The Feminine Mystique: Chapters 1-2

feminine mystique

The first in a series of posts examining the seminal feminist manifesto in detail. The introductory post can be found here.

Chapter 1: The Problem That Has No Name

Friedan begins by describing a general sensation of malaise and disquietude in American women, particularly those who seem to have it all. She describes a level of discontent and unhappiness which, she determines, at its root can be encapsulated in one question: Is this all there is?

A crop of women who emerged from colleges harboring dreams of a future which resembled the the feminist ideal of the New Woman, were suddenly living the life of an ordinary woman. Unlike the New Woman, who was in control of her professional, economic, and social life, these women lived the exact opposite of the lives they’d dreamed of. The jarring realization that they were defined solely through the lens of wife and motherhood induced a psychological crisis as a result of being “just housewives”.

Suffering no material lack their lives were quite comfortable. Nevertheless they were, according to Friedan, turning to psychoanalysts in large numbers for help with this indescribable problem of emptiness and lives bereft of meaning.

My initial response was two-fold. The first is that most of these women were, in two words, spoiled and bored. There is no other way to describe being dissatisfied despite having everything you need and more besides.

That thought which followed was the fantastical notion of her narrative as normative. It certainly wasn’t any experience my grandmothers could have related to. The pampered home life, that Friedan described as the bane of the American woman’s existence was foreign to no less than 1/3 of women, including married women, and probably a larger percentage than that.

Few ordinary women lived lives of ease with no concerns of contributing to their family’s bottom line. Prior to the economic boom that followed WWII, this was not the experience of the average woman, and it had nothing to do with feminism. Proverbs 30: 8-9 was the standard mode of living for most families. Most married women, even when primarily focused on home and hearth, rarely had the privilege that came with being a housewife; at least not in the way we have been conditioned to view the station from the 1950s onward.

Chapter 2: The Happy Housewife Heroine

In this chapter, Friedan starts to make at least one cogent argument, even if she gets a lot of things wrong. But first it is here where she actually describes the so-called Feminine Mystique:

The feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity. It says that the great mistake of Western culture, through most of its history, has been the undervaluation of this femininity. It says this femininity is so mysterious and intuitive and close to the creation and origin of life that man-made science may never be able to understand it. But however special and different, it is in no way inferior to the nature of man;it may even in certain respects be superior. The mistake, says the mystique, the root of women’s troubles in the past is that women envied men, instead of accepting their own nature, which can find fulfillment only in sexual passivity, male domination, and nurturing maternal love. p.35

It bears noting that the whole point of this book is to rebut the very notion of this feminine mystique, and its irony is not lost on me. We do derive a large part of our identity through our femininity, but not in the way that Friedan describes. Those who, well-intentioned they may be, believe that this “feminine mystique” is an appropriate aspirational end for women also err, albeit too far in the other direction.

Friedan offers a surfeit of supporting evidence using content from ladies’ magazines, which was the dominant media directed at women during the 1950s. It was determined that women would read magazines, but not books so periodicals such as Redbook, McCall’s, and Ladies Home Journal grew hugely popular.

Prior to the post WWII boom, propelled by the gains women enjoyed due to the work of the women’s rights activists of the 1910s and 1920s, the media of the 1940s heavily featured aspects of the New Woman. The New Woman was independent, making her way in the world, and enjoying the benefits of new opportunities available to her in both work and politics. She was the feminist ideal encompassing all that women wanted to be, and was prominently featured by writers in the 30s and 40s.

Suddenly, in the 1950s, Friedan notes, magazines and the few books marketed to women switched on a dime with most featuring what she called the “happy housewife heroine”. Despite being a housewife myself, the excerpts and descriptions from the articles and stories she quoted left me scratching my head. What man worth anything would want such a vapid, incompetent woman for a wife? They made it far too easy for her ideas to catch fire.

As the chapter progressed an interesting dichotomy emerged. Friedan’s answer to mystery of how genuinely interesting news content and stories of adventurous, independent women of the 1940s gave way to the consumer drivel, beauty tips and the “happy housewife heroine” of the 1950s turned out not to be much of a mystery at all.

The authors of the1940s periodicals were mostly female, as the men in the country were fighting or recovering from the battles of WWII. After they returned home, replacing the women who went home to marry and start families in the aftermath of the war, the material they published revealed a starkly different image of ideal womanhood. It reflected the idea of woman as a place of solace, respite, and sex after the harsh war years.

