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From the January/February, 2006
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Daze of Our Wives by Beth Impson

Daze of Our Wives

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique

by Beth Impson

When I first encountered Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, at the height of its influence in the 1970s, I kept thinking, “Who are these women?” My mother and her friends were not “desperate housewives”: secret alcoholics and adulterers, trying to escape the boredom of their non-wage-earning lives. They did not spend all day cleaning house, nor did they smother us because they needed to live vicariously through our lives. Their own lives were rich and interesting and useful, and I wanted more than anything to be like them.

Later I wondered even more about the Friedan gospel: “Equality and human dignity are not possible for women if they are not able to earn,” she says in the epilogue to Mystique. Forced by circumstances to be the sole wage-earner for our six-, then seven-member family, all I knew was exhaustion, frustration, and guilt—despite the fact that my professional position made perfect use of my abilities. I wanted to use those abilities to teach my own children, not other people’s. Friedan seemed to be living in some parallel universe.

Revisiting The Feminine Mystique a few years ago for a book project, I was thunderstruck to realize, about chapter eight, that Friedan was—and is—precisely right in much of her assessment of the lives of many middle- and upper-middle-class women, especially those with higher education.

Comfortable Concentration Camp

Betty Friedan began writing The Feminine Mystique in 1958, and it finally appeared in 1963. We baby-boomers were in grade school and high school, the economy was booming, Vietnam was not yet a quagmire, and the civil rights movement was finally becoming a national preoccupation, though seemingly not for the housewives Friedan interviewed from among Smith College alumnae and in suburbs across the country.

She had become perplexed about the lack of women in the professions. Why, she wondered, when women had complete freedom to pursue post-high-school degrees and faced no legal discrimination against pursuit of any career, did so many stay home as full-time wives and mothers? As she began interviewing these housewives, she found them to be depressed, bored, generally miserable, and out of sorts.

Yet none of them seemed able to define any particular problem with their lives. “The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered. . . . Each suburban wife struggled with it alone . . . afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’”

So Friedan began to delve into this “problem that has no name,” and discovered what she called “the feminine mystique.” Psychology, anthropology, the media, women’s magazines and their fiction writers, and advertisers had all conspired in various ways and for various reasons to create this mystique that women were meant solely for child-bearing and housekeeping, “that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity.” Women’s nature “can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love.”

One begins right away to notice contradictions, distortions, and inaccuracies. If the women’s magazines were so influential, why were so many going out of circulation? In her muddled chronology, mothers of World War II soldiers both pursued satisfying careers and smothered their sons into neurotic dependency. As she sneers at “unscientific” books on the complementarity of the sexes, she offers a vast social experiment based on her private perceptions. The sheer volume of her evidence, however, begins tempting even the skeptical reader to accept it.

Until, that is, Friedan’s own hyperbole overwhelms her argument. Again and again, she characterizes women generally as weak-willed, easily held down by this subtle cultural conspiracy, unaware they are being manipulated, and too timid even to admit a problem exists. Then she declares that women who want to be housewives “are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the [Nazi] concentration camps.” Housewives “have become dependent, passive, childlike; they have given up their adult frame of reference. . . . The work they do does not require adult capabilities; it is endless, monotonous, unrewarding.”

By adjusting to this “comfortable concentration camp,” Friedan continues, a woman “stunts her intelligence to become childlike, turns away from individual identity to become an anonymous biological robot in a docile mass. She becomes less than human, preyed upon by outside pressures.”

Friedan’s Truth

Arrant foolishness—yet despite the contradictions and distortions, despite her own absurd hyperbole, Friedan rightly assesses the root of the “problem that has no name”: “It’s the endless boring days that make me desperate,” one woman tells her, and Friedan explains, “Housewives who live according to the feminine mystique do not have a personal purpose stretching into the future. . . . Without such a purpose, they lose the sense of who they are, for it is purpose which gives the human pattern to one’s days.”

This, indeed, is true: “Without a vision, the people perish.”

Friedan offers a lot of evidence that these educated, upper-middle-class women did not have any purpose to their lives. Alcoholism had increased as a suburban problem. Doctors, citing “housewives’ fatigue” (chronic tiredness without physical cause), prescribed tranquilizers to sedate their patients’ boredom. Women chased personal glamour, affairs, material goods. “I feel empty, somehow,” one woman tells Friedan, and another reports, “I just don’t feel alive.” Women describe having babies in order to feel useful, playing daily bridge to fill the hours, waking with “nothing to look forward to.”

This lack of purpose perhaps both reflected and encouraged an increasing cultural focus on self. “I’m looking for something to satisfy me,” says one housewife. Another remarks, “I’m always being the [mother or] wife and never being myself.” Again and again, the theme is sounded: When do I get to be me?

