The Feminine Mystique Revisited

Feminine and Feminist Identity

Betty Friedan became concerned with the problem of female identity in the 1950’s. This led her to conclusions that she later published in the surprising 1963 best-seller, The Feminine Mystique.[1] In Friedan’s view, cultural expectations that normed female roles of marriage, mothering, and homemaking, roles that she collectively termed “the feminine mystique,” ate away at a woman’s sense of self. “It is urgent to understand how the very condition of being a housewife can create a sense of emptiness, non-existence, nothingness, in women,” she wrote. “There are aspects of the housewife role that make it almost impossible for a woman of adult intelligence to retain a sense of human identity, the firm core of self or ‘I’ without which a human being, man or woman, is not truly alive.”[2]

What to make of this? Such a pathologization of stay-at-home mothers would make most women bristle today, as would Friedan’s labeling of their homes as “comfortable concentration camps.” And today’s reader rightly winces at the pervasive classism of the book, in which the paradigmatic (white) woman lives in a posh, mid-century-modern house, and the paradigmatic (white) man is an executive escaping into the city.

And yet there is something quite true that Friedan does not get much credit for noticing: the widespread existence of what Christopher Lasch sixteen years later would label “a culture of narcissism.” As I have pointed out elsewhere, Lasch’s observation was not a matter of moralism, nor did he conflate everyday narcissism with the pathological variety, which is a distinct phenomenon beyond the purview of his book. Rather, he postulated what I call the “narcissistic spectrum”; American culture by the 1970’s was marked by pervasive symptoms of narcissism, such that low-level narcissistic tendencies were the default and not the exception. Those on the narcissistic spectrum tend to lack a sense of self. When Betty Friedan blamed “the feminine mystique” for women’s lack of “a sense of human identity, the firm core of self or ‘I,’” she was noticing the same kind of thing.[3]

Yet why should we listen to Friedan about any of this? It is indisputable that, over five decades later, the “feminine mystique” of the stay-at-home mother no longer has a strong hold on the cultural imagination. Instead of Doris Day singing “Que sera, sera,” female protagonists are much more likely to be sexually-experienced and wisecracking career women. Instead of June Cleaver, we have Captain Marvel.

Despite this cultural distance, though, many of Friedan’s observations still resonate today. First, Friedan was one of the first feminists to make a sustained case for the importance of women entering the capitalist workforce as a matter of female well-being. She was the antecedent to contemporary voices, such as Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In) and Linda Hirshman (Get to Work), all of whom privilege a job with a paycheck as a (or the) key source of female identity.

Secondly, Friedan’s concern with the loss of “a firm core of self” resonates still, and not just with feminists. Friedan saw a symptom that was more universal than she realized and thus had more causes than she knew. The loss of a “firm core of self” can have multiple proximate causes but, I will argue in this essay and the ones that follow, that it can have only one ultimate cause. Friedan argued that the ultimate cause was an inordinate sense of the identity-providing powers of full-time homemaking. But this was merely a proximate cause.

The Contemporary Empty Self

In other words, what Friedan thought was a fixed equation is actually one with a causative variable. Here is how she describes the process of how one’s identity fails to develop: “By the promise of magical fulfillment through marriage, the feminine mystique arrests [women’s] development at an infantile level, short of personal identity, with an inevitably weak core of self.”[4] The italicized words provide Friedan’s causal analysis of the feminine mystique, which she seems to think is essentially the problem. The solution: no feminine mystique. Result: no more symptoms.

In fact, however, we can modify this rigid causal equation with a more flexible one by replacing the italicized words with other causal variables and come up with equally plausible results. For example: “By the promise of magical fulfillment through entertainment, addictive gaming arrests adolescent male development at an infantile level, short of personal identity, with an inevitably weak core of self.” Or: “By the promise of magical fulfillment through orgasm, pornography arrests compulsive masturbators’ development at an infantile level, short of personal identity, with an inevitably weak core of self.”

Once one sets aside the variable proximate causes, the symptoms of ego-loss delineated by Friedan sound eerily familiar to us. Take, for example, her account of how people attempt to fulfill themselves through purchasing. She argues that empty selves are easy marks for the Madison-Avenue con, and she cites ad-agency reports for clients to show the experts were wise to this. The following is Friedan’s analysis of the strategy of those advertising housekeeping products; once more I will italicize the variables: “With increasing skill, the ads glorify her ‘role’ as an American housewife—knowing that her very lack of identity in that role will make her fall for whatever they are selling.”[5] Substitute “sophisticated foodie” for “American housewife,” and you have the same dynamic at work. If a person attempts to load his enjoyment of good food with existential weight, thereby crafting an identity out of a preoccupation with local produce, you get . . . someone who will buy a lot in order to shore up that identity. I presume that the executives at Whole Foods / Amazon know this quite well.

