Top Quotes: “The Feminine Mystique” — Betty Friedan

Austin Rose
18 min readJun 28, 2022



“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many year in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — “Is this all?”

“By the end of the nineteen-fifties, the average marriage age of women in America dropped to 20, and was still dropping, into the teens. Fourteen million girls were engaged by 17. The proportion of women attending college in comparison with men dropped from 47 per cent in 1920 to 35 per cent in 1958. A century earlier, women had fought for higher education; now girls went to college to get a husband. By the mid-fifties, 60 per cent dropped out of college to marry, or because they were afraid too much education would be a marriage bar. Colleges built dormitories for “married students,’ but the students were almost always the husbands. A new degree was instituted for the wives “Ph.T.” (Putting Husband Through).

Then American girls began getting married in high school. And the women’s magazines, deploring the unhappy statistics about these young marriages, urged that courses on marriage, and marriage counselors, be installed in the high schools. Girls started going steady at twelve and thirteen, in junior high. Manufacturers put out brassieres with false bosoms of foam rubber for little girls of ten. And an advertisement for a child’s dress, sizes 3–6x, in the New York Times in the fall of 1960, said: “She Too Can Join the Man-Trap Set.”

By the end of the fifties, the United States birthrate was overtaking India’s. The birth-control movement, renamed Planned Parenthood, was asked to find a method whereby women who had been advised that a third or fourth baby would be born dead or defective might have it anyhow. Statisticians were especially astounded at the fantastic increase in the number of babies among college women. Where once they had two children, now they had four, five, six. Women who had once wanted careers were now making careers out of having babies. So rejoiced Life magazine in a 1956 paean to the movement of American women back to the home.

In a New York hospital, a woman had a nervous breakdown when she found she could not breastfeed her baby. In other hospitals, women dying of cancer refused a drug which research had proved might save their lives: its side effects were said to be unfeminine. “If I have only one life, let me live it as a blonde,” a larger-than-life-sized picture of a pretty, vacuous woman proclaimed from newspaper, magazine, and drugstore ads. And across America, three out of every ten women dyed their hair blonde. They ate a chalk called Metrecal, instead of food, to shrink to the size of the thin young models. Department-store buyers reported that American women, since 1939, had become three and four sizes smaller. “Women are out to fit the clothes, instead of vice-versa,” one buyer said.”

A number of educators suggested seriously that women no longer be admitted to the four-year colleges and universities: in the growing college crisis, the education which girls could not use as housewives was more urgently needed than ever by boys to do the work of the atomic age.”

“It is my thesis that the core of the problem for women today is not sexual but a problem of identity — a stunting or evasion of growth that is perpetuated by the feminine mystique. It is my thesis that as the Victorian culture did not permit women to accept or gratify their basic sexual needs, our culture does not permit women to accept or gratify their basic need to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings, a need which is not solely defined by their sexual role.

Biologists have recently discovered a “youth serum” which, if fed to young caterpillars in the larva state, will keep them from ever maturing into moths; they will live out their lives as caterpillars. The expectations of feminine fulfillment that are fed to women by magazines, television, movies, and books that popularize psychological half-truths, and by parents, teachers and counselors who accept the feminine mystique, operate as a kind of youth serum, keeping most women in the state of sexual larvae, preventing them from achieving the maturity of which they are capable.”


“Freud grew up with this attitude built in by his culture — not only the culture of Victorian Europe, but that Jewish culture in which men said the daily prayer: “I thank Thee, Lord, that Thou hast not created me a woman,” and women prayed in submission: “I thank Thee, Lord, that Thou has created me according to Thy will.”

Freud’s mother was the pretty, docile bride of a man twice her age; his father ruled the family with an autocratic authority traditional in Jewish families during those centuries of persecution when the fathers were seldom able to establish authority in the outside world. His mother adored the young Sigmund, her first son, and thought him mystically destined for greatness; she seemed to exist only to gratify his every wish. His own memories of the sexual jealousy he felt for his father, whose wishes she also gratified, were the basis of his theory of the Oedipus complex. With his wife, as with his mother and sisters, his needs, his desires, his wishes, were the sun around which the household revolved. When the noise of his sisters’ practicing the piano interrupted his studies, “the piano disappeared,” Anna Freud recalled years later, “and with it all opportunities for his sisters to become musicians.”

