February 17 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of “The Feminine Mystique.” Since 1963, millions of people have read this groundbreaking book.
As Gail Collins points out in The New York Times, it was a book that was able to “seize the moment – to perfectly encapsulate the problem of an era before other people even notice the problem exists.”
It was post-World War II America. The suburbs were growing exponentially and the economy was booming. A lot of women had worked outside the home during the war, and a significant number of women had gotten a college education. Now, they were all being told to stay home and find their fulfillment in taking care of their husbands and children.
“The moment was so pregnant and ready for an explosion,” Collins says, “that all you needed was somebody just sitting there and saying: Look at that ad. They think you are so stupid. They have contempt for you. They hate you. Take look at that again. That’s all you needed.”
Reading this book several years later, I realized at once that it was a completely personal outburst of anger. Friedan was not attempting to write a sociological treatise or a guide to the legal status of women. That’s important to note, since she has been faulted for barely mentioning poor women or African-American women.
Instead, Friedan was venting her own fury at the way intelligent, well-educated women were being kept out of the workplace, and turned into baby-producing and vacuum-pushing zombies. And if housewives dared to express frustration or depression with their lot, psychiatrists were ready to prescribe “mother’s little helper” to make them feel better and push them back into place.
The personal became the political as millions of women recognized themselves in Friedan’s life story.
But have things really changed since then? Or have they remained the same?
My own life has been profoundly shaped by the women’s movement.
As a teenage girl in the UK, I had attended a single-sex high school, where my male history teacher informed us that he never told anyone he was working in a girls’ school, since that would be too embarrassing. Then there was the local pub, with its lounge bar for everyone, and its public bar strictly for men, not to mention the Church of England where priests were always male and women were allowed to arrange the flowers.
In the late 1970s, on my arrival in the US from the UK, I began work at the Feminist Womens Health Center, a clinic and abortion center run entirely by women, and made possible by the passage of Roe vs. Wade.
Entering a work environment where women made all the decisions was liberating for me, and was a direct outcome of the Women’s Movement. Betty Friedan and her book, to say nothing of the first organization she founded, the National Organization for Women, may not have started the Women’s Movement, but were most certainly a major reason for its evolution.
But how much has not changed in these 50 years?
According to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, men spend more time than women at work each day, while women, even those with full-time jobs, do most of the household chores. The study shows 83 percent of women and 65 percent of men spent time each day in 2011 doing household chores such as cleaning, cooking, lawn care or financial and other household management.
The same holds true for Britain. From the Guardian:
Analysis by the Institute for Public Policy Research thinktank shows that eight out of 10 married women do more household chores, while just one in 10 married men does an equal amount of cleaning and washing as his wife.
Just over one in 10 women – 13% – say their husbands do more housework than they do, while only 3% of married women do fewer than three hours a week, with almost half doing 13 hours or more.
So is it true that women haven’t given up the domestic areas they were in charge of, but rather have added new duties and responsibilities?
That may be true in some households, but nevertheless, the world has changed drastically since “The Feminine Mystique.” If you want to see how far we have come, and to understand that passion that fired up the modern women’s movement, you can do no better than pick up a copy of “The Feminine Mystique.”
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