'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?

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.

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.

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.

The Feminine Mystique was able to reach a broad audience, but today's media landscape is more fractured. Do you think something today could have the same kind of impact?

It's not just breaking books that are harder to produce now, it's TV shows—you don't anymore have TV shows everybody watches. The audience for everything is so much more narrow than it used to be because there's so much more stuff out there. I'm not sure the next big thing will be a book. There are a lot of great women bloggers. Maybe it'll be something else entirely. The great story of my generation is that everything changed. It was amazing. It created this platform that exists for this generation that they can leap off of and do whatever. It's exactly true in terms of books and media and journalism. People in journalism now are going to create a whole new structure. This generation has created a whole new way of talking and communicating. I have no idea how it's going to work out—I leave it entirely to you!

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity and length.