“I felt the future closing in—and I could not see myself in it at all.” ~ Betty Friedan
Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique turned 50 on February 19. I purchased a copy last fall because as a self-professed feminist, I felt it necessary to finally read it. Since then it has been sitting on my television cabinet piled atop eleven other books waiting to be read. My curiosity was further piqued once I became aware that Friedan’s groundbreaking work was nearing its 50-year anniversary. I plucked it from the stack to discover its influence for myself.
I was born near the beginning of feminism‘s second wave and was the beneficiary of tireless work done to advance women’s rights by women (and men) living years and decades before me. Friedan was the founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and became the face of the Equal Rights Amendment, which astonishingly, has yet to be passed. As an athlete, I benefited from Title IX of the Education Amendments well before knowing what it was or that it existed.
My mother, Nancy, never read The Feminine Mystique or any other feminist literature that I am aware of. My embrace of feminism evolved naturally without force just by living with parents who valued education, believed their daughters deserved the same rights and opportunities as males, and encouraged us to excel in all our endeavors. Strong female role models existed in my schools and the community.
Nancy was, and is, a formidable woman hidden behind a sweet, quiet demeanor. She was a housewife during most of my formative years, having stopped working the year after I was born when her second daughter arrived. The following year, a third daughter came into the world. With three little girls, her hands were full, yet she ran the household, handled the finances, and enforced the rules. Mom returned to the workforce when I was thirteen. This was out of necessity because money was tight on Dad’s salary alone, especially meeting the needs and wants of three growing girls.
Mom was valedictorian of her high school class. Knowing her intellectual capacity, I asked her a while back why she hadn’t gone to college. Was there a career she had considered pursuing? She admitted to having the desire to go to university, perhaps to study nursing. However, her parents were farmers and she was the fourth of six children, so there wasn’t extra money to send her to school; plus she was unaware of any financial assistance available. Therefore she did what most eighteen-year-old women did upon graduating high school in 1963: found a job then got married a year later. Putting her positive spin on the situation, she told me: “If I’d gone to college, I probably wouldn’t have married your father, and I wouldn’t have you.” Smile.
My mother’s choices were more limited than mine, which is one of the reasons I felt compelled to pick up The Feminine Mystique after all these years. Friedan sparked much controversy when her book was published in 1963. Interestingly, she remains controversial today, particularly in some conservative circles. Others criticize her work because it focused on white, middle-class suburban housewives at the exclusion of working and lower class women and those of color. Ashley Fetters points out that the book is based on lies as Friedan was not the typical housewife—she was a freelance writer and politically active—and some of the professional resources she cites have been discredited.
Modern feminism has evolved over the decades, yet some women, particularly younger ones, avoid embracing the term. Feminism isn’t a dirty word, nor is it about hating men or dominating them; it is about equal opportunity and pay. We’ve come a long way but still have a ways to go in the areas of equal pay, full abortion rights, universal childcare, maternity and paternity leave, eradicating the rape culture, ending violence against women, and achieving parity as CEOs and in corporate boardrooms as well as in high levels of government. Last November’s election brought the U.S. Senate‘s composition of women to 20%–a dismal figure but an all-time high one.
Despite The Feminine Mystique’s flaws, it was pivotal in changing women’s lives, for voicing what many women felt gnawing away inside of them but couldn’t express openly: that their bliss was not found in solely being a wife and mother and tending to household chores. Many women desired more for themselves; they had aspirations outside the home that needed to be fulfilled. That is a powerful message. Thank you, Betty Friedan. Here’s to the next 50 years!
- After The Feminine Mystique
- Feminine Mystique – 50 Years Later
- If We’re Going to Empower Girls, We Owe Them a Reality Check
- Tomgram: Ruth Rosen, Feminism’s Long March
- Why ‘The Feminine Mystique’ is Still Worth Reading in 2013
This piece originally published on The Feisty Liberal.