Leading supporters of the Equal Rights
Amendment march in Washington on Sunday, July 9, 1978, urging Congress
to extend the time for ratification of the ERA. From left: Gloria
Steinem, Dick Gregory, Betty Friedan, Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, D-N.Y.,
Rep. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Rep. Margaret Heckler, R-Mass.
In 1963, Betty Friedan called it "the problem that has no name"
and then proceeded to name it — and the name stuck. The problem was "The
Feminine Mystique," which was also the title of her groundbreaking
book, published 50 years ago.
Since its first publication in 1963, millions of people have read The Feminine Mystique.
These days, many people read it in college — often in women's studies
classes. Even so, when we talked with some young women in downtown
Washington, D.C., many knew little or nothing about it.
But today's young woman can be forgiven for not feeling the urgency to read The Feminine Mystique
that their mothers might have felt. It's probably hard for them to
understand the way things were when Friedan decided she had enough.
"There's very seldom that you get a book that is so of the moment," says New York Times columnist Gail Collins, who was a teenager when the book first came out.
was post-World War II America. The suburbs were growing exponentially
and the economy was booming. A lot of women had worked outside the home
during the war, and a significant number of women had gotten a college
education. Now, they were all being told to stay home and find their
fulfillment in taking care of their husbands and children.
moment was so pregnant and ready for an explosion," Collins says, "that
all you needed was somebody just sitting there and saying: Look at that ad. They think you are so stupid. They have contempt for you. They hate you. Take look at that again. That's all you needed."
When Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique
she was both a suburban housewife and a freelance writer who worked
mostly for women's magazines, which were run by men. The book, says
Collins, was neither a sociological tract nor a political manifesto.
Betty Friedan, co-founder of National
Organization for Women (NOW), speaks during the Women's Strike for
Equality event in New York on Aug. 26, 1970, the 50th anniversary of
"It's totally personal," Collins says. "You know the great
criticisms of the book over the years — all of which are certainly true —
that it didn't take into account working women, that it didn't take
into account minority women, those people are totally absent. Laws are
totally absent, discrimination in the workplace, none of that stuff.
It's all a very personal, white middle class, college educated woman's
howl of misery and anger at the place where she has found herself."
Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men,
was in her 20s when she first read the book. She was surprised by how
personal it was and by Friedan's anger as she systematically laid out
the case against a male-dominated society that was determined to keep
women in their place.
"We don't write with that kind of anger
and rage anymore," Rosin says. "It's not exactly sociological. It takes
on every element of society and explains who it colluded to create this
set of expectations for woman which were fake. I mean you suddenly feel
like ... you have been caught in a conspiracy. ... It came from the
magazines, it came from the universities, it came from our fathers, it
came from our mothers, it came from grade school. ... It came from every
level that there was — this collusion to feed this message."