- “The Happy Housewife Heroine” and “The Sexual Sell”Legacies of Betty Friedan’s Critique of the Image of Women
In 1963, Betty Friedan introduced the American public to the “problem that has no name,” the inarticulate longings of countless American women who wrote “occupation: housewife” on the census form; women who lived in quiet desperation, troubled by feelings of emptiness as they lived out the role that was supposed to bring ultimate fulfillment; women who wondered about their personal failings for not finding satisfaction in marriage and motherhood. The “feminine mystique,” Friedan argued, was a strange and powerful force that took hold toward the end of World War II and, for the next decade and a half, directed young women into early marriage. It convinced them that they would find happiness, not in pursuit of personal ambition outside the home, but by being truly “feminine” and embracing the role of wife and mother.
Who or what was to blame for the creation of the “feminine mystique”? Friedan pointed to advertisers, experts, and educators, whose advice and wisdom all put forth a single message: a woman’s place is in the home. Women were not without fault for their unhappy confinement at home; they had mistakenly chosen security rather than striving for a greater sense of self in the world outside its doors. Yet women’s acquiescence to the feminine mystique—to the pull of domesticity—was understandable, Friedan also pointed out. After all, who could blame them for choosing the path to “occupation: housewife” when all other roads were littered with obstacles: the cultural baggage of the feminine mystique, the peer pressure to conform, the structural impediments to women’s access to education and employment?
For Friedan, a woman’s confinement to domestic life kept her from realizing her potential as a human being. The harmful effect of this would be felt by future generations. For how could a mother with an underdeveloped sense of self ever hope to raise a self-possessed daughter? And so her daughter, unwilling and unable to pursue the hard road toward independence and self-actualization, would continue the cycle, rushing to the altar at the first opportunity [End Page 33] and going on to live out her own life of quiet desperation, which would wreak havoc on her children, and so on.
Friedan positioned her book as an intervention. She called upon readers to break the cycle and to free themselves from the “housewife trap.” In the past, women had mistakenly chosen between marriage and career. One could sidestep this perilous choice, however, by developing a “new life plan” that would enable one to embrace marriage and motherhood without losing one’s self. Essential to this “new life plan” was the pursuit of meaningful education. Through education, a woman would develop her interests and her abilities—key to developing her own identity, and to finding a job. By “job,” of course, Friedan meant a career: socially useful, paid employment, not voluntary community “busy work,” not some low-level position just to get out of the house once in a while.
The path to combining career and family would not be an easy one, Friedan admitted. And while individual women might succeed in living out a “new life plan” and thus be saved from “the problem that has no name,” Friedan recognized that the larger context of women’s lives also needed to be transformed. Along with calling for new academic models and federal support for women’s continuing education, Friedan also announced: “We need a drastic reshaping of the cultural image of femininity that will permit women to reach maturity, identity, completeness of self.”1 She offered no further comment on how such a powerful, pervasive image might be changed. But in the years that followed, feminist activists and media critics would take up this charge.
The idea that cultural forces aligned to produce a limited and limiting “image of women” permeated Friedan’s book. Among the many sources that Friedan claimed had channeled women into the home, mass women’s magazines figured prominently. Here she drew upon her insider status as a writer for some of these magazines to lay...