Celebrating Women’s History Month: Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan was born in Peoria, Illinois, in 1921. She attended Smith College and spent time in New York as a reporter before marrying her husband in 1947.  After having her first child, Friedan found herself becoming restless at home. She wrote The Feminine Mystique, which became a huge hit. It is said to have created “a social revolution by dispelling the myth that all women wanted to be happy homemakers, and marking the start of what would become Friedan’s incredibly significant role in the women’s rights movement. The work is also credited with spurring second-wave feminism in the United States.” She co-founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 and served as its first president. Friedan also helped found National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America) in 1969 and the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.

For a woman who was expected to be ‘just a housewife’, Betty Friedan sure made her mark. Here is an excerpt from her groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique:

“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — “Is this all?”

For over fifteen years there was no word of this yearning in the millions of words written about women, for women, in all the columns, books and articles by experts telling women their role was to seek fulfillment as wives and mothers. Over and over women heard in voices of tradition and of Freudian sophistication that they could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity. Experts told them how to catch a man and keep him, how to breastfeed children and handle their toilet training, how to cope with sibling rivalry and adolescent rebellion; how to buy a dishwasher, bake bread, cook gourmet snails, and build a swimming pool with their own hands; how to dress, look, and act more feminine and make marriage more exciting; how to keep their husbands from dying young and their sons from growing into delinquents.

If a woman had a problem in the 1950’s and 1960’s, she knew that something must be wrong with her marriage, or with herself. Other women were satisfied with their lives, she thought. What kind of a woman was she if she did not feel this mysterious fulfillment waxing the kitchen floor? She was so ashamed to admit her dissatisfaction that she never knew how many other women shared it. If she tried to tell her husband, he didn’t understand what she was talking about. She did not really understand it herself. …

If I am right, the problem that has no name stirring in the minds of so many American women today is not a matter of loss of femininity or too much education, or the demands of domesticity. It is far more important than anyone recognizes. It is the key to these other new and old problems which have been torturing women and their husbands and children, and puzzling their doctors and educators for years. It may well be the key to our future as a nation and a culture. We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: “I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.”

 

And here’s a letter to Friedan from 1963:

23 April 1963 Leicester, Mass.

“For the last few years, I have been on the “old housekeeping merry-go round.” …I cleaned and cleaned…and then I cleaned some more! All day—every day. My mother had returned to teaching school when I was twelve, and I had resented it, and consequently vowed that when I married and had children I would make it my vocation. I was quite convinced that I was very happy with my role in life as we had our own home and my husband is a good husband and father and a very sufficient provider. However, one night last November, all Hell broke loose in my psyche. I was sitting calmly reading when I became overwhelmed with waves of anxiety. I couldn’t imagine what was happening… I visited my family doctor. He put me on tranquilizers and diagnosed it as a mild state of anxiety. However there was no explanation…I chose security over everything else…I felt I had something about it…I now have a goal and no longer feel like a vegetable.”

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