"The Feminine Mystique" at 50: How Far Have We Come?
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of "The Feminine Mystique." It’s hard to underestimate the earthshaking effect Betty Friedan’s book had on American women’s lives back then. Many of you weren’t yet born, or were too young like me to grasp its significance, but gender roles were so firmly inscribed that women were expected to be content being mothers and housewives. Astonishingly, “homemaker” was considered an actual profession.
Working-class women, of course, had it even worse. Not only were they stuck in low-paying, dead-end jobs like waitressing, they were also expected to handle the cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the husband and kids.
What’s really shocking to remember is how few legal rights—much less “choices”--women had back then.
As New York Times columnist Gail Collins, who wrote the introduction to the anniversary edition of Friedan’s book, recalls:
In 1963, most women weren’t able to get credit without a male co-signer. In some states they couldn’t sit on juries; in others, their husbands had control not only of their property but also of their earnings. Although Friedan obsesses about women getting jobs, she does not mention that newspapers were allowed to divide their help-wanted ads into categories for men and women, or that it was perfectly legal for an employer to announce that certain jobs were for men only. Even the federal government did it.
When you think about it, this wasn’t all that long ago. My own mother never worked and because she was terribly unhappy, she found unique ways to assert her independence from my father. Her favorite trick was to run up his charge cards with unapproved purchases; one particularly memorable year on their anniversary, she charged a mink stole. My mother didn’t drive. Her second favorite trick was to steal the keys to our Plymouth Fury station wagon and take it for a joy ride. She was like “I Love Lucy,” though not nearly as forgivable. This did not make for great role modeling, but it did supply me with a treasure trove of stories about motherhood.
Collins herself was the first woman to become be editorial page editor of the New York Times. Guess what year that happened? 1985? 1990? Try 2001, nearly 40 years after Friedan wrote her groundbreaking book. And 31 years after four dozen female researchers and employees launched a class-action lawsuit against Newsweek magazine to give them entry into the prestigious and better-paying writing and reporting ranks. I am happy to report that they won their case, due in no small part to the brilliant civil rights lawyer Eleanor Holmes Norton, who was herself a rare case--being a female attorney and black.
Here’s another example of the gender barriers women faced, courtesy of Stephanie Coontz, author of “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s":
In 1962, more than two-thirds of the women surveyed
by University of Michigan researchers agreed that most important family decisions “should be made by the man of the house.”
I read Friedan’s book in college, and it had a profound effect on me. It was the first time I heard the phrase “the personal is political.” I was also reading a lot of Gloria Steinem, Sylvia Plath and women’s literature like “The Awakening” at the time. I already knew that I did not want the life my mother had, but Friedan’s book solidified my nascent feminism because it revealed that ideas about women were much bigger and more powerful than me. They were cemented in history, culture and politics.
So where are we now? Have we achieved our dream of equality? Are women better off now that we’re lawyers, doctors, firefighters? That while 70 percent of us with children work fulltime, others of us are staying home with our kids and doing creative things like making artisanal jams or launching blogs? Before I answer that, let me tell you another story.
In 1990, I became a mom. There was no paid maternity leave then. So after much pleading and negotiating, I managed to get three months of unpaid time from the magazine where I worked as one of only two female editors. Then pregnancy was treated as a “disability,” so I did get that, although it was about a third of my paycheck.
Fast forward a month. My editor calls. The magazine has been in financial trouble. Even though he promised me before my leave that I wouldn’t lose my job, I’m being laid off. I soon learn I’m the only one. And, no, there is no part-time option. I’m furious and stunned. I suspect it’s because I’m on leave, but I can’t prove I’m being discriminated against so there’s nothing I can do. So now I’m home with an infant, no childcare or family nearby to help, and need to find a job.
I raise this because it happened more than 20 years ago. And yet practically nothing has changed. I still hear young women agonizing over work and family life, the lack of good, affordable childcare, and the inflexible policies in the workplace that often lead them to abandon their careers or jobs--and with it their financial security and power--because doing it all is just too damn hard. I agree. It is too damn hard. It’s also ridiculous that 20 years on, and on the 50th anniversary of Friedan’s book, we’re still talking about this same stupid problem. This is a perfect example of the “personal being political.”
What’s troubling is that we often frame this problem in the language of choice. But it’s really not much of a “choice” when a woman elects to stay home with her kids, when her husband makes more money than she does and she can’t work part-time or leave work early to pick up her kids without her boss freaking out. So when push comes to shove, it’s the woman who quits--whether she really wants to or not.
Stephanie Coontz made this point in an op-ed piece in last Sunday’s NY Times questioning how far we’ve come since Friedan’s book:
Today the main barriers to further progress toward gender equity no long lie in people’s personal attitudes and relationships. Instead,
structural impediments prevent people form acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their preferences. The gender revolution is not in a stall. It has hit a wall.
Yet most countries have managed to solve this work-family dilemma just fine. Jody Heymann, dean of the school of public health at the University of California, Los Angeles, has a new book illustrating this called “Children’s Chances: How Countries Can Move from Surviving to Thriving.” I’m going to throw out a few statistics that she and her researchers culled:
The United States is one of only eight out of 188 countries that don’t provide paid leave for new mothers. The other countries are Liberia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Suriname, and Tonga. Yes, we’re right up there with Tonga!
175 countries provide paid annual leave for working parents. The United States is not one of them.
162 countries limit how many hours you can work in a workweek. The United States is not one of them.
Most women and men, for that matter, would like this to change and are all for the sexes sharing more of the bread-winning, childrearing and domestic duties. A 2011 study by the Center for Work and Family at Boston College discovered that 65 percent of fathers believed that women and men should share childcare equally. A 2010 Pew poll found that an overwhelming number of young men and women--72 percent—between the ages of 18 and 29 said a marriage is best when both partners work and manage the house.
There’s no reason this can’t happen. God knows we need it to so that women and men can have more balanced and satisfying lives, and where parents aren't forced to make such bitter and unfair choices between family and work. But it's going to take more than 1960s-style consciousness-raising. It will probably take a revolution.
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