A 50 year anniversary
Much of the factual information and quotes in this article are taken from a web search of her life and work, edited savagely to fit this space. She was a remarkable woman. Please take the time to learn more about her on your own.
It was in 1963, 50 years ago this month (February), that Betty Friedan published her ground-breaking book, The Feminine Mystique. The book highlighted Friedan’s view of a coercive and pervasive post-World War II ideology of female domesticity that stifled middle-class women’s opportunities to be anything but homemakers. For those old enough to recall, the 1950s and early 1960s were a time when women wore hats and white gloves in public, not slogan t-shirts and sandals. They made tea and cookies, not picket signs and legislation. Debunking the feminine mystique in favor of gender equality led to a fundamental transformation, not only in the way American society viewed women, but in the way American women viewed themselves.
Friedan’s book is credited with sparking second-wave feminism by directing women’s attention to the broad social basis of their problems, stirring many to political and social activism. Although Friedan faced some negative reactions, she also received hundreds of letters from women who said that The Feminine Mystique had changed their lives. Since 1963, the book has sold over two million copies and has been translated into a dozen languages. Thousands of copies are still sold every year.
The book developed from a survey she conducted of her Smith College classmates 15 years after graduation, which indicated that many felt depressed even though they supposedly enjoyed ideal lives with husbands, homes, and children. Enlarging her inquiry, Friedan found that what she called “the problem that has no name” was common among women far beyond the educated East Coast elite. In The Feminine Mystique, she showed how women’s magazines, advertising, Freudian psychologists, and educators reflected and perpetuated a domestic ideal that left many women deeply unhappy. In suppressing women’s personal growth, Friedan argued, society lost a vast reservoir of human potential.
It’s not that things are that much different these days – at least in that the media and advertising shape and influence how women think about themselves and their place in the world.
Friedan went on to help found the National Organization for Women, the National Abortion Rights Action League, and the National Women’s Political Caucus. She taught at colleges and universities from coast to coast, and published in magazines from The New Republic to Ladies’ Home Journal. Her more recent work, including the 1993 book Fountain of Age, addresses what Friedan called the “age mystique.”
Friedan died at home in Washington, D.C. on February 4, 2006, her 85th birthday.
Friedan’s portrayal of herself – as someone so totally trapped by the feminine mystique – was part of her reinvention as she wrote and promoted The Feminine Mystique. Her story made it possible for readers to identify with its author to enhance the book’s appeal. In the short term, her misery in the suburbs may have prompted her to write The Feminine Mystique. A longer term perspective makes clear that the book’s origins lie much earlier – in her college education and in her experiences with labor unions in the 1940s and early 1950s.
The narrative of Betty Friedan’s life, especially what she wrote in the 1940s and early 1950s, sheds light on the origins of 1960s feminism. Most historians believe that 1960s feminism emerged from events particular to that decade, but some have argued for a connection between the protest movements of the 1940s and the 1960s. Friedan’s life provides evidence of such continuity by suggesting a specific and important connection between the union activity in which Friedan participated in the 1940s to early 1950s and feminism she inspired in the 1960s.
In 1951, she described a trade union meeting where rank-and-file women talked and men listened. Out of these conversations emerged the realization that the women were “fighters […] that they refuse any longer to be paid or treated as some inferior species by their bosses, or by any male workers who have swallowed the bosses’ thinking.” She was referring to the UE, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America: the most radical American union in the postwar period. They published a pamphlet, UE Fights for Women Workers, which she called “a remarkable manual for fighting wage discrimination that is, ironically, as relevant today as it was in 1952” a year later.
In a certain sense it was almost accidental – coincidental – that I wrote The Feminine Mystique, and in another sense my whole life had prepared me to write that book; all the pieces of my own life came together for the first time in the writing of it.
— Betty Friedan, “It Changed My Life,” 1976
50 years later, life for women has certainly changed, at least for some – for those able to escape poverty and ignorance, obtain an education and have access to the opportunities in the public world. For anyone who still doubts the strides society has made in the last 50 years in the acceptance of the principle that women are people too (feminism), just read through the Feminine Mystique chapter synopses at the Wikipedia site. They read like ancient history.
On the other hand, much of the world still does not value women, does not educate girls, and prevents access to opportunities for women to excel. Even in our privileged first world society, new issues always arise and women must keep on fighting for our rights.
With people like Betty Friedan articulating the issues for us, we are in good hands. Thank you, Betty Friedan, for the Feminine Mystique.
Angie King is the Coordinator of the SLO NOW Chapter. You may write to her at AngieKing@informationpress.net.