That question made Betty Friedan (along with several others) incredibly uncomfortable:
“Growing up, many of us could not see ourselves beyond the age of twenty-one. We had no image of our own future, of ourselves as women…I came to a frightening dead end in my own vision of the future.”
To Freidan and many other women of her time, education was something that they had fully attained (bachelor’s degrees, doctorates, etc.), but the problem was that many women simply couldn’t use them to their fullest. Friedan interviews some of her post-grad colleagues, and quotes:
The tragedy was, nobody ever looked us in the eye and said you have to decide what you want to do with your life, besides being your husband’s wife and children’s mother. I never thought it through until I was thirty-six, and my husband was so busy with his practice that he couldn’t entertain me every night. The three boys were in school all day. I kept on trying to have babies despite an Rh discrepancy. After two miscarriages, they said I must stop. I thought that my own growth and evolution were over. I always know as a child I was going to grow up and go to college, and then get married and that’s as far as a girl has to think. After that, your husband determines and fills your life.
To Freidan and her interviewees, the so-called “Problem with no name” / “Feminine mystique” is that women who were able to get educations and move up the academic ladder were in a sense denied the chance to embrace their identities as adults. While they may have studied psychology, business, philosophy, etc. – they were too bound in the social standards of the time of being married. After that, their identities as educated women, students, or future employees disappeared. Instead, they became wives of their husbands, and mothers of their children:
The feminine mystique permits, even encourages, women to ignore the question of their identity. The mystique says they can answer the question “Who am I?” by saying “Tom’s wife…Mary’s mother.” But I dont think the mystique would have such power over American women if they did not fear to face this terrifying blank which makes them unable to see themselves after twenty-one. The truth is… an American woman no longer has a private image to tell her who she is, or can be, or wants to be.”
Throughout her research project, Freidan links this lack of a real, self-defined identity to an overall disappointment with life and feeling of being unfulfilled – self-actualization (one of the most foundational elements in one’s own happiness) is, in other words, an unattainable dream, and had affected women throughout American boundaries for decades, perhaps even longer.