‘The Feminine Mystique’ and the change in women’s status in the 1960s

February 21, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalists, writers, writing.

One of the often-overlooked phenomena of the 1960s — the time when I was a teenager and grew into adulthood — was the change in the status of American women during that decade. The change was one of the major motivating ideas for my writing the novel Point Spread. The major character of that novel, Maxine Wayman, has dreams and ambitions, but she runs into the roadblock of “being a girl.”

I make no claim to being a particularly progressive thinker as a teenager or a college student. I’m sure I was part of the problem more than part of the solution, but I did know many bright, talented, and ambitious girls who had to overcome obstacles that I never faced.

In some ways, Maxine is my continuing tribute to those young women.

These thoughts were sparked this week by a short piece in the New York Times Daily Briefing that noted that it was this week, 55 years ago, that The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan was published.

The book summed up many of the frustrations that middle-class women had experienced, especially if they had set aside ambitions and careers to become suburban housewives and mothers. From the day it was published, it sparked criticism from many quarters (and continues to do so today), but it struck a chord with many women and became a phenomenal best-seller over the following two years.

More importantly, the book became a touchstone of the women’s movement of the 1960s and is now considered its most important spark.

Betty Friedan used the success of the book to form the National Organization for Women (NOW), which has lobbied consistently and effectively for equal opportunity and equal pay for women.

Friedan grew up in Peoria, Illinois, the daughter of well-to-do Jewish parents. She was smart and ambitious but unable to fully exercise those qualities until she arrived at Smith College in 1938. She graduated in 1942 and won a fellowship to study psychology at the University of California under Erik Erikson. She was awarded another fellowship that would have allowed her to work on a doctorate, but her boyfriend at the time pressured her to turn it down. She did, but she also broke up with the boyfriend and headed to New York City where she worked as a writer and editor.

By the mid-1950s, Friedan was a mother and suburban housewife, working when she could as a freelance writer. She had been asked by Smith College to conduct a survey of her fellow graduates for a class reunion in 1957. She expected to find those well-educated women happy and fulfilled as wives and mothers. She found instead a great deal of anger and frustration.

That finding led her to re-examine her own life and to begin writing articles about what she had found.

That writing, in turn, led to the idea of a book, and by 1963 The Feminine Mystique was on the shelves. During the next three and a half decades, it sold more than three million copies.

The criticism of the book and of Friedan herself never ceased. Part of the criticism was brought on by her outspokenness and her often-abrasive personality. She was also taken to task for supposedly ignoring poor and minority women and for being actively anti-lesbian. She was also attacked for denigrating motherhood and the importance of the work of women who stayed at home and raised children.

Still, both she and her book persisted in influencing generations of women and men into examining their roles and relationships. Friedan died in 2006 at the age of 85.

Read Friedan’s obituary in the New York Times.

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