Say It Ain't So!

Betty Friedan died over the weekend. This makes me sad because I only got to know her just a few months ago.

Friedan wrote the monumental work, The Feminine Mystique, a book that scrutinized the "happy housewife" role that was idealized in the post-WWII era. In the 1940s and 1950s, American society and culture promulgated the ideology that a woman should find ultimate fulfillment in baking, cleaning, raising strapping young Boy Scouts and little debutantes, and choosing new appliances for her kitchen. Satisfaction lied solely in the home where she picked up after the kids and helped her husband achieve a promotion. Her measure of worth was based upon the succulence of her souffle and the cleanliness of her home. Sure, women could pursue a higher education, but college was really only a finishing school where they found husbands. Dreams of a career--or even just pursuing a hobby outside of sewing and crotcheting--was out of the question.

Mystique consequently opened the eyes of an entire generation of housewives and their daughters. In the book, Friedan describes "the problem without a name," or in other words, the struggle women faced when they could not find ultimate satisfaction in the home. They felt empty. They loved their children and their husbands, but there was something missing. The pressures of society had led them to get married young and to produce babies quickly, but in the process they had given up their dreams and ambitions. Or even more sadly, they were never given the chance to discover and build their individualities. Their lives were prescribed to them, and now they were suffering.

In the forty years since The Feminine Mystique was published, women now make up a healthy percentage of the workforce and interestingly enough, more women attend college than men. From grades kindergarten to twelfth, young girls are taught that they can indeed achieve any dream they have. There have been female astronauts, scientists, doctors, lawyers, politicians. And in Washington today, a black woman holds the position of Secretary of State and rumors are bubbling that Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2008. All of this in a short forty years!

I often forget that only a few decades ago, the opportunities offered to women were slim and bleak. As a child of the eighties and nineties, I have always been raised with the belief that I can accomplish whatever I set my heart to do. The American society I live in today pushes women to achieve their dreams--and how often I take this for granted! Undoubtedly, glass ceilings and discrimination still exist, but how liberating it feels to live in a country where my worth is not measured upon how well I cook or clean.

Perhaps the greatest contribution Betty Friedan has given my generation of women is the ability to choose--we can choose to head into the workforce or stay at home with the kids. And if at any time we want to change our minds, we are free to do so. Friedan's work has thus paved the way for the equality of women in America. As Betty said to Life magazine in 1963: "Some people think I'm saying, 'Women of the world unite — you have nothing to lose but your men.' It's not true. You have nothing to lose but your vacuum cleaners."

Thanks, Betty! You will be missed.

***Thanks, Lex, for letting me read your copy of The Feminine Mystique!