Sunday, February 17, 2013

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: 50th Anniversary of The Feminine Mystique

YOU’RE NOT LIKELY TO HEAR Rush Limbaugh celebrating this week. Fifty years ago Betty Friedan helped launch the modern feminist movement and change life for American women forever. 

The Feminine Mystique was published in February 1963. 

If you’re young or haven’t read Friedan’s book, it can be hard to understand how far women had to go to achieve equality in 1963. Life on the domestic front—the only front that seemed to matter—was slowly improving. Fifty years ago the average housewife had an automatic washing machine and possibly a clothes dryer. She had an electric can opener on her counter, a garbage disposal in her sink.

If she was rich she might have an automatic dish washer. 

What else did a typical housewife have to be thankful for? Wrinkle-free synthetic fabrics had taken the “iron” out of “ironing day.” Frozen foods, cake mixes, TV dinners and a growing fast-food industry were making mealtimes less taxing. 

Birth control pills had been on the market for three years. Usage was spreading. It was still a crime, however, to send birth control information through the mail. Something to do with “pornography,” you see. Experts—male experts, anyway—reported that America’s females had never had it so good. 

In reality a revolution was brewing.

THE PATRICK HENRY OF THE MOMENT was Betty Friedan, mother of three small children, a stay-at-home mom (pretty much the only kind in 1963) and college graduate. Growing up she had heard the same message again and again. “A woman’s place is in the home. A woman’s place is in the home.” A girl must learn to cook and sew. A girl must make herself attractive to men. Still, she must be careful. She must not be too aggressive or act “too smart.” She must not curse. She must not engage in activities which made her sweat. She must not discuss sex! Mercy! No mentioning that word! 

She must be a “lady.” 

At times, it seemed nothing mattered more than looking good for and finding and roping in “Mr. Right.” The husband was the key. Landing him was like reeling in a prized fish. Looking good was as important to a woman, as bait to a fisherman. Slogans like: “Blondes have more fun,” said it all. American women were trained to think that happiness could be found in a bottle of coloring and millions died their hair blonde. Even the first Barbie dolls, which sold in 1959, helped bolster the message.

Barbie was all body and no brain. Her hair was perfect. Her clothes were lovely. Her head was empty. 

Still, Barbie had her Ken.

Marriage was thought to be the only goal for any sensible young woman. Caring for a family would be her career. A female who went beyond this role was flirting with disaster. She would be deserting her family, a gentleman of the period warned. Nothing would be left but an “empty house and empty cookie jar.” 

What, for her poor children, could possibly be worse? 

Even the vows recited at almost every wedding made the limits on a wife’s world clear. A bride promised to love, honor, cherish and obey her husband. A young wife explained what this meant in an interview: If he [the husband] doesn’t want me to wear a certain color or a certain kind of dress then I truly don’t want to either. The thing is, whatever he has wanted is what I also want...I don’t believe in fifty-fifty marriages.” She had attended college herself, she told Friedan, but only long enough to find a husband. When it became clear she was going to marry, naturally, she dropped out, putting off graduation, probably forever. Now she explained, she “never disputed [with] her husband in anything.” 

A doctor’s wife and mother of three described a similar life: “I always knew as a child that I was going to grow up and go to college, and then get married, and that’s as far as a girl has to think.  After that your husband determines and fills your life.” 

ASKED IN 1963 WHAT THEY MIGHT HAVE THOUGHT about “careers” for daughters, most fathers and probably most mothers would have laughed at such a ridiculous idea. School books, television shows, and magazines supported this view. Women were meant to serve as housewives and discover happiness as mothers. Advertising focused on this theme. Commercials showed women who enjoyed getting laundry white and understood the joys of giving dirty kitchen floors a spotless shine. 

In working on her book, however, Friedan ran into countless women who admitted having trouble accepting such limitations. They did because that was what was expected. These were wives and mothers who tried to find happiness in such roles, but for whom nothing worked. Not even matching pillows and drapes brought contentment. Peanut butter sandwiches in lunch boxes wouldn’t do. Not even dusting and making beds gave them pleasure. Sadly, one woman explained:  “I feel so empty, somehow, useless, as if I don’t exist.” “Do you know what America is?” a frustrated housewife asked Friedan. “It’s a big, soapy dishpan of boredom.” 

A third woman told how she turned to gardening, hobbies, and the PTA to fill the emptiness she felt: 

I like it, but it doesn’t leave you anything to think about—any feeling of who you are. I never had any career ambitions. All I wanted was to get married and have four children. I love the kids and Bob and my home. There’s no problem you can put a name to. But I’m desperate. I begin to feel I have no personality. I’m a server of food and a putter-on of pants and a bed-maker, somebody who can be called on when you want something. But who am I?

FRIEDAN CALLED THIS FEELING “the problem with no name,” or “the feminine mystique.” This was the myth that women could find happiness in life only in roles as wives and stay-at-home moms.

It was, Friedan warned in 1963, a belief that had “succeeded in burying millions of American women alive.” The “dull routine of housework” was not enough to give meaning to their lives. The typical American home was no more than a “comfortable concentration camp.”

Disgusted by what she found, Friedan launched a broad-based attack. It was time, she said, to “stop giving lip service to the idea that there are no battles left to be fought for women in America, that women’s rights have already been won.” Women should accept nothing less than full participation in school, work, sports and government. “If women were really people, no more [and] no less,” Friedan thundered, “then all the things that kept them from being full people in our society would have to be changed.”  

The Feminine Mystique stormed up the best-seller list and stayed there. The book helped unhappy, thinking women focus their anger. Friedan had issued the rallying cry for the “war” which was fast approaching.


IF YOU TEACH and might be interested in more materials, written in a similar fashion, aimed at middle school students, feel free to visit my page: Middle School History and Tips for Teachers.

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