Freud did not see this attitude as a problem, or cause for any problem, in women. It was woman’s nature to be ruled by man, and her sickness to envy him. Freud’s letters to Martha, his future wife, written during the four years of their engagement (1882–1886) have the. fond, patronizing sound of Torvald in A Doll’s House, scolding Nora for her pretenses at being human. Freud was beginning to probe the secrets of the human brain in the laboratory at Vienna; Martha was to wait, his “sweet child,” in her mother’s custody for four years, until he could come and fetch her. From these letters one can see that to him her identity was defined as child-housewife, even when she was no longer a child and not yet a housewife.”

“It is recognized now that Freud never gave proper attention, even in man, to growth of the ego or self: “the impulse to master, control or come to self-fulfilling terms with the environment.” Analysts who have freed themselves from Freud’s bias and joined other behavioral scientists in studying the human need to grow, are beginning to believe that this is the basic human need, and that interference with it, in any dimension, is the source of psychic trouble. The sexual is only one dimension of the human potential. Freud, it must be remembered, thought all neuroses were sexual in origin; he saw women only in terms of their sexual relationship with men. But in all those women in whom he saw sexual problems, there must have been very severe problems of blocked growth, growth short of full human identity — an immature, incomplete self. Society as it was then, by explicit denial of education and independence, prevented women from realizing their full potential, or from attaining those interests and ideals that might have stimulated their growth. Freud reported these deficiencies, but could only explain them as the toll of “penis envy.” He saw women’s envy of man only as sexual sickness. He saw that women who secretly hungered to be man’s equal would not enjoy being his object; and in this, he seemed to be describing a fact. But when he dismissed woman’s yearning for equality as “penis envy,” was he not merely stating his own view that women could never really be man’s equal, any more than she could wear his penis?”

“Protectiveness has often muffled the sound of doors closing against women; it has often cloaked a very real prejudice, even when it is offered in the name of science. If an old-fashioned grandfather frowned at Nora, who is studying calculus because she wants to be a physicist, and muttered, “Woman’s place is in the home,” Nora would laugh impatiently, “Grandpa, this is 1963.” But she does not laugh at the urbane pipe-smoking professor of sociology, or the book by Margaret Mead, or the definitive two-volume reference on female sexuality, when they tell her the same thing. The complex, mysterious language of functionalism, Freudian psychology, and cultural anthropology hides from her the fact that they say this with not much more basis than grandpa.”

“The students take as gospel the bits and pieces assigned in text books that explain Freud or quote Margaret Mead; they do not have the frame of reference that comes from the actual study of psychology or anthropology. In fact, by explicitly banning the usual critical attitudes of college study, these pseudoscientific marriage courses give what is often no more than popular opinion, the fiat of scientific law. The opinion may be currently fashionable, or already outdated, in psychiatric circles, but it is often merely a prejudice, buttressed by psychological or sociological jargon and well-chosen statistics to give the appearance of unquestionable scientific truth.

The discussion on premarital intercourse usually leads to the scientific conclusion that it is wrong. One professor builds up his case against sexual intercourse before marriage with statistics chosen to demonstrate that premarital sexual experience tends to make marital adjustment more difficult. The student will not know of the other statistics which refute this point; if the professor knows of them, he can in the functional marriage course feel free to disregard them as unfunctional. (“Ours is a sick society. The students need some accurate definitive kind of knowledge. It is functional “knowledge” that “only the exceptional woman can make a go of a commitment to a career.” Of course, since most women in the past have not had careers, the few, who did were all “exceptional” — as a mixed marriage is “exceptional,” and premarital intercourse for a girl is exceptional. All are phenomena of less than 51 per cent. The whole point of functional education often seems to be: what 51 per cent of the population does today, 100 per cent should do tomorrow.

