How the -ologists Screwed Women

Chapter Six: The Functional Freeze, the Feminine Protest, and Margaret Mead
Or, Taking the Fun Out of Functionalism

Man, my sparkly pastel highlighter got a workout on this chapter. A lot of -ologies and -isms and -ists and all other kinds of anesthetizing, anxiety-inducing suffixes coming at you, so stay close to me.

Friedan, in Chapter Six, digs deeper into the wrongs done by social science, wittingly or unwittingly, against women in the first half of the twentieth century. She’s spelled out her issues with Freudian psychology and now turns her sights on its cross-fertilization with functionalism and cultural anthropology.

Still with me? Good.

Functionalism, a primer: Structural functionalists tried to make social science more sciencey by studying society—and individuals within society—as you might study a human body, i.e., what is this part and what is its function in the system? So, a kidney looks like this and cleans blood and makes urine to keep a body healthy; a woman looks like this and cleans house and makes kids to keep a society healthy. Here’s the beef: The functionalists were looking at what was a woman’s role and calling it what should be a woman’s role. The descriptive became the prescriptive. Functionalists were skeptical of the possibility of change (and the speed of change), falling back instead on rationalization, and so their advice to unhappy women was this: adjust. When they were doing so with such academic authority and textbook terminology, who was going to challenge them?

Friedan trots out more outrageous quotes, from esteemed functionalist thinkers to marriage textbooks of the day. (One gem: “American young women in great numbers are being faced with [this question]: Shall I voluntarily prepare myself for a lifelong, celibate career?“) There are a few functionalist nuggets, however, that, nevermind the sexist poppycock surrounding them, do ring true, making Friedan’s sweeping rejection sound either overly rigid or unrealistically idealistic. Here are two:

“How many individuals… can successfully pursue two careers simultaneously? Not many.


“The two pursuits [homemaking and career] will demand qualities of different types. The former, to be successful, requires self-negation; the latter, self-enhancement. The former demands cooperation; the latter competition.”


So functionalism did help freeze women in the submissive, stultifying roles they had, but does that mean we have to dismiss the theory of functionalism altogether? Perhaps there’s something we can salvage before Friedan tosses it on the compost pile. Individuals within a family often do and must fulfill complementary functions. However, here’s what I have the luxury of saying in the 21st century that Friedan didn’t in 1963: It’s up to the individual, not her (or his) biological makeup, to define, first of all, what makes a family and, secondly, who takes what function. Choice might be the true equality.

But we haven’t even gotten to Margaret Mead yet.

Friedan felt betrayed by Mead. The pioneering cultural anthropologist was (is) the symbol of a female thinker, one of the most respected of her time. But she was a paradox. While her life might be an example of the feminist ideal, her work stopped short (something even she seems to have reflected on at one point). Mead shed light on cultures that didn’t view “masculine” and “feminine” in the biologically-restricted way that her own did. She expressed a vision for a culture where function was independent of sex, but she never found one where it was, and that vision became muddled. What Mead’s work turned into, or what people chose to take from it, was the glorification of a female’s biological function: Having babies is the pinnacle of human achievement (and actually, men should have uterus envy). Aaaaand we’re back to Freud: anatomy is destiny.

Friedan seems to trivialize the miracle of childbearing in her resentment. Birthing a baby is certainly a pinnacle of human creativity. But her point is, it’s not the only one. Just because women have a miraculous uterus, doesn’t mean they should be limited to using it and only it in the realization of their human potential.

Now, it doesn’t feel that connected to the rest of the chapter, but it figures in its title, so I’ll explain “the feminine protest.” To the Freudians, women taking on the traditional roles and functions of men were staging a “masculine protest.” To the Friedians (see what I did there?), women withdrawing from “unfeminine” spheres (and the men encouraging them in the name of “protecting” women), were staging a “feminine protest.”

Phew. All right. That was FUN, wasn’t it?! Join me for the next installment, Chapter Seven: “The Sex-Directed Educators,” for less -isms and more -asms! (Wait. They’re telling me not that kind of sex-directed educator. Sorry.)


  • Elizabeth

    Though most of this went right over my head, it must be my uterus getting in the way, it did bring to mind the question posed to a Miss Utah this past weekend.
    Why is is that women, who make up about 40% of the working force, still make less than their male counterpart?
    Can we still make that same argument today? Are we still behind held to these standards?
    Alas, I do not know.