An interview with Gail Collins about the groundbreaking feminist book
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?
She went to college for a year but her parents took her out because her sisters had not gone to college, and they thought that if one couldn't get to do it, the other shouldn't do it. I don't know how much she fought it—she didn't talk about it when we were growing up. She was very much the full-time housewife. I think she enjoyed that role. Later on, when we were grown, I think she felt she could've done more. A lot of things I did, I did in part because she influenced me so much. She thought they were really cool, writing or public speaking—stuff like that. Once I started doing it, I think, in her older years, she thought she should've done it too. But that was much later on.
Do you remember reading The Feminine Mystique for the first time?
I don't, but I could look back on what was going on with me and my friends, and so much of it reflected the conversation that was going on around that book. I don't remember that great "aha" moment, but it's hard for me to divide in my mind what was coming directly at me with what was being filtered down from the cosmos.
Did you have female role models? There weren't many female journalists at the time.
None whatsoever. I remember going to this all-girls Catholic school, and at one point they brought in this graduate who had a job as a contributor at the local Diocesan paper, which was the most glamorous thing we'd heard of in our lives, so that goes to show something. It was a weird time. The economic sense of possibility was so great when I was growing up that my parents had no question that I could do anything I wanted to do, even as a girl. I've always believed that the economics of a story intersects with the women's story—that stuff often happens at the time it happens because of the economy.