The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Beneath the Feminine Mystique:

Some Other Problems That Have No Name


Ryan C. MacPherson


In 1963, Betty friedan named the problem. The opening chapter of her Feminine Mystique is aptly titled, “The Problem That Has No Name.” There Friedan verbalized what countless housewives thought and felt but did not know how to say: the American dream was a disappointment for women. Marriage, children, a house in the suburbs full of modern conveniences—all these trappings of success failed to satisfy the deeply human yearnings of women. The trappings were, she argued, traps; the middle-class home, a “concentration camp” where women were held captive by a culture that expected them to find fulfillment in their families while secluding themselves from the ambitions of the university and the workplace.1

With the problem thus named (and the Nazi metaphor apologetically retracted2), Friedan volunteered a solution. If the “feminine mystique” reduced a woman’s identity to the categories of wife and mother, then the first step toward liberation would be to envision a woman’s life course as independent from both her husband and her children. Marriage and childbearing would have to be construed as choices, not obligations, and other choices would have to be permitted the spotlight at center stage.

By Friedan’s account, one choice was paramount: a woman must have a career of her own. To serve this end, women must also have suitable educational opportunities. Friedan called for a feminist “GI Bill” that would bring wives and mothers into university classrooms.3 Both as to education and employment, Friedan’s goal was for society to treat women more like it had been treating men.

But to pose the problem and solution in this manner left other problems unnamed, unanalyzed, and unresolved. Beneath the feminine mystique, and foundational to Friedan’s portrayal of and plans for women, lay three other cultural assumptions, which may be termed the career mystique, the masculine mystique, and the education mystique. Fifty years after The Feminine Mystique, all three of these problems, plus the one Friedan named, continue to vex women—and also men and children.

The Career Mystique

A record percentage (38.3%) of American women had paid employment in 1963—surpassing the wartime peak (35.0%) occasioned by “Rosie the Riveter” in 1944.4 The problem Freidan perceived was that postwar women did not, because they could not, work the right kinds of jobs at the right times in their lives. Legal strictures and cultural expectations, argued Friedan, denied women the opportunities to choose careers that truly suited their abilities and aspirations. One of her unspoken assumptions was that men have both chosen and enjoyed their careers with hardly any legal or cultural impediments—an assumption that would be difficult to substantiate throughout most of human history, even in Friedan’s twentieth-century America.
Another of Friedan’s core assumptions, known as the “career mystique,” holds that adult life cannot be fulfilling apart from continuous, paid employment away from home in a field that one selects and enjoys.5Friedan was emphatic that employment before the childbearing years does not suffice; nor does re-employment after the children are grown. A career follows a “continuous thread” of employment throughout the course of a “life plan that can encompass marriage and motherhood,” if and when a woman chooses. “The women I found who had made and kept alive such long-term [employment] commitments,” explained Friedan, “did not suffer the problem that has no name.”6

Friedan further asserted that a career must center around “some meaningful pursuit (which necessarily means competition, for there is competition in every serious pursuit in our society).”7 The measure of a career, therefore, is not simply that a woman chooses it but also that her society values it. In the capitalist market, paid employment designates work that is worthy of the career mystique. The contributions that wives and mothers make to their homes and communities do not fit that bill.  Friedan blamed women’s magazines for selling women short by glorifying housewifery and discouraging paid employment beyond the home. Surveying periodicals in the New York Public Library, she “found a change in the image of the American woman, and in the boundaries of the woman’s world.”8 In the 1930s, magazine articles featured “career women—happily, proudly, adventurously, attractively career women— who loved and were loved by men.”9 By the 1950s, “the happy housewife heroine” had taken over: “The new mystique makes the housewifemothers, who never had a chance to be anything else, the model for all women.”10

Subsequent analysis, however, has not supported Friedan’s conclusions. Joanne Meyerowitz’s study of eight major magazines—ranging from the “highbrow” Harper’s to the “middlebrow” Reader’s Digest and including also Ladies’ Home Journal and Ebony—has revealed that articles spanning 1946-1958 typically presented a “joint endorsement of domestic and nondomestic roles,” celebrating “the woman who successfully combines motherhood and career.”11 Contrary to Friedan, Meyerowitz discovered that maternal roles received higher emphasis during the Depression years than in the postwar era, with careers outside the home commonly being exemplified for women during both periods.12  In other words, the success of The Feminine Mystique may be explained in part by its ability to ride the reinforcing wave of a “career mystique” already present in mid-century popular literature.

