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

In 1960, 60 percent of women entering college didn't graduate. Many dropped out once they became engaged. When you enrolled at Marquette University, did you have plans for a career after college?

It was just a given that I would go to college. The suburb I lived in was not awash with academic people. So my father went back to the Catholic university where my grandfather had gone and sought advice from the priest about where the best place to send me would be. The priest said if the goal was for me to find a good Catholic husband, I should go to this all-girls Catholic school that was high-end. He said, "She should go there because the Kennedy girls have gone there." It was regarded as the best possible place to go if your idea was to marry a good Catholic boy. But he said, "If she's planning on doing something, like writing, Marquette has the best journalism program." That was the information that was brought back home. So I went to Marquette.

Was there a moment when you decided you are a feminist?

You hear younger women say, "I don't believe I'm a feminist. I believe women should have equal right and I believe in fighting for the rights of other women, but I'm certainly not a feminist. No, no, not that!" It's just a word. If you called it "Fred" would it be better? There've only been about five seconds in American history when the word "feminist" is popular. So you come up with another one.

I spent my college years saying, "our issues here are civil rights and the war in Vietnam. And it took me until I got out in the world to realize I was being completely ridiculous. I slowly figured out I was part of the group, and it was central to my identity. It's the moment you think, "what am I?" And you say, "I'm a leftist," or "I'm a rightist" or "an Ohioan" or "doctor" or whatever. But when you say, "I'm a woman," how soon does that come up? It took me until I was out in the workplace working with other women to understand how important it was.

What, if any, obstacles did you face in the workplace?

I'm happy that comes up, because I really didn't encounter that problem. The women who came in two minutes ahead of me, historically speaking, got in the face of their publishers or editors or bosses, but didn't get the rewards. I got the rewards. Women who get to have the editorships or the good assignments don't get the chance to thank the women who were one second ahead of them.

The problem Friedan illustrated "had no name." Do you think there's a modern version of this problem? Something we've missed?

Women's voices are so powerful now. I don't worry that they won't find ways to define their issues. I look around me and see all these incredible young women who are writing and talking about stuff. The most interesting thing is when I run into young women who grew up thinking there were no issues regarding gender left. When they got into work, they were being deliberately discriminated against, but they would complain that it's less easy to bond with the guys and work on the same level as the guys in some industries. They just feel a little bit left out. They don't know what to do, because the idea that you'd be discriminated against as a woman is so outlandish in this day and age. The answer is to talk to other women. You make friends with and support other women in the workplace. There seems to be a real issue there that is outside the expectations of women today.

You say we still don't know how to deal with the childcare issue. In 1971, Walter Mondale's legislation for comprehensive childcare nearly passed but was vetoed by Nixon. It seems remarkable to think that was so close to happening.

When Mondale introduced it, it was about taking care of kids while parents worked and making sure children from disadvantaged families had the best preparation for grade school. Childcare and education weren't separated. There's a terrible tendency for struggling working-class parents to stick their kids in relatives' houses or the cheapest places possible, and the parents who already read to their kids every night put their kids in the best preparatory classes. The other half of that is whether employers give workers the flexibility to take care of their kids at home.

When we lost the comprehensive childcare bill, we really lost it, for all practical purposes, forever. It wasn't something you could postpone. That's the moment when the economy was such that you could afford to do it, and that's vanished. We're fighting every day about whether social security can be continued in its present form. There's no way we're going to see a new huge entitlement outside of health care being created anywhere in the near future.

On the other hand, I've never found an issue over which there's so much consensus. Nick Kristof's focus is on women in developing countries, and he's now coming around to the thought that it boils down to early childhood education. Republicans, Democrats, everyone knows that you need to reach kids early. There's a huge gap between the rich and everybody else. There's so much consensus and so little action.

Over the last year, Hanna Rosin released the End of Men, Liza Mundy wrote The Richer Sex, and there's a lot of talk about women becoming breadwinners and more fathers taking care of children. What's your perspective on this?

Hanna is sometimes misinterpreted—she's really clear that there are tons of issues about the glass ceiling. And it's entirely different issue when you compare upper-income women with lower-income women and upper-income men with lower-income men. The problem with males is a problem for poor men who don't have access to the jobs they did a generation ago. So many of the questions out there are class questions as much as they're gender questions. The problem of race is totally different for an upper-middle-class black kid going to Princeton than for a working-class black kid who won't go to college at all. Their universe is defined so much more by class than it is by race or gender.

The marriage rate is going down as well. Will that have an impact on women's careers and family lives?

The impact is so much different depending on your class. If you're a woman who has a degree in accounting or engineering or a Ph.D. in science, and you decide you won't marry and will have children anyway, that's a decision you can make with the same challenges every working mother faces. Your gender is not going to dissuade you from doing it. The problem always comes back to poorer women who have to support their children and at the same time take care of them. I don't know if the nuclear family, as we envisioned it throughout my life, is critical. As long as you've got a support structure that helps you when you're raising children, whether it's your mother or your gay partner or your best friend who's living with you, a dad who's there for the kids but not there for you, and there's enough money, I don't know if the actual marriage deal is as big of a concern.

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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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