The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?” —Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique
Born this day in 1921: Betty Friedan (1921–2006): feminist , author of The Feminine Mystique, founder of NOW, organizer of NARAL and the National Women’s Political Caucus, and the driving force behind the second wave of the women’s movement
Betty Friedan was born Bettye Goldstein in Peoria, Illinois. She was educated at Smith College, earning a degree in psychology in 1942. She spent a year doing graduate work on a fellowship from the University of California. She then moved to New York City, working as a journalist for a news service. In 1947 she married Carl Friedan. The couple had three children. (They divorced in 1969.) Friedan was fired from her job in the 1950s when she requested maternity leave. She then took up homemaking full time.
Living the life of a middle-class suburban housewife, Friedan could not ignore the undertow of despair she felt in this role. After surveying a number of other Smith College graduates on their lives, she realized that other women had similar feelings. They described a loss of self-esteem and fulfillment that they could not achieve by buying into what Friedan would later call “the feminine mystique.”
She followed up this survey with extensive research on how American women felt living out the traditional roles ordained for them in women’s magazines and false cultural values. She published her findings, also drawing on her own personal experience, in The Feminine Mystique (1963). It sold a million copies its first year in print. It is considered one of the most important works of nonfiction of the 20th century.
The book sparked a second wave of feminism in the United States. Friedan remained at the forefront of this new movement. She cofounded the National Organization for Women (1966), which she likened to an NAACP for women, and served as its president until 1970. She also cofounded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (1969—today’s NARAL Pro-Choice America) and the National Women’s Political Caucus (1971).
Friedan led the charge for many reforms, including reproductive rights, an end to sex-specific job advertising, establishment of day care centers, and—not least—passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. She was a prominent writer and speaker and wrote several more books: It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement (1976), The Second Stage (1981), The Fountain of Age (1993), Beyond Gender: The New Politics of Family and Work (1998), and Life So Far (2000).
Here is a brief excerpt from the first pages of The Feminine Mystique. The author is wondering what happened to the New Woman who made so many strides in earlier generations.
“By the end of the nineteen-fifties, the average marriage age of women in American dropped to 20, and was still dropping, into the teens. Fourteen million girls were engaged by 17. The proportion of women attending college in comparison with men dropped from 47 per cent in 1920 to 35 per cent in 1958. A century earlier, women had fought for higher education; now girls went to college to get a husband. By the mid-fifties, 60 per cent dropped out of college to marry, or because they were afraid too much education would be a marriage bar. Colleges built dormitories for “married students,” but the students were almost always the husbands. A new degree was instituted for the wives—“Ph.T.” (Putting Husband Through).
“Then American girls began getting married in high school. And the women’s magazines, deploring the unhappy statistics about these young marriages, urged that courses on marriage, and marriage counselors, be installed in the high schools. Girls started going steady at twelve and thirteen, in junior high. Manufacturers put out brassieres with false bosoms of foam rubber for little girls of ten. And an advertisement for a child’s dress, sizes 3–6x, in the New York Times in the fall of 1960, said: “She Too Can Join the Man-Trap Set.”By the end of the fifties, the United States birthrate was overtaking India’s.…Where once they had two children, now [women] had four, five, six. Women who had once wanted careers were now making careers out of having babies. So rejoiced Life magazine in a 1956 paean to the movement of American women back to the home.…
“And across America, three out of every ten women dyed their hair blonde. They ate a chalk called Metrical, instead of food, to shrink to the size of the thin young models. Department-store buyers reported that American women, since 1939, had become three and four sizes smaller. "Women are out to fit the clothes, instead of vice-versa," one buyer said.”
—Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique
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