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

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.

There have been losses and gains for women in politics lately. Hillary Clinton sought the nomination for president, but lost. There are more women in the Senate, but Obama is criticized for the lack of women in the Cabinet. How do you think women will be represented in politics in the next 50 years?

There certainly will be a woman president. People say, "Well, if it's not Hilary who will it be?" But it's not like there are 25 guys out there that you can put your finger on right now and say, "Oh yes, the president of the future, that's him!" That stuff doesn't come up until it's time to pick somebody. Hilary didn't lose because she was a woman—she lost because she didn't organize well in the primaries. But she could've won—people were ready. Her great contribution was that she got the voting public ready for a woman president. Americans are very flexible. As soon as they think something is normal, it's fine. When I as a kid, the idea of a woman doing the evening news as an anchor was unthinkable. And you look out now, and there's Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer and other women.

Where do you see women making strides in the government?

The problem is in the stream of supply. When you look at statehouses, we're not having the success we might've had. It's difficult for a women with young children to become a national class politician—the amount of time that it takes is just extraordinary, so women tend to come in later rather than earlier into political careers. But women in the Senate keep saying, "We're really different from the men in that we do talk to each other. We reach across party lines. We go out to dinner together. We hang out. We're capable of doing the kind of politics that voters say they want, but aren't getting from the guys who are currently in office." That's exciting. If they can pull that off, that's huge.

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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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