Feminist writer and pioneer Betty Friedan died Saturday on the very day she turned 85 years of age. Her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, sparked a social revolution and became a manifesto for the rising movement later called feminism.
Her thesis was that American women were coming to recognize that the arena of the home, with the traditional role of wife and mother, was just not enough. As she famously posed the question, women were supposed to be asking, “Is this all?”
She argued that the period from the end of World War II to the early 1960s was a period of backward progress for women, who had been seduced into accepting the “domestic captivity” of the home:
In the fifteen years after World War II, this mystique of feminine fulfillment became the cherished and self-perpetuating core of contemporary American culture. Millions of women lived their lives in the image of those pretty pictures of the American suburban housewife, kissing their husbands goodbye in front of the picture window, depositing their stationwagonsful of children at school, and smiling as they ran the new electric waxer over the spotless kitchen floor. They baked their own bread, sewed their own and their children’s clothes, kept their new washing machines and dryers running all day. They changed the sheets on the beds twice a week instead of once, took the rug-hooking class in adult education, and pitied their poor frustrated mothers, who had dreamed of having a career. Their only dream was to be perfect wives and mothers; their highest ambition to have five children and a beautiful house, their only fight to get and keep their husbands. They had no thought for the unfeminine problems of the world outside the home; they wanted the men to make the major decisions. They gloried in their role as women, and wrote proudly on the census blank: “Occupation: housewife.”
Clearly, Betty Friedan intended to awaken women from their slumber and mobilize them into a new and powerful social force. She served as the first president of the National Organzation for Women, which she founded in 1966. She was a prominent advocate for abortion rights, serving as a founder of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, now known as “Naral Pro-Choice America.” She was also a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus.
She did have a way with words. She once quipped: “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.”
Feminism did become a very powerful social force, but Ms. Friedan was later to wonder aloud where the movement was headed.
In any event, the death of Betty Friedan reminds us that the modern feminist movement’s beginnings can be traced directly to a deep dissatisfaction with the arena of the home — and to the denial of the roles of wife and mother as truly satisfying, truly important — and truly worth the devotion of a woman’s life. The contradictions of modern feminism grow directly out of this conflict. The real cultural revolutionaries of our time are the women who claim and fulfill their roles as wife and mother as sacred callings to be treasured.
Feminism promised women more than that, but gave them so much less.