Betty Fredian’s controversial and groundbreaking polemic on the unhappy housewife turned 50 yesterday and while women’s labor-force participation has certainly increased since The Feminine Mystique was published, the traditional gender roles and beliefs that plagued Friedan and her fellow housewives have failed to disappear.
In 1963, the idea that women could be intellectually and emotionally fulfilled outside of the domestic space was revolutionary. At the time, society advocated a marital division of labor in which women abandoned all aspirations and ambitions outside of the home and tended to the chores and children. Husbands entered the workforce while wives were kept in suburban homes. Friedan kicked off the women’s movement when she dared to suggest that the suburban wife might want more. Loosely based on a survey of Smith College alumnae and Friedan’s own experiences as a 42-year-old mother and housewife, The Feminine Mystique explored wives and mothers’ doubts, frustrations, and unhappiness. In the text, Friedan identified the “problem that has no name,” the aimless dissatisfaction that married women felt:
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 even ask of herself the silent question: “Is this all?”
The Feminine Mystique changed the way that women perceived their own roles and consciousness; societal attitudes towards gender and labor were challenged and shifted. Friedan’s text sold more than 3 million copies and became one of the most influential books of the Twentieth Century.
Undoubtedly the modern working woman is indebted to The Feminine Mystique and Friedan’s fight against sexist oppression. Yet, whereas Friedan’s band of feminists fought for entrance into the workplace, today’s fight is for a balance of roles. While The Feminine Mystique’s housewives wanted more, women now worry that they can’t have it all; we wonder whether it’s possible to step into the workforce without sacrificing the domestic sphere that women like Friedan liberated us from.