The Feminist Mystique--Simple chapter summaries

The Feminist Mystique

Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1: The Problem That Has No Name
Friedan begins The Feminine Mystique with an introduction describing the problem that has no name—the widespread unhappiness of women. Using a practice that becomes common throughout the book, Friedan offers several case studies of unhappy women from around the United States, and she wonders whether this unhappiness is related to the female role of housewife.

Chapter 2: The Happy Housewife Heroine
Friedan examines women's magazines from before and after World War II. In 1930s magazines, stories feature confident and independent heroines, of whom many are involved in careers. However, in most women's magazines in the late 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s, the Happy Housewife, whose only ambitions are marriage and motherhood, replaces the career-oriented New Woman. Friedan calls this homemaker ideal of femininity the feminine mystique.

Chapter 3: The Crisis in Woman's Identity
Friedan remembers her own decision to conform to society's expectations by giving up her promising career to raise children and finds that other young women still struggle with this decision. Many women drop out of school early to marry, afraid that if they wait too long or become too educated, they will not be able to attract a husband. Unfortunately, many women do not find fulfillment in the narrow roles of wife and mother and then fear something is wrong with them.

Chapter 4: The Passionate Journey
Friedan recalls the battles faced by nineteenth-century feminists in the United States. As in her own time, Friedan notes, nineteenth-century society attempted to restrict women to the roles of wife and mother and slandered women who challenged this gentle image. However, despite harsh resistance, early feminists held their ground, and women were ultimately given many opportunities men enjoyed, including education, the right to pursue their own careers, and, most important, the right to vote. With this last major goal fulfilled, Friedan says, the early women's movement died.

Chapter 5: The Sexual Solipsism of Sigmund Freud
Friedan says that the feminine mystique derived much of its power from the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud who attempted to redefine humanity in completely sexual terms. Many of his complex theories included labels like penis envy, which she says were used by proponents of the feminine mystique to explain why women were not happy in their roles as housewife and mother. Women found it hard to deny the flood of Freudian information that came from established academic and media sources.

Chapter 6: The Functional Freeze, the Feminine Protest, and Margaret Mead
Friedan discusses functionalism—a sociological discipline. By assigning each group a defined function in the social hierarchy, the functionalists believed that society would run smoothly. In this system, women were confined to their sexual biological roles as housewives and mothers and told that doing otherwise would upset the social balance. She also discusses the life and career of Margaret Mead, an eminent functionalist who helped promote, but did not live, according to the ideals of the feminine mystique.

Chapter 7: The Sex-Directed Educators
Friedan discusses the profound shift in women's education from the 1940s to the early 1960s. Sex-directed educators accused higher education of stealing women's femininity and capacity for sexual fulfillment. Many women's schools shifted to a sex-directed curriculum—non-challenging classes that focused mostly on marriage, family, and other subjects deemed suitable for women. Friedan says that sex-directed education arrests girls in their emotional development at a young age, because they never have to face the painful identity crisis and subsequent maturation that comes from dealing with many adult challenges.

Chapter 8: The Mistaken Choice
Women fulfilled many vital working roles while men were fighting World War II but they faced dismissal, discrimination, or hostility when the men returned. Sex-directed educators blamed overeducated, career-focused mothers for the maladjustment of soldiers in World War II. For this reason women were encouraged to stay home and devote their attention completely to their children. However, Friedan cites later studies that show these overbearing mothers often raise maladjusted children. Friedan says that women mistakenly chose to become dependent housewives instead of the more painful route to identity and independence.

Chapter 9: The Sexual Sell
Friedan explores the strong commercial motivation that has helped to enforce the feminine mystique. She meets a man whom manufacturers hire to study and exploit women's unfulfilled desires. Through manipulative advertising, companies try to elevate the image of the housewife role. They encourage housewives to feel like worthy, intelligent, independent professionals who require many specialized products. However, as Friedan notes, it is a delicate balance, because these manufacturers do not want to inadvertently encourage housewives to be independent enough to become career women—who do not buy as many household products.

Chapter 10: Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available
Friedan interviews several full-time housewives and finds that they are not happy, but they are extremely busy with housework. Friedan realizes women unconsciously stretch their home duties to fill the time available, because the feminine mystique has taught women that this is their role, and if they ever complete their tasks they will become unneeded. Friedan says that the feminine mystique, which only works if women remain immature, prevents women from doing the work of which they are capable—a sign of maturity.

Chapter 11: The Sex-Seekers
While she is interviewing housewives for her book, Friedan notes that women often give explicitly sexual answers to nonsexual questions. Since American housewives have been unable to find fulfillment and identity in housework alone, she says they have tried to seek it through sex. However, Friedan says that this depersonalizes sex and turns it into a game of control. Wives get frustrated if their husbands cannot fulfill their sexual desires, husbands resent their wives for being so dependent on them, and both seek release in extramarital affairs. Friedan also thinks that homosexuality is an abnormality that is associated with the feminine mystique.

Chapter 12: Progressive Dehumanization: The Comfortable Concentration Camp
Friedan discusses the fact that many children have lost interest in life or emotional growth. She attributes the change to the mother's lack of self, a side effect of the feminine mystique. When the mother lacks a self, she is dehumanized and tries to regain her human self through her husband and children. In the process, the children lose their own identities and become dehumanized. Friedan compares housewives to the dehumanized occupants of Hitler's concentration camps during World War II.

Chapter 13: The Forfeited Self
Friedan says that the problem that has no name is caused by trying to force American women to adhere to the feminine mystique—an ideal that goes against their natural, human need to grow. She discusses the human hierarchy of needs and notes that women have been trapped at the basic, physiological level, forced to find their identity through their sexual role alone. Friedan says that women need meaningful work just as men do to achieve self-actualization, the highest level on the hierarchy of needs.

Chapter 14: A New Life Plan for Women
Friedan discusses several case studies of women who have begun to go against the feminine mystique. She also advocates a new life plan for her women readers, including not viewing housework as a career; not trying to find total fulfillment through marriage and motherhood alone; and finding meaningful work that uses the woman's full mental capacity. She discusses the conflicts that many women will face in this journey to self-actualization, including their own fears and resistance from others. For each conflict, Friedan offers examples of women who have overcome it. Friedan promotes education as the ultimate method by which American women can avoid becoming trapped in the feminine mystique; calls for a drastic rethinking of what it means to be feminine; and offers several educational and occupational suggestions.