Feminist Dream

05.25.134:45 AM ET

‘The Feminine Mystique’ 50 Years On: We’re Partway to Friedan’s Dream

Fifty years after Betty Friedan’s landmark book, how close are women to living her feminist dream? Writers Anna Quindlen and Gail Collins talk about how far we’ve come.

In the 50 years since Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, women’s lives have been transformed, almost entirely for the better. The college-educated suburban mothers that Friedan focused on suffered from a problem that had no name, a kind of malaise that stemmed from stunted ambitions. Family life wasn’t all that fulfilling, they wanted more, and they felt guilty for feeling that way. Friedan’s book let women know they were not alone, that what they were experiencing was universal, and that was hugely liberating for the women of America.

It was like a match dropped on dry tinder, igniting what we know as the women’s movement. Seldom does a book interact so powerfully with an historical moment, says New York Times op-ed columnist Gail Collins. Women went crazy for Friedan’s book. She would be criticized for not including women of color or poor women, but that was the strength of The Feminine Mystique, says Collins. “It was one primal howl” from a particular segment of society, middle-class women who had gone to college and were mad as hell about shelving their degrees.

Writer Anna Quindlen remembers seeing her mother reading a paperback copy at the kitchen table. “I’m 12, it was just so unusual,” she says. “My mother was a very quiet, somewhat anti-intellectual person, and to see her that engrossed in a book” challenged Quindlen’s view of the woman she assumed was content in her role as mother of five. The sense that there was something else going on “beneath the bedrock of our life” was both deeply troubling and exciting, says Quindlen. Years later, after her mother died, her father pointed out the draftsman’s table in the basement.

Quindlen’s mother had been the first and only female draftsman at General Electric, and she held on to the dream of someday going back to work. “This woman I always thought of in a maternity smock ironing was a draftsman,” Quindlen marvels. “But there was never any question that she would get married and have children,” she adds. It’s the classic dialectic, says Quindlen, with the thesis “wife and mother,” the antithesis, “no wife, no mother, just working people,” and maybe finally “synthesis where women can choose one from Column A and one from Column B.”

Collins and Quindlen wrote the foreword and afterword for a new edition of Friedan’s book, and they appeared together at a May 23 event sponsored by the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington. Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, moderated, and she steered the conversation from how much has been accomplished to the unfinished business of the women’s movement. Warner said her young daughters talk in the car about how mommies have to do everything and how hard it is to have a job and a family. “Do you have worries about what’s coming next?” she asked.

Collins noted that you can’t separate gender from what’s happening in the economy, and people at the upper end of the income scale are reverting to more traditional roles when one person, usually the man, is working 80 hours a week, and another person, usually the woman, stays home with the children. She recalled years ago at the Times when an editor’s wife, a rising star at the paper, accepted an assignment to cover the war in Kosovo for six months. Collins encountered the husband in the hall one morning, and he looked grim. What’s the matter, she asked. “My wife’s in Albania and the hamster is missing,” he replied, a line that could well be the title of a book summing up married life.

Today, Collins continued, young people are not following the normal pattern of marriage. Women ask, “What’s the value added of having this guy in your life?” She quoted a working-class woman from a New York Times piece who said, “It’s just like having another kid to take care of.” That got a rise out of Quindlen, who said, “If I were a man, I would be insulted.” A mother of three, including two boys, Quindlen said that if her sons miss out on family life because of some gender roles, “I’m not jumping up and down because it’s unfair but because it’s a blight on their lives.” The narrow little box of what we define as masculine is just as narrow and confining as the way we used to define femininity, she said. “We busted our box open, I’d like to see theirs change too.”

No conversation about the women’s movement can occur without mention of Hillary Clinton, whose evolution on the national stage is emblematic of the transformation that is possible, if not yet fully accomplished. The question, posed by a reporter from Politico: if Clinton runs, will there be a difference in the way her gender is discussed? Quindlen invoked the casualness of it all, the photo of Clinton on her cell phone that went viral, that seemed to say, “Me, just running the free world.” Quindlen said that when she gives a speech and is feeling a little parched, “all I say is, ‘Hillary in 2016,’ and the room goes wild,” providing ample time to quench her thirst.

If Clinton runs, there won’t be any talk about whether a woman can be president, Collins said. That concern was erased when she ran and nearly won the Democratic nomination in ’08 and was further wiped away with her performance as secretary of State. “There will be many issues around her candidacy. Gender will not be one of them,” Collins predicted. Friedan dreamed of a world where women didn’t have to choose between being a good leader and a good mother, and 50 years later, the evidence is in—we’re partway there.