Both ideals as presented were damaging and more than a little ridiculous, but we’ll get more into that as we move through the book. I hardly need to read further to see where the train went off the track, but for you guys, I’ll forge on. Who knows? I might be surprised and learn something.

19 thoughts on “The Feminine Mystique: Chapters 1-2

  1. hearthie says:

    Perhaps one might compare the women of the feminine mystique to the (very rare, but certainly present in my county) trophy wives whose job it is to stay pretty and give parties. They have nannies and maids and spend a lot of time at the gym. That does sound like a pretty unsatisfying life, IMO. I wouldn’t like it. And I like the gym. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Elspeth says:

    I can see where the wives in your area might be comparable to the ones described in the book.

    Some of those magazine stories though! Women who decided they agreed that they couldn’t be trusted with access to money (and “Oh, I’m so glad I’m a woman!”)

    Women who found their husband particularly “satisfied” after they dyed their hand blond feeling overcome with a “sense of peace”.

    and on and on it went in these magazines and the articles about nothing but how to be pretty, how to “make” your husband happy, and lest we forget, what *stuff* to buy for your house.

    Today’s magazines aren’t heaps better (I admit I take advantage of free subscriptions to cooking or home magazines whenever I can get them), but the sheer banality of the content. Even the trophy wives of SoCal would be offended by that!

    I almost said more, but…later.


  3. SMK says:

    E: My initial response most of these women were spoiled and bored. There is no other way to describe being dissatisfied despite having everything you need and more

    The alternative is sort of implied: something is really missing. Something real and legit, not imagined and frivolous.

    My thought: when men reach the apex of material wealth they usually think more & different women/sex (hindbrain = r-strategy fertility). Women usually think status/children/community (hindbrain = numerous successful children/grandchildren k-strategy). And wealthy American women are definitely underwhelmed here. So something is indeed missing. They are dying and lashing out. Amazed not moreso.

    I once worked with an African (male) puzzled the US president (at the time Clinton) was the most powerful man w/ a b wife & 1 kid. Simply couldn’t happen in Africa he said as wealth = fertility there. So IMO this sort of sums up the feminist problem. They just lack the language to express it. The song does a good job of this IMO.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Elspeth says:


    A significant number of those women were mothers of 3-5 kids (yes, I know your thoughts on that). My point being that they were reproducing.

    Friedman asserted that the woman as sex being/ mother/ home accessory reached such a fever pitch that eventually PTA membership, community involvement of any kind really, was frowned on. It supposedly distracted women from their primary directive.

    This is where I think Friedan makes a case worth considering, while basically rejecting everything she says afterward (I think, we’ll see).

    Woman as stagnant is a prescription for disaster. You can be fertile, homeward focused (and a housewife), feminine, sexual, and submissive without being an automaton. Ask me how I know.

    My husband encourages me to have friends, engage socially on occasion, have an independent thought, and to write, hopefully with an eye toward earning something from it. None of which means I am shirking my duties.

    I still homeschool (with support), cook, clean, and take care of his needs. But he likes that I think and offer him more than JUST hot meals, babies and physical companionship.

    The years when all the homey stuff dwindles in importance do pass, and the lack of variety, vivaciousness (at least he says I’m vivacious), and evidence of competence is no doubt a big factor in boredom settling into marriages a decade or two in.

    Of course I still need to get my mitts on some of the source material she referenced. Might cost me though…


  5. hearthie says:

    Volunteering is a thing for women of our age, or younger women with kids in school. A BIG thing. Middle-aged women are kinda supposed to run that stuff, but we can only do that if we aren’t working…. Of course it can be WAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY overdone, but it is a thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Elspeth says:


    Yeah I volunteered heavily in my older kid’s school. All three of that set started kg by the time I was 28. I spent a lot of time at the school.

    SAM was pleased with it. I got to hand pick their teachers every year and we had the principal’s ear. He was offering me a part time gig but I got pregnant with #4 and that was that.

    My duties at home were not neglected by my spending three morning hours two days a week at our kids’ school.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. SMK says:

    Heart: trophy wives job to stay pretty give parties…nannies & maids & spend time at the gym…pretty unsatisfying life.

    You make my point better than I. Currently reading about hunter-gatherer nutrition; Canadian native mom w/ white husband had 21 kids and she lived the traditional life/diet to over 90 yo (1930) healthy, perfect teeth, flat stomach, happy, fulfilled life. Her kids OTOH didn’t have it so well; communities just flat-out started dying.