Long hours of hard work for paid employment away from one’s family somehow were—and today still are—expected to deliver the American dream, whether that dream be a house full of children in the suburbs or, as Friedan emphasized, the self-actualization of one’s individual identity. As a program of deferred gratification, the career mystique also guarantees a lifetime of income security, stretching into retirement, in exchange for the decades of labor during one’s prime. But this mystique seldom has delivered its promises. The success rate was highest among postwar middle-class professionals and unionized production workers, who unwittingly provided Friedan’s female readers some contemporary male models to emulate.

Friedan, however, was only setting women up for failure by replacing the feminine mystique with the career mystique, since the latter cannot exist apart from the former. As Phyllis Moen’s subsequent analysis has revealed, the outcomes once enjoyed by middle-class men never could be expanded across the population because “the feminine mystique provided the platform undergirding the career mystique. It is no accident that those most successful in climbing career ladders in business and in government have been men with either homemaking wives or else wives who put their own careers on the back burner.”13 Postwar careers—as codified by Social Security, healthcare, and retirement plan regulations—essentially required a 40-hour (or longer) work week to be consistently maintained for four consecutive decades of one’s life.14 Because this schedule left precious little wiggle room for family caregiving by the working spouse, career success required a division of labor between the breadwinner and the homemaker. The career mystique and the feminine mystique were, therefore, not alternatives as Friedan suggested, but rather two sides of the same coin.

Nevertheless, many women—and a growing number of men— attempted during the late twentieth century to maximize their potentials simultaneously as a spouse, a parent, and an employee, only to discover that real wages were declining, as was the quality of their family relationships. Moreover, the declining earning power of men eroded their identities as family providers while women expanded into the role of cobreadwinner. But men also lacked something that the career mystique never had been able to provide them; in fact, their careers had long ago taken from them an important component of masculinity.

The Masculine Mystique

Three decades after Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, men’s-rights advocate Andrew Kimbrell published The Masculine Mystique: The Politics of Masculinity (1995). He begins by outlining a “hidden crisis” concerning “the grim condition of the American male.”15  Society brands men as self-interested, efficient, power-seeking, promiscuous, competitive, insensitive, and manipulative. This masculine mystique refuses to acknowledge traditional masculine traits, such as “generativity, stewardship, generosity, teaching, husbandry, [and] honor.”16 Lacking affirmation and guidance, men are failing. The gender-gap in life expectancies widened notably in the 1970s and 1980s (despite Friedan’s prediction that women’s employment would relieve men of the breadwinner burden and boost their longevity17). Men’s lives are more vulnerable than women’s to heart, lung, and liver disease; to violent crime, including murder; to workplace injuries; to undiagnosed depression; and, to suicide.18  But staying alive is just half the challenge, notes Kimbrell. Girls outperform boys in school, while boys are disproportionately medicated for hyperactivity, attention-deficit disorder, or other symptoms of maladaptation to classroom environments. Fewer men enroll in college than women; of those who enroll, women have a higher graduation rate. Women also outpace men in master’s programs, by an 18-percent spread. Meanwhile, men’s real wages are declining, while women’s wages are rising. About two thirds of homeless people are male adults, as are 94% of the nation’s incarcerated criminals. “Millions of fathers,” laments Kimbrell, “have lost meaningful contact with their children as family courts discriminate against men in child custody decisions.”19

Of course, most men are neither homeless nor imprisoned, and a slight majority of married men never get divorced. But even among those faring well, Kimbrell detects that “men are increasingly torn between the necessities of their job and their desire to have time for their families.”20 Yes—men, too, suffer from a problem that has no name.

Friedan had promised women that they could have it all—a career if only society would let them and a family if they wanted—but men are discovering this dream to be just as ephemeral for them as it has been for women. Why so out of reach?  Perhaps because it is just as unnatural for men to pursue a career apart from their families as it is for women.

The separation of men, and men’s work, from the family may well be the most significant personal and social disruption men have ever had to face. For generations industrial society has been conducting an unparalleled anthropological experiment: What is the effect of virtual father absence on the family, children, and the redefinition of men’s role in society? . . . Boys have had to attempt to develop a masculine identity in the absence of a continuous and ongoing personal relationship with their fathers, uncles, or other male elders. . . . Thus boys’ major sources of instruction about the masculine derives from cultural images of masculinity promulgated by the masculine mystique.21

Culturally pervasive images of manhood reduce half the human species to, at best, “productive, emotionless, competitive machines” or, at worst, promiscuous animals. Either way, precious few men model the virtues of “generative, caring fathers” to their own children, much less to the broader society.22

Kimbrell’s analysis closely tracked that of Alexander Mitscherlich’s Society without the Father, which first had been published in 1963, the same year as The Feminine Mystique. Unfortunately for American women and men of Friedan’s generation, Mitscherlich wrote in German, not English, and his entire book laboriously navigated through psychoanalytic theories of mind and culture, whereas Friedan was apt enough to write a lucid opening chapter and save the erudition for the middle of her volume.

