… on the Second Wave has died. Betty Friedan, author of the explosive and culture-changing, The Feminine Mystique died yesterday at the ripe old age of 85. I can’t bring myself to say “rest in peace,” however because resting and peace were not what Betty Friedan was about. She was about waking America from its deluded slumber. The feminine mystique, as Friedan defined it, was the popular myth that all women want exactly the same thing–to be housewives.
Ironically, the book began as a project she undertook for a reunion of Smith alumnae. By interviewing scores of women from her graduating class, Friedan set out to prove that higher education did not ruin women for a life of domesticity. What she discovered horrified her. Though she herself had adjusted fairly well to life as a housewife, she found the majority of her Smith peers suffering under the enforced domestic drudgery of suburban life. She decided to research the subject in full and wound up writing a book that indicted America’s culturally entrenched suppression of female freedom. The Feminine Mystique struck such a powerful chord with so many women that the Second Wave of feminism was off.
Though feminist-bashing remains one of America’s favorite pastimes, let’s all take a moment to remember what pre-Friedan life really was:
Help Wanted ads that specified which gender could apply for the job
Illegal and back alley abortions
Separate pay scales for men and women
And so much more.
Though few young women embrace the term feminism any more, even fewer would give back the rights feminists won for them. Women my age and younger have come to take our freedoms for granted and have integrated feminist values so deeply into our lives it’s easy to overlook them. That, more than anything, is a hallmark of feminism’s success. As Barbara Findlen, editor of the anthology Listen Up: Voices From the Next Feminist Generation says: “feminism is a movement for social change, not an organization doing a membership drive.”
The Second Wave was largely concerned with challenging gender roles among white middle and upper class heterosexual Americans. And though it is often criticized for being exclusionary (of lesbians, women of color, poor women, third world women, etc.), it is probably because of its narrow focus that it was able to leverage the cultural influence of that privileged segment to force a re-examination of gender barriers. Whether those gains have “trickled down” to the rest of the planet is another matter altogether.
Guarding the freedoms women like Betty Friedan won for us and spreading that freedom to the rest of the world is the grand project of Third Wavers like me.
So thanks, Betty. Your book changed my life, not just when I read it, but every day.