What Is the Problem That Has No Name?

Betty Friedan's Analysis of "Occupation: Housewife"

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

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 then was marketed to many women as their best if not their only option in life.

The problem lay buried. 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.
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.(Betty Friedan, 1963)

Aftereffects of World War II 

In her book, Friedan spoke of the slow inexorable growth of what she called the "feminine mystique," beginning at the end of World War II. In the 1920s, women had begun to shed old Victorian values, with independent careers and lives. During World War II, as millions of men went into the service, women took over many of the male-dominant careers, filling in important roles which still needed doing. They worked in factories and as nurses, played baseball, repaired planes, and performed clerical work. After the war, the men returned, and the women gave up those roles. 

Instead, said Friedan, women of the 1950s and 1960s were defined as 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... 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.'”

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.

Friedan's Analysis

To come to her conclusion, Friedan compared short story fiction and nonfiction from various magainzes of the postwar era, from the late 1930s to the late 1950s. What she saw was that the change was a gradual one, with independence becoming less and less glorified. Historian Joanne Meyerowitz, writing 30 years later, saw Friedan as part of the changes that were discernible in the literature of the day. 

In the 1930s, right after the war, most articles focused on motherhood, marriage, and housewifery, as the "most soul-satisfying career that any woman could espouse," what Meyerowitz believes was in part a response to fears of family breakdown. But by the 1950s, there were fewer such articles, and more identifying independence as a positive role for women. But it was slow, and Mayerowitz sees Friedan's book as a visionary work, a harbinger of the new feminism. The "Feminine Mystique" exposed the tension between public achievement and comesticity, and affirmed the anger many middle-class women felt. Friedan tapped into that discord and made a huge leap forward to resolving the problem with no name.

Edited and with additions by Jone Johnson Lewis.

Sources and Further Reading