On February 19, 1963, “The Feminine Mystique,” by Betty Friedan, was published. Widely viewed as one of the most influential American books of the 20th century, it sought to debunk a popular belief at the time: that higher education was causing women to be dissatisfied with their "natural" role as housewives and homemakers. The book’s title referred to the postwar conventional wisdom that women were destined to find their fulfillment in the domestic life.
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A 1957 survey that Friedan and two friends conducted for the 15th reunion of their graduating class from Smith College – a private women’s school in Massachusetts – served as the starting point for “The Feminine Mystique.” Two hundred classmates responded to the questionnaire, which asked how they felt about being mothers, how they spent their free time, who made the decisions in their households, and the like. The responses painted a surprising picture: those women who felt the most satisfaction in their lives were not playing the “traditional” role of domesticized housewives, while many whose lives revolved around being wives and mothers felt a sense of malaise – something Friedan came to call “the problem that has no name.” Often women in the latter group were unaware that others shared their feelings.
Friedan was startled by the findings, which she turned into an article titled, ironically, “Are Women Wasting Their Time in College?” and submitted to McCall’s, a women’s magazine. Both it and Redbook turned the piece down; an editor at the latter said that “only the most neurotic housewife will identify with this.” Undeterred, Friedan spent the next six years turning the article into a book, which was published on this date by W.W. Norton. In it, she argued that women should be encouraged to seek fulfillment in pursuits that went beyond motherhood and that utilized their full range of talents. She also looked critically at the role such institutions as advertising, women’s magazines and women’s schools played in pushing the idea of the feminine mystique. Her words fell on fertile ground: Although Norton initially printed only 2,000 copies of the book, it quickly became a best-seller – and when it was reissued in paperback, it sold 1.25 million copies.
Born Bettye Naomi Goldstein, on February 4, 1921, Friedan grew up in a wealthy Jewish family in Peoria, Illinois. Her Russian-born father owned a profitable jewelry store; her mother, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants, wrote for the society page of a local newspaper before giving it up to be a full-time housewife. Peoria of that era was racially segregated and anti-Semitism was rife in the town, and both Bettye and her parents suffered from ostracism as Jews. She was turned down, for example, for membership in a high school sorority because she was Jewish.
Moving east for college was a liberating experience for Bettye. She edited the school newspaper and became involved in the labor movement and other left-wing causes. From Smith, she received a fellowship to attend graduate school in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, but turned down a second fellowship to continue on to a PhD when her physicist boyfriend pressured her to do so. She split up with that boyfriend and moved to New York.
Although Friedan, who had by now dropped the final “e” from her first name, presented herself as an “educated housewife” after publication of “The Feminine Mystique,” she downplayed the fact that she had had a busy career as a journalist and was active in various radical political movements before marrying and having children. In 1947, she tied the knot with Carl Friedan, a theater producer who later worked in advertising. They had three children, but divorced in 1969. Although she wrote in a 2000 memoir that Carl had hit her, something he vehemently denied, she later said that, “My husband was not a wife-beater, and I was no passive victim of a wife-beater. We fought a lot, and he was bigger than me."
“The Feminine Mystique” was a trailblazer for the “second-wave” feminism of the 1960s and '70s, and it made its author into a de facto spokesperson for her gender. Three years after its publication, she and several colleagues formed the National Organization of Women, where she served as president until 1970. She also was active in the abortion-rights movement, and in Democratic politics, and she continued to write up to the end of her life.
Betty Friedan sought equality for women with men – but never saw herself as being at war with them. As she told Life magazine in 1963, “Some people think I'm saying, 'Women of the world unite - you have nothing to lose but your men.’ It's not true. You have nothing to lose but your vacuum cleaners."
Betty Friedan died on her birthday, February 4, in 2006.