    E: Woman as stagnant is a prescription for disaster.

    Trying to avoid the curse of Eve leads to a just reward. To wit, let’s define the perfect wife as 1. frugal, 2. productive. 3. clean/organization freak. 4. socially active. 5. many children as God gives, 6. proper BMI, 7, good cook/eats right. All this is entirely possible. Yet how many modern women pull this off?

    And somehow women are “bored”??? Clearly, they laugh at 1-7 and think they can evade Eve’s curse by a) having few kids, b) getting a job, and c) spending mo money. This is not pointing the finger at women specifically: their men (the few left still willing to play the beta game) are definitely on board as Adam don’t like his curse either.

    BTW this is a great blog post. I’ve never read F closely & looking forward to future posts/discussion. Already lots of good stuff I’m reading out loud here.


  8. hearthie says:

    SMK – well, not all meaningful labor is in your list, but yeah. Women are still HUMAN. We need to be needed. And, at 46, I really do NOT want to be valued merely for my looks. I know I don’t look like an 18yo. That would really suck, to spend my life comparing myself. The trophy wives have to – I don’t*. Thank God. Proverbs 31 is my aim (and I’m getting there).

    There’s a lot of work to be done in this life. Even if we go totally trad – consider the wider community. Who does the work of connection? Who does the “we need to go give Janice a casserole and some babysitting” job? Who takes care of elders (I have several friends in this boat)? Who does all that “extra” stuff that isn’t extra or we wouldn’t be paying the gov’t to step in? Oh. That would be women my age. We’re also supposed to be training the younger women up in the way of womanhood.

    Treating us like bobbleheads doesn’t make us want to do any of that stuff, and it needs doing. Someone told Friedan that she was supposed to stay at the competence level of a 22yo forever and she freaked out. Wouldn’t you?

    *Did you know you could get a thigh lift? MEEP.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Elspeth says:

    Hearth is right. Not all meaningful work is on your list. Basically, and this problem still exists in large measure, was that women are expected to be everything they are (we were) during the early years of wifehood. But I want to take a stab at your list:
    1. check (my man’s not particularly frugal though)
    2. check (most days -lol- and according to my man;s preferences.needs)
    3. Not so easy when you’re actually living/schooling/cooking/playing in your house all day with a large family. But our house is clean and cleaned daily (floors mopped, bathrooms cleaned, kitchen cleaned after meals).. Pockets of clutter (which i also tackle weekly) are another matter
    4. Check- thanks to my husband but I’ve come into my own some on that.
    5. Heh. Well 5 is going to have to do. My mama died having me (her mama died having her) so when the pregnancies started getting harder as I moved into my later 30s, we stopped. We ain’t Catholic, and aren’t worried about God being mad at us for it.
    6. My weight is like a see saw, but I make an effort at least. And you know my standard…my man is happy with my body. Don’t ask me how I know. It’s impolite…
    7. Check
    In other words, I fail this perfect woman test. *shrugs*

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Bike Bubba says:

    Regarding the notion that a woman ought to be a cleaning fanatic, I’ve actually pushed Mrs. Bubba not to be. Not that the house shouldn’t be basically sanitary–I’m not about a Martha Stewart/BHAG white glove test, though–but part of parenting is helping the kids understand that they are responsible to clean up their own messes, as well as a portion (not all) of the messes of others. We might wonder whether the plight of those 21 kids of the Canadian couple SMK describes might have resulted from things like this; absent a need to care for one’s self, bad habits are going to tend to result.

    (wonder, not accuse, of course–I don’t know the case nearly well enough to say anything with any degree of certainty)

    Regarding fecundity, Mrs. Bubba and I decided to close up shop when a doctor in the Mayo system asked that the more senior obstetrician to do the C-section for #6. Be fruitful and multiply, you bet. Get my wife killed or maimed in the process? We’d like to avoid that, thank you very much, and we took that request as a hint that “ordinary ob-gyns are going to have trouble with this”.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Elspeth says:

    @ Bike:

    Good comment, thanks.

    This is where I find myself at odds with so many people who offer all kinds of directives on what a wife is supposed to be and do, presuming that their quoting of Scripture and/or tradition means that they are oracles from on high.

    At the end of the day, my position is that unless and until you can show me definitively that my husband’s desires and commands contradict the infallible written Word, then shut up and leave me alone.

    My husband was pretty close to my father. They had a lot of conversations I wasn’t privy to, but I know they discussed what my dad’s life was like trying to raise five kids (including a brand new baby) sans his wife whom he truly adored.

