(WOMENSENEWS)–In the late 1950s, Betty Friedan, journalist and mother of three, surveyed her sister graduates of Smith College and found them frustrated.
Her 1963 book, “The Feminine Mystique,” analyzed and documented what has by now become a cliche: the plight of the educated white suburban housewife in post-World War II America, trapped in domesticity, consumer of a bill of goods that valued mothering and vacuuming above all else for those whom French author Simone de Beauvoir had already dubbed “The Second Sex.” Friedan’s book, with its incisive analysis of Madison Avenue and the very women’s magazines that the 43-year-old Friedan had been writing for, touched many nerves.
While Friedan articulated a malaise felt but not yet named, women in the labor movement were already organizing against gender inequality. Since 1961, women in labor unions, doing double duty as working women and housewives, had been calling for an end to sex discrimination in hiring and wages and for subsidized child care. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy also had established the Commission on the Status of Women, with Eleanor Roosevelt as chair.
As Friedan’s book was being published in 1963, so too was the commission’s official report. The words “sex discrimination” echoed from Washington, though not quite as loudly as they did from the union hall. The Equal Pay Act, requiring equal pay for equal or substantially equal work without regard to sex, was passed by Congress that year. When Friedan founded the National Organization for Women in 1966, her allies came largely from the ranks of labor women and members of the president’s commission.
Although Friedan, who died in 2006, was considered a radical by the press after her book’s publication, a generation of mostly younger women paid her little mind. The new “problem that had no name,” in Friedan’s phrase, may have applied to their mothers, but not to them.
Connected to the civil rights movement, the student movement, the anti-war movement and world-wide liberation movements, the passions of “women’s lib,” as mainstream commentators called it, involved what Friedan considered “lifestyle” issues, including consciousness-raising, sexual freedom and lesbian rights, along with an evolving critique of the capitalist system. If that generation had a “Feminine Mystique,” it was the 1970 anthology “Sisterhood Is Powerful,” edited by Robin Morgan, an underground press writer and one of the organizers of the 1968 Miss America pageant protest.
Abraham Lincoln was said to have called Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the “little woman who started the Civil War.” Stowe wasn’t. No single woman or book started that war, and no person or tome started the 20th century women’s movement. While “The Feminine Mystique” was a landmark, opening many eyes in 1963, a tremor for change was already apparent and it would take other books, other eyes, other actions, to make the tremor an earthquake.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at [email protected].
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For more information:
“Betty Friedan Woke Women From Mystique of Sleep”:
Betty Friedan, “The Problem That Has No Name”
Betty Friedan, “The Happy Housewife Heroine”:
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