The historian James Hitchcock and others have ably demonstrated the spiritual malaise following World War II, as “self-reliance” more universally included a sense of independence from God in a culture whose people believed its achievements had come solely through human effort. As the self increasingly became god, people began chasing the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s ideal of “self-actualization”: a phantom achieved solely by using all one’s potential and creativity in some venue of public activity.

Because self-actualization (at least Friedan’s version) required social recognition, unhappy women reduced the home-centered activity of housewifery to the drudgery of its actual physical labor. One woman describes a typical morning—fixing the family’s breakfast and washing the dishes afterwards, taking the older children to school and playing with the toddler, gardening, cleaning the family’s clothes, and reading the paper—thus: “Very little of what I’ve done has been really necessary or important.”

A sociologist remarks on higher education leaving women “ill-fitted for the drudgery of housecleaning, diapers, and the preparation of meals.” A home-and-family expert remarks that housework “can be capably handled by an eight-year-old child,” and described as work “peculiarly suited to the capacities of feeble-minded girls.”

Mindless Mothers

Throughout the book, this reduction of the wife and mother’s work to its most repetitive and mindless activities serves to denigrate the role altogether.

The “very able woman,” Friedan says, must “convince herself . . . that the minute physical details of child care are indeed mystically creative [and] somehow make the minutiae of housework itself important enough, necessary enough, hard enough, creative enough to justify her very existence.” (The less able women, we should note, are this woman’s nanny, cook, and housecleaner—Friedan writes about middle-class women agitating for themselves, not offering “charity for poor others.”)

Friedan notes (as had Susan B. Anthony) that the Industrial Revolution removed much creative work from the home, as new technologies made making one’s own clothes and soap, cooking from scratch, canning and freezing food, etc., much less necessary and much less efficient. She claims that women living in earlier times embraced the pioneer spirit and so felt their work to be part of a greater purpose than “just” housewifery, therefore engaging it willingly. Perhaps, but this takes no account of the centuries of onerous labor undertaken by women who were not pioneers.

Certainly, housework today is less time-consuming and less onerous. This, according to Friedan, should free woman from the home and let her meet her full potential in work “of some importance to society and herself.” “You raise your kids, sure,” one woman tells her, “but how can that justify your life? You have to have some ultimate objective, some long-term goal to keep you going.”

So Friedan offered one: Women need to find careers outside the home that allow them to use their intelligence and creativity to the fullest in order to have lives worth living. This purpose, this career, must be the woman’s driving force in life, the work “with which her commitments as wife and mother can be integrated.” These family commitments are mere add-ons to her real work, because she “cannot find identity through others,” only through herself.

Careers, she insists, will make women happy by giving them genuine purpose. She bases this on a flawed assumption: that women find purpose and satisfaction in the same ways as men. And as women struggled with their dissatisfaction among a people increasingly turned to self-worship, seeking self-worth through money and prestige, wandering about in search of fulfillment without reference to God, Friedan’s solution struck home.

Changed Lives

By 1970, five million copies of The Feminine Mystique had been sold, and in 1973, Friedan wrote of the thousands of women who had told her, “Your book changed my life.”

While the number of women in the workforce had increased slightly from 1950 to 1960 (34 percent to 37 percent), after 1960 the numbers increased dramatically: to 43 percent in 1970, 52 percent in 1980, and over 60 percent by 2000. And despite later marriages and fewer children, even the percentage of married women (including women with pre-school children) who work full-time increased from 25 percent in 1970 to 43 percent in 1990. But are these working women any happier than the 1950s suburban housewives?

According to Friedan, women were dissatisfied and lacked purpose because they did not use their intelligence in public affairs such as business and government. Yet my mother and her friends—intelligent, educated women who made me believe Friedan’s thesis to be a lie—did not suffer from “the problem that has no name.” Rather, they understood their place in a design larger than themselves, and lived joyfully within the vision of service to God and neighbor which that design created in them.

It is true, as Friedan claims, that the woman who “lives for” her husband and children and house, who finds the meaning of her existence in their perfection, lives in a world bound to collapse. But this is the human problem, not a problem of oppressed womanhood: When we live for the primary purpose of self-fulfillment, we will be disappointed. Home cannot fill that need—but neither can the office. However we live, we must live for the One who created us “to glorify him and enjoy him forever.”

In fact, recent research shows that a significant number of career women are leaving the workplace to return home. But Friedan’s revolution has helped to establish the necessity of self-fulfillment, and if women come home because they find careers not as personally satisfying as they had been led to believe, they will only find that home disappoints, too. Friedan’s dissatisfied women were desperate housewives, after all.


Beth Impson is Professor of English at Bryan College (named for William Jennings Bryan) in Dayton, Tennessee, and the author of Called to Womanhood (Crossway). She and her husband have five children and eleven grandchildren and attend Grace Bible Church.

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