What Is the Problem That Has No Name?

Betty Friedan's Analysis of "Occupation: Housewife"

Betty Friedan, 1960
Betty Friedan, 1960. Fred Palumbo/Underwood Archives/Getty Images

edited and with additions by Jone Johnson Lewis

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?”  

For over fifteen years there was no word of this yearning in the millions of words written about women, for women, in all the columns, books and articles by experts telling women their role was to seek fulfillment as wives and mothers. Over and over women heard in voices of tradition and of Freudian sophistication that they could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity.

(Betty Friedan, 1963)

In her groundbreaking 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, feminist leader Betty Friedan dared to write about “the problem that has no name.” The Feminine Mystique discussed the idealized happy-suburban-housewife image that was marketed to many women as their best if not their only option in life. What was the cause of the unhappiness that many middle-class women felt in their "role" as feminine wife/mother/homemaker? This unhappiness was widespread - a pervasive problem that had no name.

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 stationwagonsful of children at school, and smiling as they ran the new electric waxer over the spotless kitchen floor.... Their only dream was to be perfect wives and mothers; their highest ambition to have 5 children and a beautiful house, their only fight to get and keep their husbands. They had no thought for the 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.” (Betty Friedan, 1963)

Who Was Behind the Problem That Has No Name?

The Feminine Mystique implicated women's magazines, other media, corporations, schools and various institutions in U.S. society that were all guilty of relentlessly pressuring girls to marry young and fit into the fabricated feminine image. Unfortunately, in real life it was common to find that women were unhappy because their choices were limited and they were expected to make a "career" out of being housewives and mothers, excluding all other pursuits. Betty Friedan noted the unhappiness of many housewives who were trying to fit this feminine mystique image, and she called the widespread unhappiness “the problem that has no name.”  She cited research that showed that women's fatigue was the result of boredom.

According to Betty Friedan, the so-called feminine image benefited advertisers and big corporations far more than it helped families and children, let alone the women playing the "role." Women, just like any other humans, naturally wanted to make the most of their potential.

How Do You Solve a Problem That Has No Name?

In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan analyzed the problem that has no name and offered some solutions. She emphasized throughout the book that the creation of a mythical “happy housewife” image had brought major dollars to advertisers and corporations that sold magazines and household products, at a great cost to women. She called for society to revive the 1920s and 1930s independent career woman image, an image that had been destroyed by post-World War II behavior, women’s magazines and universities that encouraged girls to find a husband above all other goals.

Betty Friedan's vision of a truly happy, productive society would allow men and women to become educated, work and use their talents. When women ignored their potential, the result was not just an inefficient society but also widespread unhappiness, including depression and suicide. These, among other symptoms, were serious effects caused by the problem that had no name.