a general ‘cleaner-upper’ and menial servant for her family in a day and age of general work emancipation.” Capitalize, the report continued, on housewives’ “guilt over the hidden dirt” so she will rip her house to shreds in a “deep cleaning” operation, which will give her a “sense of complete-ness for a few weeks” (p. 208).
Friedan describes a generation of women in a kind of trance state. The Feminine Mystique, although melodramatic and overreaching at times, was the wake-up call.
As stated previously, Friedan got a few things wrong. She observes of Freud, “He was a prisoner of his own culture. As he was creating a new framework for our culture he could not escape the framework of his own” (p. 105). The same can be said of Betty Friedan. Without diminishing the importance of her contributions, Friedan made several serious errors that have been difficult to eradicate because of her tremendous influence and impact on the culture.
Friedan correctly pointed out how the classical Freudian view of female development kept women in a submissive role relative to men. However, Friedan went on to completely dismiss the importance of ovarian hormones and the menstrual cycle on a woman’s identity, mood, and thought processes. Friedan’s mission, or one of her missions, was to assert there was no meaningful difference between men and women, that anatomy is immaterial. Friedan’s attack on psychoanalytic views of female development, contributed significantly to the avoidance of the body in contemporary psychoanalytic thought (Kolod, 2009, 2010, 2013).
This thesis became very relevant to me while I was researching the topic of menopause, an endeavor prompted by the onset of my own. I noticed how little was written on the subject, and that women rarely spoke about their physical and psychological suffering.
Friedan thought menopause inconsequential. If a woman has a meaningful life, menopause should be a nonevent. She believed that only women whose identity and self-worth were tied to being a wife and mother, and for whom, therefore, youth and sexual attractiveness are all-important, would find menopause difficult. Other hormonal emotional experiences, such as premenstrual tension and postpartum depression, she likewise refused to recognize as physiologically determined.
Friedan, and many other feminists who are now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, espoused the view that the miseries of menopause are solely a consequence of the repressive Freudian environment Friedan detailed in The Feminine Mystique. Friedan went so far as to say that menopause didn’t really exist—it was invented by the pharmaceutical companies!
What was wrong with me, I wondered? I had a career and meaningful relationships but found menopause disorienting and painful. The changes in body image, the physical discomfort, mood swings, and insomnia all made me wonder, “Who am I?” and “What am I becoming?” According to Friedan, I should have been immune to this distress considering my own independence outside the home.
In 2005, I invited Friedan to speak at a conference to explain her views. The conference topic was “Is There Menopause?” Friedan initially agreed, but her failing health prevented this. She did, however, allow me to videotape an interview to be screened for attendees. She died soon after the interview.
On January 12, 2005, I went to Friedan’s apartment. I had sent her a list of questions in advance of the interview: Have women’s reactions to menopause changed since you wrote The Feminine Mystique? Do women experience it the same now as they did in 1963? Do you think menopause changes the way a woman sees herself? Does it change her identity?
Friedan became increasingly annoyed, and even hostile, as I asked my questions. The very word “menopause” irritated her. Menopause does not exist—and shouldn’t be talked about. I persisted with my questions until she finally yelled, “What the fuck are you asking me?” Questions about “aging” were okay with her, so long as I didn’t use the word “menopause.” Men and women both age, but only women are alleged to go through menopause. To acknowledge the body at all was to accept male domination.
At the conference, along with the Friedan interview videotape, I presented my own paper on the impact of menopause on a woman’s identity. Much to my surprise, several feminist psychoanalysts, 10 to 15 years older than I, approached me afterwards warning me that this was a dangerous topic, a slippery slope, and that I should perhaps discontinue talking about it.
The dangerous topic is not menopause—it is the acknowledgement that female hormones make woman feel and behave differently from men. Historically, a focus on the female body, ovarian hormones and the menstrual cycle has been used to stigmatize women as moody, flighty, and unfocussed. As such, they should not hold positions of power. If a woman was president, she might start a nuclear attack while suffering from PMS!
Friedan should be forgiven for this error. She wanted to send the message that “A woman can do anything a man can do.” For the postwar women who had been “brainwashed” to believe they could only do housework, this message was urgent. So the “hormone” question was dismissed out of hand. Yet, today, the issue of a woman’s role and her power in the workplace is still far from resolved. In Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (2013) argues that women have not, in fact, come very far. There are many more women in the workforce but for the most part, men still are in charge. As she told a group of students at the Harvard Business School in 2011, “If the current trend continues, fifteen years from today, about one-third of the women in the audience will be working full-time and almost all of you will be working for the guy you are sitting next to” (pp. 65–66).
