More than Dialectics


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Betty Friedan’s approach to writing The Feminine Mystique (1963) is overwhelmingly influenced by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949). In this way, The Feminine Mystique is a response to The Second Sex, where the main purpose of Friedan’s text is to fill in the ideological gaps left behind by de Beauvoir. These gaps, as I call them, are related to the framework of womanhood’s existence in reference to men. It is, in this respect, as de Beauvoir argues in The Second Sex, the fact that everything a woman is and everything femininity can be is linked to teasing out that definition from the definition of a man or masculinity. By de Beauvoir offering the idea that “woman-ness” is the “The Other” within the man-woman dialectic, she unfortunately fails to provide a solution to how women can transcend “The Other” distinction.

In saying that the definition of womanhood can only be “womanhood” within the man-woman dialectic –womanhood being “The Other” –de Beauvoir fails to clearly define that such a definition is restricting to the existence of a woman. Though de Beauvoir does a good job outlining, most notably, the “situation” of what it means to be a woman –elements such as the married woman, the mother, social life, prostitutes, maturity and old age, and intellectual selfhood –Friedan is very much aware that there is a problem inherent in such a restriction. This is, as Friedan suggests, “the problem that has no name.” I believe that this is what Friedan is articulating: the “situation” of a woman in the man-woman dialectic being, in fact, a “problem.”

The “situation,” then, is one that is existential, of course. It is an existential situation that, I would argue, is based on suggesting that the only meaningful existence a woman can have is in relation to a man, in relation to being a wife, in relation to being a mother, and in relation to the societal norms dictated by a patriarchal society. These roles, as they are, subject a woman to a reflective existence. Rather than having a being that stands alone, to be a woman means to have a being reflected in the being of another”

In Phenomenology of Spirit, Georg W. F. Hegel denotes this as “being for self” and “being for others.” Particularly with respect to the man-woman dialectic as it is imparted in the husband-wife dialectic, Hegel contends that “the relationship of husband and wife is in the first place the one in which one consciousness immediately recognizes itself in another.”[1] What arises from this, as Hegel goes on the write, is a kind of “knowledge of this mutual recognition.”[2] This “mutual recognition” is not just best described as a man knowing he is a man and knowing that a woman is a woman, but about a husband knowing he is a husband and knowing that his wife is his wife. More importantly, it is about a woman recognizing she is a woman and a wife. The “knowledge,” in turn, that comes from this recognition, particularly on the part of the woman in the dialectic, is steeped in the nature of her inferior position. Jacques Derrida would label this “recognition” as “differánce,” understanding that differences defer. I offer this in order to argue that, when a woman recognizes the differences between herself and another (a man), she immediately grasps the epistemological value of being deferred to a position of inferiority within the family construct: being a wife, being a mother, being the housewife, so forth.

Friedan’s “problem that has no name” revolves around the conundrum of dialectics when she proposes that, within a woman, a voice says, “I want something more than my husband and my children and my home”[3] –more than an element of a man-woman and husband-wife dialectic.


[1] Georg W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Translated by A. V. Miller (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1977), 273.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company, 1963), 78.

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