Betty Friedan and the Forfeited Female Self
Years before a mass women's movement materialized, Betty Friedan anticipated Weisstein's analysis and blamed the "new psychological religion" of adjustment for endowing a self-destructive femininity with social and scientific authority. Friedan, a Smith College graduate and middle-class housewife who had once aspired to a career in psychology herself, launched a journalistic attack on psychological experts in her best-selling The Feminine Mystique (1963). Freudian theories about femininity, she claimed, were "an obstacle to truth for women in America today, and a major cause of the pervasive problem that has no name." Her survey of stories in women's magazines like Redbook and Good Housekeeping (publications for which she had written
herself during the 1950s) convinced Friedan that after 1945, "Freudian and pseudo-Freudian theories settled everywhere, like fine volcanic ash." Because the gospel according to Freud allowed women to derive true happiness only from their relationships to husbands and children, popularizers made housewives feel neurotic for hungering after any independent self at all. Convinced that something was deeply wrong with their mental and emotional health, middle-class housewives lined up in psychotherapists' offices, seeking yet more expert help in their quest for feminine adjustment.
These were certainly harsh criticisms, coming as they did at a moment of widespread enthusiasm about psychoanalytic ideas. But Friedan was also careful to note the "basic genius of Freud's discoveries" and insisted there was no conspiracy against women among the experts. Most important, she saw the liberating possibilities of harnessing psychological theory to feminist purposes. She emphasized the notion of "some positive growth tendency within the organism," advanced by Gordon Allport, Carl Rogers, Karen Horney, and Rollo May, among others. Their humanistic formulations, and especially Abraham Maslow's motivational theory, could be used as ammunition to argue that the tragedy of the (middle-class) female condition was due to "the forfeited self." Maslow's theory suggested that people moved progressively through a series of human motivations, from lower, material needs to higher, nonmaterial needs. When their needs for food and housing were assured, in other words, people could be expected to attend to their desires for creative experience and accomplishment. The most popular feature of his theory was Maslow's portrait of "self-actualizing" individuals, a term he used to designate those people who had climbed to the top of the motivational ladder in order to explore their humanity through exciting, "peak experiences."
Friedan was alarmed at the almost complete absence of women on Maslow's list of peakers. (The only two exceptions were historical figures Eleanor Roosevelt and Jane Addams.) She turned women's relative exclusion from the ultimate in psychological integration, at least according to Maslow, into an appeal for feminism. She treated the scarcity of female peakers as powerful evidence that cultural prescriptions requiting middle-class housewives to devote themselves exclusively to the needs of husbands and children also doomed them to a psychological hell, or at least a decidedly second-class emotional existence. The core of the feminine mystique, Friedan wrote, was that "our culture does not permit women to accept or gratify their basic need to grow and
fulfill their potentialities as human beings." Why, she asked, should women be expected to renounce their natural tendencies toward individuality and creativity? Were they not entitled to equal psychological opportunities?
If the ideology of femininity directly contradicted the process of self-actualization, as Friedan maintained, then psychology could provide real support to feminist arguments. Women deserved rights and opportunities, not only to employment and equal pay, but to the less tangible rewards of living as whole human beings. That her commitment to the value of psychological knowledge was not an abstract exercise is evident in the National Organization for Women's 1966 statement of purpose, which explicitly incorporated the humanistic refrain: "NOW is dedicated to the proposition that women first and foremost are human beings, who, like all other people in our society, must have the chance to develop their fullest human potential."