So the sex-directed educator promotes a girl’s adjustment by dissuading her from any but the “normal” commitment to marriage and the family. One such educator goes farther than imaginary role-playing; she brings real ex-working mothers to class to talk about their guilt at leaving their children in the morning. Somehow, the students seldom hear about a woman who has successfully broken convention — the young woman doctor whose sister handled her practice when her babies were born, the mother who adjusted her babies’ sleeping hours to her work schedule without problems, the happy Protestant girl who married a Catholic, the sexually serene wife whose premarital experience did not seem to hurt her marriage. “Exceptional” cases are of no practical concern to the functionalist, though he often acknowledges scrupulously that there are exceptions. (The “exceptional child,” in educational jargon, bears a connotation of handicap: the blind, the crippled, the retarded, the genius, the defer of convention — anyone who is different from the crowd, in any way unique bears a common shame; he is “exceptional.”) Somehow, the student gets the point that she does not want to be the “exceptional woman.”

“More babies are always born after wars. But today the American population explosion comes in large part from teenage marriages. The number of children born to teenagers rose 165 per cent between 1940 and 1957, according to Metropolitan Life Insurance figures. The girls who would normally go to college but leave or forgo it to marry (eighteen and nineteen are the most frequent ages of marriage of American girls today; half of all American women are married by twenty) are products of the mystique. They give up education without a qualm, truly believing that they will find “fulfillment” as wives and mothers.”

“I quote Dr. Strecker at length because he was,oddly enough, one of the psychiatric authorities most frequently cited in the spate of postwar articles and speèches condemning American women for their lost femininity — and bidding them rush back home again and devote their lives to their children. Actually, the moral of Strecker’s cases was just the opposite; those immature sons had mothers who devoted too much of their lives to their children, mothers who had to keep their children babies or they themselves would have no lives at all, mothers who never themselves reached or were encouraged to reach maturity.”


Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that women will buy more things if they are kept in the underused, nameless-yearning, energy-to-get-rid-of state of being housewives.”

“It was not an economic conspiracy directed against women. It was a byproduct of our general confusion lately of means with ends; just something that happened to women when the business of producing and selling and investing in business for profit — which is merely the way our economy is organized to serve man’s needs efficiently — began to be confused with the purpose of our nation, the end of life itself. No more surprising, the subversion of women’s lives in America to the ends of business, than the subversion of the sciences of human behavior to the business of deluding women about their real needs.”

“The dilemma of business was spelled out in a survey made in 1945 for the publisher of a leading women’s magazine on the attitudes of women toward electrical appliances. The message was considered of interest to all the companies that, with the war about to end, were going to have to make consumer sales take the place of war contracts. It was a study of “the psychology of housekeeping”; “a woman’s attitude toward housekeeping appliances cannot be separated from her attitude toward homemaking in general,” it warned.”

The second type — The Career Woman or Would-Be Career Woman — was a minority, but an extremely “unhealthy” one from the sellers’ standpoint; advertisers were warned that it would be to their advantage not to let this group get any larger. For such women, though not necessarily job-holders, “do not believe that a woman’s place is primarily in the home.” (“Many in this group have never actually worked, but their attitude is: ‘I think housekeeping is a horrible waste of time. If my youngsters were old enough and I were free to leave the house, I would use my time to better advantage. If my family’s meals and laundry could be taken care of, I would be delighted to go out and get a job.”) The point to bear in mind regarding career women, the study said, is that, while they buy modern appliances, they are not the ideal type of customer. They are too critical.

The third type — “The Balanced Homemaker” — is “from the market standpoint, the ideal type.” She has some outside interests, or has held a job before turning exclusively to homemaking; she “readily accepts” the help mechanical appliances can give — but “does not expect them to do the impossible” because she needs to use her own executive ability “in managing a well-run household.”

The moral of the study was explicit: “Since the Balanced Homemaker represents the market with the greatest future potential, it would be to the advantage of the appliance manufacturer to make women that “feeling of achievement,” and yet keep housework their main purpose in life. Education, independence, growing individuality, everything that made them ready for other purposes had constantly to be countered, channeled back to the home.”