Friedan’s critique of the Freudian view that “anatomy is destiny” contributed to an almost complete avoidance of the body in contemporary psychoanalysis and theories of gender construction. Laan and Everaerd (1995) note, “Feminists have long criticized the notion that behavior and abilities of women are uniquely determined by their biology. This criticism led to an almost total rejection of the role of biology in the construction of gender. It also contributed, unfortunately, to an image of female sexuality devoid of the body” (pp. 22–23). Balsam (2008) comments on the avoidance of the body in contemporary psychoanalytic theory. She notes that although the term “embodiment” shows up regularly in contemporary psychoanalytic theory as a metaphor for psychological containment, there has been a turning away from concrete bodily experience. She writes, “In many of the influential new psychoanalytic theories of gender, biology has been sidelined as irrelevant” (p. 102).
Betty Friedan had wanted to become a psychologist herself and was familiar with the work of the prominent psychologists of her time. She borrowed concepts freely, sometimes with attribution, at other times incorporating their ideas into her own as if she had thought of them herself. She used the “ph” spelling of the word “phantasy” rather than the more common spelling, “fantasy.” There is no way to know at this point why she chose this unusual spelling; I presume she wanted to show her familiarity with the work of Melanie Klein. However, the “phantasy” spelling in Klein’s writing indicates unconscious fantasy. Friedan used the word, incorrectly, to refer to conscious fantasy.
In some cases, Friedan incorporated psychological concepts brilliantly, as with her use of Fromm’s “marketing personality” (Fromm, 1947), which clearly informed her ideas about women and Madison Avenue. At other times, her use of the concepts comes across as exaggerated. For example, she used Bettelheim’s theme of the dehumanization of concentration camp victims to bolster her argument about the dehumanization of the housewife. “The women who ‘adjust’ as housewives, who grow up wanting to be ‘just a housewife,’ are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps—and the millions more who refused to believe that the concentration camps existed” (p. 305).
Some of Friedan’s “psychologizing” was outright wrong and had a lasting and damaging effect on views of women. She blamed stay-at-home mothers for a wide variety of psychological and social problems in their children such as delinquency, kleptomania, and promiscuity. According to Friedan, these problems developed out of mother’s failure to self-actualize and her obsessive focus on the child. She goes on to hold stay-at-home mothers responsible for autism, schizophrenia, bestiality, and homosexuality and uses concepts from Bettelheim (1950), Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (1948), and Thompson (1947) to substantiate these claims. Although none of these writers addressed the issue of “stay-at-home-mothers,” Friedan used their concepts of the “refrigerator mother” and the “schizophrenigenic mother” to bolster her argument. In this way, The Feminine Mystique reinforced the “blame the mother” culture of the 1950s and 1960s.
The women of the Baby Boomer generation, their children and grandchildren are the benefactors of the changes brought about by the Women’s Movement. We should be immensely grateful for Friedan’s potent critique of that which oppressed women, but also cognizant of the ways in which some of her errors have negatively affected psychological understanding of women since that time.
- 1. Balsam, R. (2008). Women showing off: Notes on female exhibitionism. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 56, 99–121. [CrossRef], [PubMed], [Web of Science ®]
- 2. Bettelheim, B. (1950). Love is not enough: The treatment of emotionally disturbed children. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
- 3. Friedan, B. (1963). The feminine mystique. New York, NY: Norton.
- 4. Fromm, E. (1947). Man for himself. New York, NY: Rinehart & Company.
- 5. Fromm-Reichmann, F. (1948). Notes on the development of treatment of schizophrenics by psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Psychiatry, 11(3), 263–273. [PubMed]
- 6. Kolod, S. (2009). Menopause and sexuality. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 45, 26–43. [Taylor & Francis Online], [Web of Science ®]
- 7. Kolod, S. (2010). The menstrual cycle as a subject of psychoanalytic inquiry. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 38, 77–90. [CrossRef]
- 8. Kolod, S. (2013). Why Betty Friedan threw the body out with the bath-water. Retrieved fromhttp://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/contemporary-psychoanalysis-in-action/201306/why-betty-friedan-threw-the-body-out-the-bathwater
- 9. Laan, E., & Everaerd, W. (1995). Determinants of female sexual arousal: Psychophysiological theory and data. Annual Review of Sex Research, 6, 32–77. [Taylor & Francis Online]
- 10. Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean in: Women, work, and the will to lead. New York, NY: Knopf.
- 11. Thompson, C. (1947). Changing concepts of homosexuality in psychoanalysis. Psychiatry, 10, 183–189. [PubMed], [Web of Science ®]