Remembering a landmark book 50 years later

Tuesday, Feb. 19, marks the half-century anniversary of the publication of a book that changed women’s lives. The book was “The Feminine Mystique,” written by Smith College graduate Betty Friedan.

Herself a housewife drowning in domesticity, Friedan wrote the truth about the lives of American middle-class housewives buried under a pile of laundry.

“I came to realize that something is very wrong with the way American women are trying to live their lives today,” she wrote.

I was only 7 when the book came out, but I remember the shock of its bright pink cover, knowing from my mother’s reaction that the book was something momentous.

As one of the only mothers in our neighborhood who worked outside the home, my mother, now 86, remembers the collective sense of relief women felt in 1963 that someone was finally naming “the problem that had no name.”

A friend of mine, Phyllis, 81, recalls being hunkered down in a small house with two babies and crying with recognition as she read “The Feminine Mystique.” Phyllis, by the way, went on to have a full professional career, and my mother is still running a feminist charity.

It’s hard not to write personally about Friedan, because her book, although thoroughly documenting women’s societal straitjacket, was profoundly personal.

At 14, I got to meet her at a national convention of an abortion rights group she helped co-found.

The youngest person there, and wearing a fetching new velvet dress, I felt both pleased and nonplussed when Betty kindly complimented me as looking “very feminine.”

But that was Betty Friedan: warm, enthusiastic, sometimes maddeningly paradoxical, larger than life.

In turn, I read “The Feminine Mystique” in my women’s studies classes in the late 1970s, already a beneficiary of the early women’s movement and a half-generation removed from the stultifying “wife and mother” roles prescribed for women in the 1950s and 1960s.

Like many young feminists in the 1980s, I felt Friedan’s writing became too cautious, chiding and conservative, yet she remained a scrappy fighter, challenging the feminist backlash.

After writing “The Feminine Mystique,” she became a founding mother of the National Organization for Women in 1966, serving as its first president, a founder of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws in 1969, and with Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and others, a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.

She died seven years ago this month at 85, knowing her book had awakened a generation of women and their daughters, and helped open up a world of opportunity, respect and rights too long denied.

Women of the world unite! As Betty liked to say: “You have nothing to lose but your vacuum cleaners.”

Annie Laurie Gaylor is a board member of the Women’s Medical Fund, a charity that is helping fund abortions for low-income women in Wisconsin. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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