“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 … she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—’Is this all?’”
No one can deny our world is rapidly changing before our eyes. Uprisings in the Middle East as well as the ongoing fight for women’s/human rights remind me of the matriarchs of the women’s movement and their vision for gender equality. When you think of a movement, what comes to mind? For me, it is one very special woman who refused to settle for the status quo.
Educator, author, lecturer, journalist, and activist Betty Friedan offers an example validating the axiom that no title or status is required for a person to make a difference or start a movement—only conviction. Graduating from Smith College in 1942, Friedan produced her groundbreaking work The Feminine Mystique in 1963, a title that is often credited with launching “Second Wave” feminism.
During a college reunion, she discovered that she was not the only woman who felt dissatisfied; several of her college classmates evidenced a similar discontentment. Friedan and her friends dubbed the phenomenon “the problem that has no name.” Friedan noted that despite all the writing being done by and for women during the middle years of the twentieth century, no one was speaking about this unfulfilled yearning in the hearts of many women. Instead, women were being instructed and encouraged in how they might make their husbands and families happier and more successful; how they might make mealtimes more interesting; how they might cope with the myriad responsibilities of managing a household; how they might look, act, dress, and feel more feminine… how, in short, they might learn to glory in their womanhood and pity the unhappy, discontented women who wanted to have professional, artistic, or other careers that did not in some way depend on their prowess as wives and mothers.
As she gathered more and more evidence of how widespread was the suffering and dissatisfaction of middle-class American women, Friedan devised an in-depth questionnaire and administered it to her classmates from Smith College to see how they were using the education they had received and what level of satisfaction they had with the lives they had chosen. The responses from the survey were troubling to Friedan. While she had expected the women to describe their lives as well adjusted and state that they were satisfied with the paths they chose, many of the mostly white, middle-class women who responded stated instead that they were not using their education and were dissatisfied with their roles; they felt their lives were not fulfilling.
This knowledge, in turn, forced Friedan to confront the limitations of her own role as a woman and whether or not she was using her education to its full potential. Friedan began developing the results of her research into articles that she submitted to some of the women’s magazines for which she had been freelancing. But, she discovered:
…whatever I wrote was heretical. It offended the editors of the women’s magazines. So after I had about four versions of it turned down, I said, “Hey, what’s going on here?” Because I had never had an article turned down. And I realized that what I was saying was threatening, somehow, to the editors of these women’s magazines. That it threatened the very world they were trying to paint, what I then called the “feminine mystique.” And I would have to write it as a book, because I wasn’t going to get it in a magazine. And the rest is history.
Released in 1963, The Feminine Mystique became a bestseller. The book highlighted the results of the survey, documenting the dissatisfaction and loneliness these educated women felt in their roles as housewives and mothers. The Feminine Mystique was well received by many women who felt that there was more to life than being a wife and mother. It validated the deep-seated sentiments of many women who wanted more options than those American culture offered women at the time. For many women, Friedan’s book was life changing and transforming. They felt less isolated, realizing that other women felt as they did.
As a result of the success of her book, she became the voice and the face of the second wave of feminism. As one of the founders and the first president of the National Organization of Women, she campaigned for issues such as gender equality for women, affordable childcare through federally funded childcare centers, full enforcement of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to end sex discrimination, and promoting women in politics in order to effect and change policies that impact the rights of women. The movement Friedan helped bring into being had as its objective “to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.”
No one can deny her influence as well as her work championing the rights of women for which she received accolades, awards and honorary degrees. Perhaps she will always be known as the suburban housewife who started a revolution by writing The Feminine Mystique. It is certainly true that rarely has a single book been responsible for such sweeping, tumultuous, and continuing social transformation. By refusing to bow to those who would have kept her safely categorized as wife, mother, homemaker, and nothing else, Betty Friedan shifted the landscape of American law and society.