“The question of letting the woman use her mind and even participate in science through housework is, however, not without its drawbacks. Science should not relieve housewives of too much drudgery; it must concentrate instead on creating the illusion of that sense of achievement that housewives seem to need.”

“One day, having immersed myself in the varied insights these reports have been giving American advertisers for the last fifteen years, I was invited to have lunch with the man who runs this motivational research operation. He had been so helpful in showing me the commercial forces behind the feminine mystique, perhaps I could be helpful to him. Naively I asked why, since he found it so difficult to give women a true feeling of creativeness and achievement in housework, and tried to assuage their guilt and disillusion and frustrations by getting them to buy more “things” — why didn’t he encourage them to buy things for all they were worth, so they would have time to get out of the home and pursue truly creative goals in the outside world?

“But we have helped her rediscover the home as the expression of her creativeness,” he said. “We help her think of the modern home as the artist’s studio, the scientist’s laboratory. Besides,” he shrugged, “most of the manufacturers we deal with are producing things which have to do with homemaking.

“In a free enterprise economy,” he went on, “we have to develop the need for new products. And to do that we have to liberate women to desire these new products. We help them rediscover that homemaking is more creative than to compete with men.

This can be manipulated. We sell them what they ought to want, speed up the unconscious, move it along. The big problem is to liberate the woman not to be afraid of what is going to happen to her, if she doesn’t have to spend so much time cooking, cleaning.

“That’s what I mean,” I said. “Why doesn’t the pie-mix ad tell the woman she could use the time saved to be an astronomer?”

“It wouldn’t be too difficult,” he replied. “A few images — the astronomer gets her man, the astronomer as the heroine, make it glamorous for a woman to be an astronomer, but no,” he shrugged again. “The client would be too frightened. He wants to sell pie mix. The woman has to want to stay in the kitchen. The manufacturer wants to intrigue her back into the kitchen — and we show him how to do it the right way. If he tells her that all she can be is a wife and mother, she will spit in his face. But we show him how to tell her that it’s creative to be in the kitchen. We liberate her need to be creative in the kitchen. If we tell her to be an astronomer, she might go too far from the kitchen.”

“In the 1950’s, sociologists and home economists reported puzzlement, and baffling inconsistencies, as to the amount of time American women were still spending on housework. Study after study revealed that American housewives were spending almost as many, or even more, hours a day on housekeeping as women thirty years earlier, despite the smaller, easier-to-care-for homes, and despite the fact that they had seven times as much capital equipment in housekeeping appliances. There were, however, some m exceptions. Women who worked many hours a week outside the home — either in paid jobs or community work — did the housekeeping, on which the full-time housewife still spent sixty hours a week, in half the time. They still seemed to do all the homemaking activities of the housewife — meals, shopping, cleaning, the children — but even with a thirty-five-hour work week on the job, their work week was only an hour and a half a day longer than the housewife’s.”


“Women of this kind, and most of those that I interviewed were of the post-1950 college generation, refuse to take policy-making positions in community organizations; they will only collect for Red Cross or March of Dimes or Scouts or be den mothers or take the lesser PTA jobs. Their resistance to serious community responsibility is usually explained by “I can’t take the time from my family.” But much of their time is spent in meaningless busywork. The kind of community work they choose does not challenge their intelligence — or even, sometimes, fill a real function. Nor do they derive much personal satisfaction from it — but it does fill time.

So, increasingly, in the new bedroom suburbs, the really interesting volunteer jobs — the leadership of the cooperative nurseries, the free libraries, the school board posts, the selectmenships and, in some suburbs, even the PTA presidencies — are filled by men. The housewife who doesn’t “have time” to take serious responsibility in the community, like the woman who doesn’t “have time” to pursue a professional career, evades a serious commitment through which she might finally realize herself; she evades it by stepping up her domestic routine until she is truly trapped.”

For the very able woman, who has the ability to create culturally as well as biologically, the only possible rationalization is to convince herself — as the new mystique tries so hard to convince her — that the minute physical details of child care are indeed mystically creative; that her children will be tragically deprived if she is not there every minute; that the dinner she gives the boss’s wife is as crucial to her husband’s career as the case he fights in court or the problem he solves in the laboratory. And because husband and children are soon out of the house most of the day, she must keep on having new babies, or somehow make the minutiae of housework itself important enough, necessary enough, hard enough, creative enough to justify her very existence.

