Socialism Art Nature

Elizabeth Schulte looks at the impact of Betty Friedan’s famous book 50 years later.

FIFTY YEARS after its publication, The Feminine Mystique has been credited with everything from single-handedly sparking the women’s movement to perpetuating an outdated and long-gone stereotype of the American family.

Neither is true, but many of the issues that Betty Friedan’s book raised—such as the role of women and the nuclear family—make The Feminine Mystique worth looking back at today.

Published in 1963, Friedan’s book shone a spotlight on a hidden corner of American society—the dissatisfaction and depression of the suburban housewife. Friedan tore apart the image of the happy homemaker who lived for nothing more than satisfying her husband and children.

The book flew in the face of the advertising images of the day, depicting women with starched aprons and happy smiles, hovering over a grateful family in a kitchen filled with gleaming household gadgets. Friedan gave expression to the many women who had been told they should find satisfaction in the perfect suburban home, but who were asking, “Is this all?”

While its conclusions weren’t radical—for instance, her advice that women should pursue interests outside the home in order to be better wives and mothers—Friedan’s book was immediately the target of criticism from a right-wing political establishment that wanted women to see that their “place” was in the home.

And while it didn’t single-handedly spark the women’s movement, the book was one of the first popular expressions—its first paperback edition sold 1.4 million copies—of a wider radicalization and rejection of the women’s second-class status in society at large.

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TO UNDERSTAND the impact and importance of The Feminine Mystique, we have to start with the status of women in American society in the 1960s, before the women’s rights movement. For example:

— A husband could rape his wife, and face no legal retribution. South Dakota became the first state to make marital rape a crime, but not until 1975.

— Law enforcement treated domestic abuse cases no more seriously than rape. In some cities, police had to actually see the assault take place for it to be considered a crime. In others, there was a “stitch” rule, with a woman’s injuries having to reach a certain number of stitches before her husband could be arrested.

— Women in many occupations couldn’t have a family and expect to keep their jobs. When one airline found out that an employee had kept her child a secret for three years, she was offered the choice of resigning or putting her child up for adoption.

— Not until 1965 did the U.S. Supreme Court rule that married women could not be denied birth control. Access to the pill fundamentally changed women’s lives, giving them the freedom to be sexually active and decide whether to have children or not—but protests still had to be waged to make sure there was access and contraception use was safe.

— Lack of reproductive rights was even starker for women of color—African American regularly faced the horror of forced sterilization.

In this context, Friedan’s book was a shot across the bow against the daily outrages of being a women in U.S. society. Things that many women experienced as individuals were now beginning to be seen as a collective experience….


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