Originally entitled Auf dem Weg zur vaterlosen Gesellschaft (literally, On the Way toward a Fatherless Community), the 1991 English printing of Mitscherlich’s opus expressed in its translated title the fulfillment of the transition envisioned a generation earlier: Society without the Father. By the 1990s, American (to say nothing of German) society had become fatherless in two significant respects. First, as Mitscherlich had warned in 1963, the “working, teaching father” had gone extinct, replaced by a father who still works, but now out of his children’s sight, and therefore he cannot teach because he is not present to model for them how work is done. Children of the industrial era have been raised typically by “invisible fathers,” by which Mitscherlich meant “the disappearance of the father image so closely associated with the roots of our civilization, and of the paternal instructive function. The imago of the working father is disappearing and becoming unknown.” Mitscherlich made clear that he did not here mean only the occasional physical loss of a father due to divorce or death, but also the near universal social displacement of the psychological father who nurtures his sons in the discipline of meaningful labor.23 Mitscherlich ascribed the cause of this displacement chiefly to industrialization:

The progressive fragmentation of labour, combined with mass production and complicated administration, the separation of home from place of work, the transition from independent producer to paid employee who uses consumer goods, has led to a progressive loss of substance of the father’s authority and a diminution of his power in the family and over the family.24  It is worth noting that “authority” and “power” in this context refer primarily to the father’s influence in shaping children’s identities during their formative years through shared productive activity, not to autocratic leadership as such. In fact, Mitscherlich, who suffered political persecution for his opposition to the Nazi movement, recognized in the familypresent father a needed bulwark against totalitarianism in the state.25

Mitscherlich next posited “fatherlessness of the second degree”: the disappearance of tangible, personal relationships from authority structures beyond the family. Children raised in the absence of a teaching father become absorbed into a mass “sibling society” in which an anonymous bureaucracy, not an authoritative individual, governs. The absence of identifiable leadership fosters a conformity that cannot easily be challenged, because one is not sure who is responsible for directing its course.26 Not only was Mitscherlich’s work insightful, it also was predictive. America has become that second-order fatherless society of neutered siblings seeking their individual shares of an egalitarian utopia.

By the century’s end, a generation of men who had never observed their fathers working—but at best had only seen them go away to work— had themselves become fathers of sons about to enter the uncharted territory of Guyland. Sociologist Michael Kimmel explains that Guyland is “a kind of suspended animation between boyhood and manhood,”27broader and deeper and more perplexing to its inhabitants than the “adolescence” introduced a century earlier by psychologist G. Stanley Hall: Guyland is the world in which young men live . . . unhassled by the demands of parents, girlfriends, jobs, kids, and other nuisances of adult life. In this topsy-turvy, Peter-Pan mindset, young men shirk the responsibilities of adulthood and remain fixated on the trappings of boyhood, while the boys they still are struggle heroically to prove that they are real men despite all evidence to the contrary.28

Although Kimmel does not quite acknowledge this, Guyland is the millennial generation’s “sibling society,” a subculture of conformity in which young people try to become individuals but lack an appropriate model for male maturity. Kimmel denies that Guyland is “a case of prolonged adolescence,”29 and yet surely the aimless drift of today’s videogame playing college sophomores was unknown to pre-industrial societies in which boys became men by working with fathers and uncles who mentored them.

The Education Mystique

Like Friedan, Mitscherlich emphasized the importance of education, but beyond that facile comparison they shared little agreement. Friedan envisioned intensive “intellectual ‘shock therapy’” programs to prepare housewives to compete successfully against men in the job market. Bowing before the altar of the college diploma, she professed, “education, and only education, has saved, and can continue to save, American women from the greater dangers of the feminine mystique.”30Mitscherlich, by contrast, offered a child-centered view of education: “Society must educate itself to subordinating all competing interests to the education of the child.”  He saw this task as “essential for the survival of the specifically human way of life in the fatherless mass society.”31  Nor was Mitscherlich’s “education” a utilitarian device for delivering information or skills to future employees; it was a formative enterprise, a lifestyle for shaping a child’s character by developing relationships of trust within the family and, by extension, the community.

