The Feminine Mystique, Chapter 2: The Happy Housewife Heroine

by Annemarie on March 14, 2011 · 3 comments

Chapter 2 of The Feminine Mystique is an interesting compilation of stories showing the modern (1960's) woman only wanted the hearth, home and husband. According to Friedan's observation in Chapter 1, women had given-up their desire for independence and instead turned all their attention to:
. . . kissing their husbands goodbye in front of the picture window, depositing their statiowagonsful of children at school, and smiling as they ran the new electric waxer over the spotless kitchen floor.
Friedan continues to detail how women's magazines would intentionally omit political issues or matters of national or international concern:
Our readers are housewives, full time. They're not  interested in the broad issues of the day. They are not interested in national or international affairs. They are only interested in the family and the home. They aren't interested in politics, unless it's related to an immediate need in the home, like the price of coffee.
In all honesty, this does paint a troubling picture: women being totally oblivious to public affairs and matters of national and international concern. However, if one were to examine the women's magazines of today, there are very few articles discussing matters of world concern. If you want to read about public affairs you don't pick-up Harper's Bazaar or Glamour, instead you read The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. According to Friedan, a new "feminine mystique" was emerging. A belief that women belonged at home and could only be fulfilled through their femininity:
And so the feminine mystique began to spread through the land, grafted onto old prejudices and comfortable conventions which so easily give the past a stranglehold on the future. Behind the new mystique were concepts and theories deceptive in their sophistication and their assumption of accepted truth.
The feminine mystique as explained by Friedan:
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.
Chapter 2 closes with a great question, one I would like to pose to our readers:
The feminine mystique is so powerful that women grow up no longer knowing that they have the desires and capacities the mystique forbids. But such a mystique does not fasten itself on a whole nation in a few short years, reversing the trends of a century, without cause. What gives the mystique its power? Why did women go home again?
Why do women return home? Why do women today leave the workforce to care for their husband and children

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah March 16, 2011 at 10:20 am

Your point about how you can’t go to women’s magazines for news reminds me of the movie “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” where Kate Hudson’s character wants to write serious news, but her editor will only let her cover makeup and hose and things like that. It was a bit of a stretch, in a movie that was already a bit ridiculous to begin with, but the point behind this message is true: don’t go to Cosmo for world concerns, even ones that pertain to women.


fran froelich March 17, 2011 at 5:44 am

Mind imput from a 60-something who read & thought about these issues when the book came out?
My take is that Friedan’s contemporaries came of age in & around ww2 when the war-caused shortage of men in civilian society opened jobs for women they’d not previously held. Not only had men left exisiting jobs, but the war itself generated addl industrial jobs as well. Women were needed, as they hadn’t in the past. Further, technology enabled them to do work that had previously been beyond their physical capabilities to do.
These higher-producitivity jobs earned them larger paychecks & greater independence. They were forced into male roles @ home as well. They couldn’t easily consult their husbands as to major family & household decisions.
Result was a new sense of control & independence that they were understandably reluctant to cede once the war ended & men returned home.
But not only were men, by law, entitled to reclaim old jobs, but the war-created jobs ended because they were no longer needed. The same degree of social pressures that pushed women into the workplace now pushed them out.
Some women were only too glad to return to home, kitchen, & children. They wanted to start or expand families that the war interrupted. They wanted to enjoy the homes that their war earnings helped financed.
Others, however, felt otherwise. Some had no choice but to remain in the workplace. Their husbands might’ve been disabled or killed. Others got divorced (1946 saw a record spike in divorces). Other husbands decided to attend college under a GI Bill whose living allowance was too small to support a family. Other women simply found that they preferred working to homemaking, esp. if their kids were grown & gone.
Domesticity was as much a let-down for them as civilian life was for their husbands. However, it took @ least a decade for post-war excitement & disruptions to die down long enuf to verbalize these feelings. But the feelings were there, for men as well as women. Consider 1946 movie “The Best Years of our Lives” or 1955’s ” The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit”. These, to me, were the mirror images of “The Feminine Mystique” as there ever was, even tho the former was fictional.
Point is, there were plenty of validity to the angst that women were feeling. What it was was a social whipsaw. Telling women they were needed in the larger working world (as opposed to narrower categories of traditional women’s jobs), then telling them they were NOT needed was a jolt.
Ironic that the jobs were sold as temporary. Women were thought to WANT to return home once the war was over. Had the war lasted a few months instead of several years, perhaps the impact might not have been as large.
The book opened up the proverbial can of worms precisely because a whole generation of women had been so strongly impacted. And it affected non-college as well as college women. And we Baby Boomers, seeing our unhappy mothers, decided that we weren’t going to suffer that degree & kind of unhappiness.
Unfortunately but inevitably, the pendulum has swung so far that those of us, including myself, who were only too happy to be full-time moms & homemakers, have had to defend our choices, not only to our mothers but many contemporaries as well.
Nonetheless, Friedan, whom I met in the early 70s & found an interesting & stimulating woman, raised some important & compelling issues we’re still debating almost a half-century after the fact.


Diana Smith March 17, 2011 at 10:34 pm

Regarding the conclusion of chapter 2; I’d like to answer Ms. Friedan’s question with another question….why is it that a human being of the female sex, oops, I should say, gender, denigrates herself by referring to herself as a “woman” rather than a “person”?? Is the same true for the male sex/gender of our humanity?? If a man calls himself a “man” instead of a “person”, is he too, denigrating himself??
Ms. Friedan is obviously looking at the world through secular humanist or “Enlightened”
glasses. Ms. Friedan would never be able to answer her question: “Why did women go
home again?” within the frame of reference she applied in the 1960’s.
In order to grasp the significance of women “going home again”, one must look at the
course of events from long, long ago to the present with glasses that accommodate for
Intelligent Design, purposeful design, transcendant design. Women went home again,
even after the “opportunities” of the war torn decade because that is how they were
wired–that is what the Intelligent Designer, God, ordained from the beginning of time.
It isn’t popular, acceptable, or cool, to talk about God in the context of Ms. Friedan, but
the fact is, she’s discovered the truth by now, and it’s not what she wanted it to be!


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