Friday, October 1, 2010

College Essay on American Dream

College Essay on American Dream

In 1957 Betty Friedan, a wife and mother of three trained as a clinical psychologist and working as a freelance writer, started carrying out research into the lives of the American housewife. Friedan felt that for American wives and mothers at the time; “there was a strange discrepancy between the reality of [their]lives as women and the image to which [they] were trying to conform” and she came to call this image the “feminine mystique”. Her research revolved around her search for the origins of this mystique and its effects on women, and involved her interviewing, in depth, women at “crucial points in their life cycle”. Friedan strongly believed that “woman, as a man, has the power to choose, and to make her own heaven or hell” but it would appear that women at the time did not realise this as they were not infact making their own decisions. Betty Friedans research therefore raises the question ‘what did the American Dream mean to women in 1950s and 1960s America?’

This idea of the ‘feminine mystique’ was taught to girls from a young age. In school and at home and through the media they were taught to only partake in what was considered feminine. Their role in life was to “grow up and go to college, and then get married, and that’s as far as a girl had to think”. More women than ever were entering college, however they went due to conformity as it was expected of them, and also in the hopes of finding a husband. Despite the increase in female college entry 60% of them would drop out, and not due to poor intellect but to get married, to look after their children (by the late 1950s many college girls had four, five or six children), or due to the belief that if they were too educated no one would want to marry them. A third of these girls who dropped out would take up part time work usually in sale, in order to support their husband through college, whose education was considered vitally important.



At the college age the American Dream to women consisted of simply finding a husband-their only goal at this point in their lives. Before long high school girls started marrying and were turning down good college educations to do so. Of the brightest 40% of high school graduates half would go to college, of the half who didn’t two thirds were women. This was either because they did not want to continue their education or because the 'feminine’ subjects which they chose did not tax their brains enough to warrant them going to college. In a study of Vassar girls in 1956 only a third were considering a career and most decided that they would not continue with this career “if it should conflict with family needs”.

Due to the girls’ refusal to become fully educated or pursue a career, there soon emerged a severe shortage in “nursing, social work and teaching professions [which] caused a crisis in almost every American city”. Fewer women infact were graduating and pursuing a career than those who graduated before the first world war. American society seemed in this respect to be moving backwards. Many American Scientists were becoming concerned about the Soviet Unions lead in the space race claiming that the reason was; “Americas greatest source of unused brain power was women”, but the girls would refuse to even study pure sciences as it was ‘unfeminine’, and soon a sex-educated, feminised education emerged, which would include sociology, anthropology and psychology. At the time the girls partaking in this education did not in the majority, seem to mind that they were being deprived large sections of education, all that they wanted was to find a husband- spinsterhood was viewed a “personal tragedy”. Some educators even suggested that “women no longer be admitted to four year colleges and universities: [because] in the growing college crisis” the education the girls are receiving yet never applying “was more urgently needed than ever by boys to do the work of the atomic era”. In the eyes of the educators women were taking up valuable college places unnecessarily.

Once out of college and married with children the 'feminine mystique' continued to exert its power over the course of the woman’s life. Her lack of developed education made this even worse as she was therefore no able to question popular ideas forced upon her in everyday life. These ideas were mainly those traditionally Freudian or those from the newer ideas developed by anthropologists and sociologists of functionalism.

The 'feminine mystique' derived its power from Freudian thought; women it suggested were lesser beings than men, “born merely to breed and serve” them. American housewives at the time could not possibly disagree, because most were educated enough to know that “Freud’s discovery of the unconscious workings of the mind was one of the great breakthroughs in mans pursuit of knowledge” but she was not however educated enough, and was aware that she was not, to “presume to question a Freudian truth”. For this very same reason when educated anthropologists and sociologists suggested the idea that men and women have different roles and tasks and that to try to carry out each others would cause their “complementary relationship to break down”. Women read and truly believed that there was greater “opportunity for happiness if husband and wife supplement each other” which is what the functionalists prescribed. Now they had found their husbands their next goal in the American Dream was, so they were led to believe, a successful and happy marriage, and this for the moment was all that mattered, and they honestly believed that by following these ideas of fundamentalism they could achieve this next goal.

The 'feminine mystique' prescribed to women what fulfilment was and how to gain it. Their destiny from childhood was to marry, and they were constantly reminded that they in the position as an American housewife, were the envy of women worldwide; “freed by science and laboursaving appliances form the drudgery, the dangers of childbirth and the illnesses of their grandmothers… she was healthy, beautiful, educated, concerned only about” her family and home. She apparently, had “found true feminine fulfilment……..she had everything that women ever dreamed of” but they only ever dreamed about this life because it was the one they brought up to believe was ideal, and in an era when popularity and conformity were important they had little choice so they thought but to follow this ideal and believed it was what they wanted.