If a woman’s whole existence is to be justified in this way, if the housewife’s work is really so important, so necessary, why should anyone raise an eyebrow because a latter-day Einstein’s wife expects her husband to put aside that lifeless theory of relativity and help her with the work that is supposed to be the essence of life itself: diaper the baby and don’t forget to rinse the soiled diaper in the toilet before putting it in the diaper pail, and then wax the kitchen floor.”

“The true emptiness beneath the American housewife’s routine has been revealed in many ways. In Minneapolis recently a schoolteacher named Maurice K. Enghausen read a story in the local newspaper about the long work week of today’s housewife. Declaring in a letter to the editor that “any woman who puts in that many hours is awfully slow, a poor budgeter of time, or just plain inefficient,” this thirty-six-year-old bachelor offered to take over any household and show how it could be done.

Scores of irate housewives dared him to prove it. He took over the household of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Dalton, with four children, aged two to seven, for three days. In a single day, he cleaned the first floor, washed three loads of clothes and hung them out to dry, ironed all the laundry including underwear and sheets, fixed a soup-and-sandwich lunch and a big backyard supper, baked two cakes, prepared two salads for the next day, dressed, undressed, and bathed the children, washed wood work and scrubbed the kitchen floor. Mrs. Dalton said he was even a better cook than she was. “As for cleaning,” she said, “I am more thorough, but perhaps that is unnecessary.”

Pointing out that he had kept house for himself for seven years and had earned money at college by housework, Enghausen said, “I still wish that teaching 115 students were as easy as handling four children and a house … I still maintain that housework is not the interminable chore that women claim it is.”“

The role of the housewife is, therefore, analogous to that of the president of a corporation who would not only determine policies and make over-all plans but also spend the major part of his time and energy in such activities as sweeping the plant and oiling machines. Industry, of course, is too thrifty of the capacities of its personnel to waste them in such fashion.

The true satisfaction of “creating a home,” the personal relationship with husband and children, the atmosphere of hospitality, serenity, culture, warmth, or security a woman gives to the home comes by way of her personality, not her broom, stove, or dishpan.”

What is needed now is a national educational program, similar to the GI bill, for women who seriously want to continue or resume their education — and who are willing to commit themselves to its use in a profession. The bill would provide properly qualified women with tuition fees, plus an additional subsidy to defray other expenses — books, travel, even, if necessary, some household help. Such a measure would cost far less than the GI bill. It would permit mothers to use existing educational facilities on a part-time basis and carry on individual study and research projects at home during the years when regular classroom attendance is impossible. The whole concept of women’s education would be regeared from four-year college to a life plan under which a woman could continue her education, without conflict with her marriage, her husband and her children.”

“A number of universities automatically bar housewives by barring part-time undergraduate or graduate work. Perhaps they have been burned by dilettantes. But part-time college work, graduate or undergraduate, geared to a serious plan, is the only kind of education that can prevent a housewife from becoming a dilettante, it is the only way a woman with husband and children can get, or continue, an education.”

“I was subpoenaed on Christmas Eve, 1966, to testify before a judge in Foley Square, because the airlines were outraged at our insistence that they were guilty of sex discrimination by forcing stewardesses to resign at age thirty or upon their marriage. (Why, I had wondered, are they going to such lengths? Surely they don’t think men ride the airlines because stewardesses are nubile. And then I realized how much money the airlines saved by firing those pretty stewardesses before they had time to accumulate pay increases, vacation time, and pension rights. And how I love it now when stewardesses hug me on an airplane and tell me they are not only married and over thirty, but can even have children and keep flying!)”

My bag lunches for school sometimes included a hard-boiled egg, and on its shell she would paint in watercolors, the face of a princess, a seaside scene. I cracked those eggs without thinking twice.”



Austin Rose

I read non-fiction and take copious notes. Currently traveling around the world for 5 years, follow my journey at