What You Need To Know about “The Problem That Has No Name”, Betty Friedan and the Feminine Mystique

In 1963 Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, an examination of the lives and limitations of American women in the Post War Era. In her research of women from across the nation, Friedan had come to feel that, “there was a strange discrepancy between the reality of our lives as women and the image to which we were trying to conform, the image that I cam e to call the feminine mystique. I wondered if other women faced this schizophrenic split, and what it meant.”

What it meant was that women were being held in a social trap, controlled and limited to meet a false premise of what womanhood was supposed to be, often ignoring what women might want to be.

The idea that women might deserve the freedom of individual definition was born out of the radical politics of the preceding decades. In the 1940’s and 1950’s American politics had expressed a long suppressed voice of freedom for all people, that was ignored to different extents and subjects throughout American history. [1]

As the Radical Republicans had expressed the fringe idea of citizenship and voting rights for African Americans after the Civil War, radicals in the 1940’s and 50’s expressed the ideal that the American ideal of equality needs to include all Americans, regardless of gender or race. Thaddeus Stevens, the most outspoken of the Radical Republicans, famously decried limitations on quality and slavery,

“That patriotism  that is wholly absorbed by one’s own country is narrow and selfish. That philanthropy which embraces only one’s own race, and leaves the other numerous races of mankind to bondage and to misery, is cruel and detestable.” [2]

After the Spanish American War, Americans expressed a radical ideal of limited government, opposing the American Empire that had seized control of the Philippines and Guam in order to extend market control over the region, especially China. Mark Twain famously said of this imperialist design,

“There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land. . .”[3]

Long suffering feminine America was still suffocating under a blanket of male domination and chauvinistic expectation. The Feminine Mystique led the change of perspective by giving voice to the idea that had been long on the minds of women, but never publicly expressed. Friedan tapping into a well spring of pent up yearning for equality that unleashed the Modern Women’s Rights Movement.

“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years 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?””[4]

Wanting more is as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. The American ideal of building a better life for oneself was originally described by John Winthrop in his fiery sermon known informally as The City on a Hill. In it Winthrop describes how America will be an example to the world, for good or for bad.

For the Women’s Rights Movement, the idea of living a life of freedom would become an exemplary decision to promote awareness among women and men that there was more than one way to be a woman and to live as an equal in American society. Betty Friedan’s research showed that women longed for another alternative to the model wife and mother formula that was hoisted upon women at an early age.

Friedan wrote,

“In the fifteen years after World War II, this mystique of feminine fulfillment became the cherished and self perpetuating core of contemporary American culture. Millions of women lived their lives in the image of those pretty pictures of the American suburban housewife, kissing their husbands goodbye in front of the picture window, depositing their station wagon full of children at school, and smiling as they ran the new electric waxer over the spotless kitchen floor.

They baked their own bread, sewed their own and their children’s clothes, kept their washing machines and dryers running all day. They changed the sheets on the beds twice a week instead of once, took the rug-hooking class in adult education, and pitted their poor frustrated mothers, who had dreamt of having a career.

Their only dream was to be perfect wives and mothers; their highest ambition to have five children and a beautiful house, their only fight to get and keep their husbands. They had no thought of unfeminine problems of the world outside the home; they wanted the men to make the major decisions. They gloried in their role as women, and wrote proudly on the census blank: “Occupation: housewife.”

Lindsay Graham blamed women for attacking the traditional behavior of male dominated society during the Kavanaugh hearings.

The solution to the angst of women in modern America was not to allow them self actualization in society, founded in equality and reinforced through understanding and opportunity. Rather the answer was seen in further suppressing the role of women and in blaming them for their alienation.


This is not unlike the reaction on display when women challenged the sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh and were shamed by Senator Lindsay Graham for speaking up.   In response to the problem that had no name, women were told by their doctors that they were the problem, and the name was woman.

37376868SZF00Z“The real problem must be something else, he decided – perhaps boredom. Some doctors told their women patients they must get out of the house for a day, treat themselves to a movie in town. Many suburban housewives were taking tranquilizers like cough drops. “You wake up in the morning, and you feel as if there’s no point in going on another day like this. So you take a tranquilizer because it makes you not care so much that it’s pointless.” [5]

The Rolling Stones immortalized the discovery by The Feminine Mystique that women everywhere were self medicating to deal with male domination. The song Mother Little Helper expressed exactly what Friedan described in The Problem That Has No Name:

“Kids are different today”
I hear ev’ry mother say
Mother needs something today to calm her down
And though she’s not really ill
There’s a little yellow pill
She goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day

“Things are different today”
I hear ev’ry mother say
Cooking fresh food for a husband’s just a drag
So she buys an instant cake and she burns her frozen steak
And goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
And two help her on her way, get her through her busy day

It is ironic that drugs become the salve for social ills grounded in tradition and male domination. Today the nation is still in denial of the plight of women, although hopeful signs are visible on the horizon. The fourth wave of feminism is breaking, with the challengers at the Kavanaugh hearings and the #metoo movement just two of many examples.

depositphotos_83062976-stock-illustration-woman-washing-dishes-housewife-houseworkWomen have taken to public office in reaction to the election of a sexual predator to head the Executive Branch. Celebrities and power brokers across the country are being taken out of powerful position because the awareness that they abused their power for sexual domination is not allowed anymore. If history is a guide for us it may be the beginning of another wave of positive change for women.

Alas, if history is any guide for us, we must acknowledge that for every wave of feminist progress there has always followed a backlash of conservative traditionalism in response.

In the next decade we may see a generation come of age that is open about their free identity, and the release from the bondage of male expectation of women. In Opposition that advance, however, it is important to be on guard for a counter-revolutionary reaction, and to weaken it’s inevitable effects on the generation yet to come. Only through this awareness of history and the anticipation of its rhyming repetition can we hope to learn from the past and plan for the future; one where the progress of those who fought so hard in the past will be passed on to the inheritors of the future.

[1] Friedan, Betty. The Problem That Has No Name, From The Feminine MystiqueThe Portable Sixties Reader, Penguin Putnam, Inc. 2003, pg. 493

[2] National Endowment for the Humanities

[3] Library of Congress 

[4] Friedan, The Portable Sixties Reader

[5] Friedan, The Portable Sixties Reader, pg. 501

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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