What we missed about The Feminine Mystique

It’s a woman problem — not a housewife problem — and “work” is not enough

In 1964, The Feminine Mystique became the bestselling nonfiction book, with over one million copies sold.

In it, Betty Friedan challenged the widely shared belief in 1950s that “fulfillment as a woman had only one definition for American women after 1949 — the housewife-mother.”

It took the world by its throat — and its apron straps — with its cutting commentary around “a woman’s place.”

“Housewives are unhappy”

Friedan called the widespread unhappiness of women in the 1950s and early 1960s “the problem that has no name” — because despite the fact that an alarming number of women were experiencing it, very few were discussing it, convinced it was an individual problem.

Housewives suffered from depression, alcoholism, addiction, mania, desperation, sex-obsession, baby-obsession, and many other emotional instabilities. She also found that, in an effort to combat their lack of fulfillment, they were stretching housework that professional women were doing in a few hours into an entire day. And obsessing over household appliances.

They struggled with a deep, gnawing feeling of lack of fulfillment, and many of them fantasized about “escape.”

What we missed, however, was the fact that these feelings are not isolated to the home.

“The home” was just where women were

So the data was skewed from the start.

The seed for The Feminine Mystique was planted in 1957, when Friedan was asked to conduct a survey of her former Smith College classmates for their 15th anniversary reunion.

She found that many of them were unhappy with their lives as housewives.

This prompted her to begin research for The Feminine Mystique, conducting interviews with other suburban housewives, as well as researching psychology, media, and advertising.

But what if they were just unhappy with their lives — and happened to be housewives?

What if this a woman’s problem, not a housewife problem?

Friedan proposes “not viewing housework as a career, not trying to find total fulfillment through marriage and motherhood alone, and finding meaningful work that uses their full mental capacity.”

The solution, she suggested, was in work.

But if that was enough, then why do so many women with jobs still suffer with the same problems?

Instead of expanding housework to fill an entire day and obsessing over kitchen appliances, we’re obsessing over things like fashion — spending hours discerning between arbitrary differences. And coffee. And throw pillows. And which fine-dining establishment has the better foie gras, and why. And the lighting and filters of Instagram posts.

i.e., women are still flailing.

Isn’t this a *people* problem? Men too?

Yeah, I would think so, too. But it doesn’t look that way.

My “research” is informal. But the women I talk to — and the women we all see in media and online — dream of being “taken care of.” Of being “saved from their life” or running away to fantasy places.

Many women spend hours on Instagram and Pinterest, obsessed with a “life” that isn’t theirs.

And it is a life. Because the thing with Instagram photos is that they’re not just about the thing. They’re a whole buttercreamed scene, a lifestyle snapshot that’s staged and superficial from top to bottom, then made to look like it isn’t.

Women romanticize things like cups of coffee and living out of vans.

Not all women, but a lot of women. And more women do this than men.

Fewer men fantasize like this. Men aren’t on Instagram and Pinterest in the numbers women are. Men don’t read books and watch films about women escaping their life, running away from their life, or being saved from their life. Fewer men consider their “dream partner” someone who will “sweep them away” or “take care of them.”

And they don’t create dollhouse imaginary lifestyles and worlds. Their fantasies are singular and stand-alone: a porn star, for a few minutes. An exotic car, every now and then.

Perhaps it still comes down to the way we’re socialized. Perhaps there is still a lingering expectation for the man to work, and perhaps the woman is still encouraged to indulge in the fantasies that have been promoted for her for ages. I don’t know.

What do women want?

Friedan proposes “not viewing housework as a career, not trying to find total fulfillment through marriage and motherhood alone, and finding meaningful work that uses their full mental capacity.”

But the key to this was and still is: meaningful. and full mental capacity.

She discusses Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and notes that women have been trapped at the basic, physiological level, and that women need meaningful work just as men do to achieve self-actualization, the highest level on the hierarchy of needs.

But to play devil’s advocate here: is this what women want?

Are the women who find fulfillment in this just some off-kilter sort? I mean, I find a lot of fulfillment in owning a motorcycle, too, but that doesn’t mean all women do.

Because if meaningful work was the answer, then why do so many of us continue to chase fantasies and fruitless endeavors, like unavailable men? Why do we smash ourselves into tiny boxes and continue to make ourselves vessels?

Most of us are working now. So why are we coming home from home only to still hang our self-worth on whether or not he called back — or how fat we feel?

Why do we still spend the majority of our head space dreaming of being “saved” rather than saving ourselves?

If the answer to desperation and depression was in meaningful work alone, wouldn’t this inspire us to chase it — and not fuckboys? Wouldn’t the fact that most of us work mean that we would have had a taste of this “salvation?”

I agree that we should. We’d be better for it.

But I’m also baffled by the question: then why don’t we?