Likewise, the following ad quoted by Friedan presciently predicts helicopter-parents who obsess over their children’s kindergarten placements: “Are you this woman? Giving your kids the fun and advantages you want for them? Taking them places and helping them do things? . . . You can be the woman you yearn to be with a Plymouth all your own.”[6] Buy our product, and your kids will succeed, and (here is where it gets personal) you can be the person you yearn to be. As Judith Butler says, identity politics are so powerful because they convince us to surrender our autonomy in exchange for the feeling of autonomy, married to a dramatic role that we do not need to invent from scratch.[7] Friedan saw that advertising does the same thing. Advertising manufactures the consumers it wants by creating equal-opportunity and ready-made roles—as long as you purchase the gear that the roles require.

Economics is not the only player in the identity-game. Let us think about sex—or, as Friedan would prefer: let us try not thinking about it so much. Despite frequently being named a forerunner of the 1960’s feminist sexual revolution (“second-wave feminism”), Friedan critiques “the feminine mystique” as a thinly-veiled sexualization of women that reduces her value to her production in the bedroom and in the nursery.[8] Child-production is hardly valued to the same degree as it was in Friedan’s time, but surely female sexuality is even more glorified now than in the 1950’s. Replace “the feminine mystique” with “the sexual revolution,” and little seems to have changed.

Friedan prophetically sees the dissatisfaction women will experience if they make sex and sexual relationships the foundation of their identity:

But what happens when a woman bases her whole identity on her sexual role; when sex is necessary to make her “feel alive”? To state it quite simply, she puts impossible demands on her own body, her “femaleness,” as well as on her husband [or partner] and his “maleness.”[9]

Her description of the resulting objectification echoes the critiques made by Pope John Paul II: “And yet because sex does not really satisfy these needs, she seeks to buttress her nothingness with things, until often even sex itself, and the husband and the children on whom the sexual identity rests, become possessions, things.” If you are only a thing, everyone else looks like a thing. “A woman who is herself only a sexual object, lives finally in a world of objects, unable to touch in others the individual identity she lacks in herself.”[10] As Karol Wojtyła names it, the “mutual egoism” between two people who are using each other for pleasure reduces persons to things.[11]

What Is the Ultimate Cause of Empty Selves?

Over 50 years since she wrote these observations, we are in a world that prioritizes work-force participation by women. As one of those working women, I am grateful that I have opportunities that were not always open to Friedan’s fellows. Yet, for all of its blessings, the possibility to work has not been a societal cure-all. Friedan never saw that “the feminine mystique” was only a proximate, not the ultimate, cause of the depersonalization around her. When Lasch wrote A Culture of Narcissism in 1979, many things had improved in the lives of women (although other things got worse), and yet the problem of the empty self had only continued to deteriorate. Friedan’s sunny but vague optimism about how better everything will be once structures improve evokes Marx’s well-meaning but equally vague conviction of widespread and full personal development once capitalism is eliminated. Both are better with diagnosing the details of the problem than with working out the solution.

In fact, Friedan’s magic bullet, female work-force participation, has come with its own set of struggles amply documented by “happiness studies” that show that women are just as, if not more, discontent with their lives. Instead of the stultifying boredom of having only laundry, daytime TV, and gin to keep them occupied in an empty house, now women often battle the overwhelming feeling of being torn between multiple commitments.

I will not tackle the complex causes and possible solutions of the contemporary female-happiness problem. My point is simply that Friedan’s diagnosis and solution are both not as ultimate as she thought they were. It is not say that it is unimportant to address problems such as lack of opportunity for women; I am glad we have. But we should not overpromise. The project of tackling the proximate causes of our empty-self problem is like battling the Hydra; more proximate causes spring up to replace the one that are eliminated.

By the 1970’s, it was starting to become clearer that Friedan’s diagnosis did not get to the ultimate cause of female discontent. Today, it is abundantly clear. Suppose a woman rejects, as Friedan polemicized, “the delusions of the feminine mystique—and realizes that neither her husband nor her children, nor the things in her house, nor sex, nor being like all the other women, can give her a self.”[12] Well, that is true. None of those things, even cumulatively, is adequate to constructing a self. The problem is not only, however, the inadequacy of these things and relationships. All things and relationships are inadequate, including paid work. Jean Bethke Elshtain insightfully called Friedan’s cure a “feminist mystique,” and it has become yet another proximate cause of empty selves.[13]

Feminism Diagnosed What Post-Modernism Theorized

In the near future I will treat at more length post-modernism’s theories of the subject. I will preview that essay here, however, by arguing that Friedan and her fellows diagnosed what, a few decades later, post-modernists would theorize. 

