'Anger Boiled Up, and Betty Friedan Was There': 'Feminine Mystique' at 50

An interview with Gail Collins about the groundbreaking feminist book

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Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which turns 50 next month, transformed the lives of women across America. In the early '60s, Friedan, a self-identified homemaker, interviewed fellow Smith graduates for an alumni survey. She noticed an alarming pattern of dissatisfaction. Despite the fact that many of these women had achieved the domestic life they'd wished for—a home in the suburbs complete with modern appliances, children, and a bread-winning husband—they were miserable. It was a "silent problem," Friedan wrote. "Why should women accept this picture of a half-life, instead of a share in the whole of human destiny?"

Gail Collins, author and columnist for the New York Times, wrote the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique. Collins may be best known for her sharp and witty voice on the Times's Op-Ed page. In 2001, she became the first woman to serve as Editorial Page Editor for the New York Times, a post she held until 2007. Collins, fascinated with women's history, wrote When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present as well as several other books.

Collins grew up in the kind of "typical" suburban household Friedan described. But The Feminine Mystique, released when Collins was in college, sparked the second wave of feminism and shaped the landscape Collins would enter into.

I spoke with Collins about her own experiences, childcare, the rise of female breadwinners, and what she sees for women in the future.

In the introduction to the anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique you write, "For all of history, average but ambitious women dreamed of careers as full-time housewives." Many women in the 1950s finally achieved this dream. So how did Friedan's words, urging them to pursue dreams outside of the home, resonate with so many women at the time?

When I started giving talks about women's history, one of the things that bothered me was the tendency to say, "Well, everybody was totally oppressed and suddenly in 1964 we rose up, got our freedom, and here we are." It dismisses the women who fought for rights for several hundred years of our history up to that point. The goal of being a full-time housewife made so much sense earlier because you didn't have the option of going to college and becoming a brain surgeon. The idea that you could be running your own shop was incredibly empowering. Women who did this full-time were a critical economic factor in their household, as important as their husbands. They manufactured most of the things the family needed.

Later, women who devoted their lives to the domestic arts didn't get the respect that the farm wife had gotten because they had no economic role. That's when they came up with a vision of the "total" woman, the woman celebrated in women's magazines, the middle-class woman, the moral compass. Men were in the marketplace and no longer had time to be moral compasses. This job was elevated emotionally but didn't have any economic point, so there was a loss of power and respect in a country where the economic role is everything. Betty Friedan was born into this era, in which women still had all those issues, but being a housewife, which used to be exhausting, wasn't all that hard anymore. Raising children was hard but only lasted for a short chunk of a woman's life. Friedan wasn't only a housewife—she was a freelance writer and had other roles. But her complaints about that one role, the power of her own rage and dissatisfaction seemed to resonate amazingly.

Can you talk about how The Feminine Mystique intersected with the political movement for women's rights?

There are endless complaints about The Feminine Mystique, and one is that Friedan wasn't writing about working-class women or black women. A lot of that is true, but she became a central part of the movement that dealt with those things. When the women's movement began, it was a middle-class phenomenon. Certainly, black women had other stuff to think about in the '60s besides a women's movement. Working-class women were slow to get into it. But the Commission on the Status of Women, separate from anything Friedan did, was spearheaded by Eleanor Roosevelt and her followers, who came out of a group of women mostly in Washington or in state capitals who were lawyers or worked for the government but were never promoted to the level they should have been promoted to.

The interesting thing was that nobody, including people on the commission, thought that you should seriously consider the question of whether women were discriminated against in the workplace. Even my own newspaper, when editorializing, found it hysterical that you could take discrimination against women in the workplace as seriously as discrimination against African-Americans. The intersection came when women from various commissions on the status of women met, understanding that the government was going to do nothing about this whatsoever. The anger boiled up, and Betty Friedan was there. That was when the National Organization of Women formed. It became the organization of the early women's movement, fighting legal battles on behalf of the working-class women Friedan never talked about in her book.

But it was her movement—she headed NOW. So, although the criticisms of the book are true, it led Friedan into the exact movement that made a difference for the future of working women and black women.

Your mom fits the profile of the typical 1950s housewife. Did she seem to have opportunities outside of the home?

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Hope Reese is a writer and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes for The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and The Paris Review. She also hosts a radio podcast for IdeaFestival. Her website is hopereese.com.

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