    Mine decided he wasn’t going to risk my life for more babies. Period, Done, end of discussion.

    Mine also decided a clean, hygienic house where his family can live and feel relaxed is more important than a perfectly neat one. I had to stand down on that one because I wanted to clean when he wanted his wife to just be with him.

    It’s just better to obey your own man, I’ve found. Life is so much sweeter that way. And I have a good man. But the Bible says obey your man even if he’s not good. Which tells you something, I think.

    To bring it back round to the OP, a lot of extemporaneous, stressful and hard to maintain in reality standards are part of what propelled Friedan’s book to prominence. Feminism as we know it today really began in earnest in the late 19th century, and culminated in the 1920s.

    The 1960s gals just reached back and picked up what had been temporarily set aside. We give them far too much credit.


  12. smkoseki says:

    E: Hearth is right. Not all meaningful work is on your list.

    Heh. Get niped for any list at all…now list not long enough? And I thought F was tough :-).

    ain’t Catholic, aren’t worried

    Fecundity is historic Christian, not Catholic-specific (see Provan & note *all* mainline prots rejected BC until 1930 on biblical grounds alone). It was this culture F rejected & why BC/abortion were so imporant to the era of F (and still are).

    I don’t think we can look at F’s book without examining at how fertiliy changed the women of the era. Namely, how the US large-family-culture imploded in the depression then boomed post-war then imploded again in F’s generation. This whiplash is the “problem with no name” IMO. But I’m open to being wrong as the book develops.


  13. Bike Bubba says:

    I’ve read similar arguments to that, SMK, as my wife and I were introduced to NFP when we had our first. ( cue up “I got rhythm”, ha) It was overall a big blessing, but one place where I parted company with the authors, and like you say that historical pattern, was that I couldn’t get on board with their interpretation of the story of Onan’s death in Genesis 38 as being because of contraception. As I read things, Onan was also disobeying his father and trying to steal his brother’s portion of the inheritance, both of which were clearly seen as sins in the later Torah–the former being a capital sin. You could even see the sexual relationship as fornication/adultery if children were not going to be intended.

    It’s also worth noting that other early Christian theology around the matter also introduced the notion–e.g. Jerome and Clement–that the only purpose for sex is procreation, a view which contradicts 1 Cor. 7 and the entirety of the Song of Songs. One might even ask whether all activity ought to cease upon menopause, or that men ought to divorce their wives upon the same so their seed could go into a younger woman who could get pregnant.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Elspeth says:

    (see Provan & note *all* mainline prots rejected BC until 1930 on biblical grounds alone).

    I knew that the opposition to BC was universal within Christianity but I thought it was because of natural law not Biblical grounds as outlined in Scripture.

    Look, I’m not an BC advocate in any way, shape, or form. I think the early church was wise in its prohibition of it. Bike and his wife have 6 kids. We had 5. Fecundity is not something we’re opposed to and we weren’t looking to free ourselves from the constraints of motherhood or being *stuck* at home.

    Mrs.. Bubba and I both simply have husbands who determined that having their wives around to help them raise and nurture their above average sized (by today’s standards) broods was not something they had to risk based on Biblical grounds, so they made the hard choice.

    Or maybe it was the easy choice, LOL. I don’t know…

    Next post is up.


  15. smkoseki says:

    MB: I’ve read similar arguments to that, SMK

    Personal theological opinion (esp. my own!) is irrelevant to the point. Note that birth control was illegal mere decades before F’s book. To further the context: imagine how aghast Jerome or Clement would be they contradicted Church interpretation of Scripture (in any age). Hell (no pun intended!), they excommunicated others for less!


  16. Bike Bubba says:

    Agreed that birth control was illegal, SMK–but that really flowed from the same interpretation that I’d dispute, no? And really, we have no way of knowing how Jerome and Clement would have responded to their words contradicting the Magisterium today. Could be horrified, could also be horrified that church tradition went where it went. Either way, medieval writings indicate that their views–sex only for procreation–were common, many wives trying to live in celibacy because they thought that was holier than loving their husbands. It even appears in modern times, where de Balzac has one of the characters from Pere Goriot retire to a convent after disasters ensue–and that describing settings in the Bourbon restoration.

    Which is a long way of saying that while I’m grateful that Humanae Vitae acknowledges the Song of Songs better than one would guess from Jerome and Clement, their views have had strong influence throughout the history of Rome.


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