Friedan brought to attention some things that needed to be rethought. She opened some pathways for women’s education and employment that never should have been blocked in the first place. But, unfortunately, she structured the discussion in such a way that promising alternatives were overlooked during the generation that came of age reading her book. Wives and mothers left their homes for careers, rather than working with their husbands to bring productive labor back into the home; women thought it would be easier to put childbearing on hold while the career never paused, only to discover too late that fertility is easier to shut off than to turn back on; children, instead of spending plenty of time with mom and not enough with dad, soon found themselves spending hardly any time with either parent while being whisked from daycare to school to after-school care to sports practice to a future for which no one had ever modeled for them the commitment, cooperation, or constructive power of familial interdependence.

Beyond The Feminine Mystique

Fifty years after The Feminine Mystique, America needs not better career opportunities or expanded education for women, but a revival of domesticity among women, men, and their children. Public policies that encourage homeschooling, home entrepreneurship, family flextime in the workplace, and a shorter work week may prove more helpful than those that focus on gender equality in the labor market. To require employers to treat all workers identically simply reinforces the career mystique’s distorted view that a worker is a worker and nothing else. It was this ideology that displaced husbands from their wives, fathers from their children; lamentably, women in their quest for equality have embraced the same dream, realizing too late the social fragmentation it causes.  Insofar as Betty Friedan drew attention to the work-family tension felt by many women, she provided a valuable service, but unfortunately her critique of the feminine mystique played too easily into the hands of the career mystique. As Stephanie Coontz has noted, “The career mystique is not the inevitable or the only way to organize work and family. Through most of history, workers didn’t balance work and family. They combined the two, integrating responsibilities rather than juggling them.”32 Mitscherlich reminds us that what was once true of work, also was true of education: character formation passed from parent to child through shared, meaningful activities. A revival of the “working, teaching parent” can rescue both masculinity and femininity from the modern mystiques of impoverished definitions that limit human flourishing.

Dr. MacPherson, Senior Editor of The Family in America, teaches American history at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota.

1 . Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 50th anniv. ed., introduced by Gail Collins with an afteward by Anna Quindlen (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013), 369.

2 . Ibid., 372.

3 . Ibid., 446, 465.

4 . Deborah M. Figart, Ellen Mutari, and Marilyn Power, Living Wages, Equal Wages: Gender and Labor Market Policies in the United States (London: Routledge, 2002), 23; Statistical Abstract of the United States (2003), Table HS-30, http://www.census.gov/statab/hist/HS-30.pdf.

5 . Phyllis Moen, “Beyond the Career Mystique: ‘Time In,’ ‘Time Out,’ and ‘Second Acts,’” Sociological Forum 20, no. 2 (June 2005): 189-208.

6 . Friedan, Feminine Mystique, 420.

7 . Ibid.

8 . Ibid., 29.

9 . Ibid., 29-30.

10 . Ibid., 36.

11 . Meyerowitz, “The Myth of the Feminine Mystique,” in Myth America, vol. 2, ed. Patrick Gerster and Nicholas Cords (St. James, NY: Brandywine Press, 1997), 214-20, at 216.

12 . Ibid., 219.

13 . Moen, “Beyond the Career Mystique,” 193.

14 . Ibid., 197

15 . Andrew Kimbrell, The Masculine Mystique: The Politics of Masculinity (New York: Balantine Books, 1995), 4.

16 . Ibid., 18.

17 . Friedan, Feminine Mystique, 455.

18 . Kimbrell, Masculine Mystique,  4-7.

19 . Ibid., 11.

20 . Ibid., 12.

21 . Ibid., 39-40.

22 . Ibid., 175.

23 . Alexander Mitscherlich, Society without the Father: A Contribution to Social Psychology, trans.
Eric Mosbacher (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 141.

24 . Ibid., 147.

25 . Robert Bly, “Foreword: Mitscherlich and His Uncomfortable Thoughts,” in Society without the Father, xx-xxi.

26 . Mitscherlich, Society,  277, 278.

27 . Michael Kimmel, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (New York: Harper, 2009), 6.

28 . Ibid., 4.

29 . Ibid., 6.

30 . Friedan, Feminine Mystique, 447, 431.

31 . Mitscherlich, Society, 283.

32 . Stephanie Coontz, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 183.

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