However once married many women did not experience what they were led to believe they would. Quietly many women were starting to suffer and have doubts about their fulfilment through their role as wife and mother. All the books and magazines which they read told them that they “could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their femininity” which was found through their role at home. However many had doubts but were too ashamed to admit they were dissatisfied, therefore they went on not realising how many other women shared this doubt. Those Friedan spoke to often said “I feel empty somehow…incomplete” “I feel as if I don’t exist”. This problem had no name and the doctors were all unsure what to call it or how to treat it. One doctor form Cleveland decided to call it ‘housewife’s syndrome’. Some sufferers were prescribed tranquillisers, others redecorated their home, had another baby, or many had affairs. They all felt they had nothing more to look forward to as everything prescribed to them by the 'feminine mystique' they had now achieved. Many women just ignored the problem and adjusted to their role, while others tried to do this and ended up breaking down.

Part of this feeling of unfulfilment was due to boredom with their home lives. Friedan looked at various women who seemed to be fulfilled, and not a single one was a fulltime housewife, every single one had managed to achieve their version of the American Dream of combining both a happy household and family with a career. Friedan then looked to twenty eight women who were full time housewives, living in suburbia, all fulfilling completely the mystique of feminine fulfilment. Sixteen were in therapy, eighteen were on tranquillisers and several had attempted suicide or been admitted into hospitals with diseases related to depression. This was hardly a picture of feminine fulfilment. Was this really what the mystique was prescribing? Every one of these women had experienced the start of a higher education and the lives they now lead, clearly, “denied them the full use of their gifts”. So instead women like this took up their time with the housework to avoid boredom.

Manufacturers of appliances soon came to recognise this obsession with housework, and also noted that 75% of the purchasing power in America was held by women, in particular these housewives, so understandably they decided to exploit this. Advertising was now geared more towards appealing to the American housewife, in particular the ‘balanced house maker’ who had probably previously had a job and now accepts the help that mechanical appliances can give, and also realises that she needs to make use of her own skills within the household. The job of the manufacturers was not only to appeal to these women who already fitted this description, but to also make it seem desirable to encourage other women to enter it. This appealed to so many women because they were made to believe that they could now have other interests outside the home-something which in their unfulfilment was obviously emerging as their new sense of the American Dream. However it would seem that the more appliances a woman used which were supposed to speed up the housework, the longer she spent on it. Clearly these women were desperate for something to occupy their day, yet housework was never going to be enough to tax the normal adult brain.

This boredom proved to be very destructive for the children of these women. They would concentrate all their energies on the children and live their own dreams through them. The result of this was a noticeable deterioration in the characters of American children who expressed boredom, passivity, and delinquency. Every child this was present in had mothers who “lived within the limits of the 'feminine mystique'” and their children were their only interest. Therefore it is clear that the occupation of the minds of the American housewives was important for the welfare of both themselves and their children.

The other area of this feeling of unfulfilment was related to their sex lives. Those women who had affairs, did so in order to make themselves feel alive again. By 1940 a quarter of American women had had an affair. They had reached the point where they had achieved what they once thought was the American Dream. According to the mystique sex is the only road to achievement a woman who lives by the 'feminine mystique' can take, the “achievement of a sexual conquest, status as a desirable sex object”. However sex does not always satisfy these needs therefore the woman seeks ‘things’ to “buttress her nothingness”. Women needed to occupy their brains in order to live fulfilling healthy, both physically and mentally, lives, and therefore be of use and stability to their families.

Eventually the American Dream which women sought after, or would do eventually, was not for women’s rights at all which is what many thought, as they already had these, but instead to “erase the hostility, the prejudice, the discrimination that still remained”. They needed to get rid of the image of women being “inferior to men, dependant, passive, incapable of thought or decision” and plan a whole new life for themselves in which they had their own identity.

Woman’s main aim, or dream, was to enjoy being a woman, and to achieve this she would have to stop conforming to the conventional picture of femininity and instead seek education. Education was the only thing which could save them from the feminine mystique, and through this learn to be able to live without the need for the regard of a boy or man to feel alive. Eventually she would realise that the pursuit of a career does not mean one is unfeminine and can not be a mother- both are possible. This was the key feature of the American Dream for women, having a sense of her self, and having the ability to make her own choices.

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