Hence, where Deleuze and Guattari theorize that the self is the “residuum” or the product of desire rather than its source, Friedan saw that women tended to build their identities out of their sexual relationships and loves rather than the other way around.[14] Where Butler argues that the “I” is called into being by the naming of others and by prior norms, Friedan saw that women allowed their identities to be named into being by ad agencies and by social roles.[15] Where the philosophers provide the theory of the construction and/or death of the subject, she provided the concrete examples. The difference is that the academics theorize cultural narcissism into an essential human fact, while Friedan rejected what she saw around her.

Friedan deserves credit for seeing things so clearly in 1963, when the “death of the subject” theories had not yet fully emerged to explain what was going on. By the time Lasch wrote A Culture of Narcissism 16 years later, Derrida was already ascendant in the United States, and any Marxist worth her salt could point out how ideological state apparatuses were interpellating subjects into existence. Friedan saw it already without any help from deconstruction.

What to make of all this? I do not think it is a coincidence that widespread narcissism only emerged in the 20th century, just as an omnipresent secularism became the new normal. The two go hand in hand: whenever the human person is presented with a godless world—or, at least, a world that has reduced divine transcendence to moralistic therapeutic deism—de facto she is being asked to construct a private world of meaning and identity without the help of the divine.

A thoroughly secular world is a world in which identity is not received but only self-constructed. Its default is the narcissistic empty self, who fruitlessly attempts to construct a self ex nihilo rather than receive it from beyond herself. Accordingly, Walker Percy in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book recognized that lost selves arose out of the replacement of God with science. “With the passing of the cosmological myths and the fading of Christianity as a guarantor of the identity of the self, the self becomes dislocated . . . is both cut loose and imprisoned by its own freedom, . . . so that in the end the self becomes a space-bound ghost.”[16] The secular denial of divinely-given identity is the ultimate cause of the problem of the empty self.[17]

[1] This essay will limit its observations on Friedan’s work to the first edition of The Feminine Mystique. Future editions and her later political activism diverged in important ways from her more existential concerns in the first edition.

[2] Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1963), 293.

[3] Lasch gives a sympathetic treatment of Friedan, while observing that the “traditional family” model she was criticizing was not traditional at all, but rather a product of nineteenth-century industrialization that resulted in a separation of home and livelihood, in “The Sexual Division of Labor, the Decline of Civic Culture, and the Rise of Suburbs,” in Women and the Common Life: Love, Marriage, and Feminism (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997), 93-120. Interestingly, he does not note how her observations concerning the missing “core of self” predated and verified his own.

[4] Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 278.

[5] Ibid., 219.

[6] Quoted in Ibid., 220.

[7] Her actual words are that identity politics provide merely “the conceit of autonomy implied by self-naming” rather than real autonomy and real self-formation (in Bodies That Matter, 228). Butler’s own proposal of performative self-construction is simply one post-modern strategy for coping with the symptoms Friedan describes, as I will explain.

[8] Friedan’s frustration at the over-sexualization of women and female liberation did not endure. The story of how abortion-activist Lawrence Lader convinced her to embrace the sexual revolution and abortion rights is told in various places, such as Lader’s colleague Bernard Nathanson, M.D.’s Aborting America (New York: Doubleday, 1979) and Sue Ellen Browder’s Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015); see a summary of that history here.

[9] Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 254.

[10] Ibid., 255.

[11] Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility (Boston: Pauline, 2013), 23-24.

[12] Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 326.

[13] Jean Bethke Elshtain, Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 254.

[14] See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, vol. 1: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (NY: Penguin, 1977), 20.

[15] See Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 2011 [1993]), 225, citing Althusser’s idea of “interpellation” from his essay on “Ideological State Apparatuses.”

[16] Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos (New York: Washington Square, 1983), 16-17. Percy asserts that the two poles of man's existence in a post-Christian and non-religious age become worldly “transcendence” and “immanence,” with the result that man oscillates between “orbiting” the world in moments of superior intellectual or artistic transcendence, before undergoing painful “reentry” into the immanent world-in other words, living an unresolved paradox (ibid., 113-158).  

[17] See my “Eberstadt on Eberstadt: Identity Politics’ Roots in Secularization” for the connection between the rise of secularism and the loss of identity.

Feature Image: Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Angela Franks

Angela Franks, Ph.D. is Professor of Theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston. Her specialties include the theology of the body, the new evangelization, and the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar. She is the author of Contraception and Catholicism.

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