“The Feminine Mystique,” by Betty Friedan, was published 50 years ago last month.
Friedan was a native of Peoria. Her groundbreaking work emerged as my mother and her contemporaries raised children, maintained a household, and provided logistical support to a husband. Women like my mother looked forward to dinner and a cocktail out on Saturday night as the only regular escape from the grind of domesticity. “The Feminine Mystique” said out loud what many of these women were thinking: “Is this all there is?” After Friedan’s book, women knew they were not alone if they found the domestic life to be less than completely fulfilling.
I had a brief encounter with Betty Friedan about 20 years ago, when we both lived in the same Washington, D.C. apartment house. The building was home to a lot of interesting folks, including cabinet secretaries, the attorney general, and even a deposed president of Haiti. Running into these people in the common spaces of the building was a strange experience – you found yourself doing something ordinary in the presence of someone extraordinary.
One day, browsing in the book store on the ground floor of the building, I found and bought a copy of “Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel.” I was utterly absorbed in reading this childhood favorite of mine as I stepped into the elevator in the lobby. As the doors closed, I realized there was one other person in the corner of the elevator: Betty Friedan.
She was staring at me. Quickly surmising that she was curious about a grown woman reading a bright red book with a chipper illustration on the cover, I explained that I had not seen this book for many years and that it took me straight back to childhood. As I spoke, it even occurred to me in a vague sort of way that this was the perfect kid’s book to be caught reading by the mother of modern feminism. The steam shovel that saves the day, is, after all, a female named Mary Ann.
Sometime between her initial stare and my last word, however, Betty Friedan had quickly sized me up as a person with whom she had no interest in conversing. She did not say a word. My words petered out in the silence, and she got off the elevator a few floors later.
The encounter was one-sided to say the least, but still worth mentioning in the weekly call to Mom. It turns out that my mother actually owns some jewelry purchased from Betty Friedan’s father, who was a Peoria jeweler. For reasons I don’t really understand, learning this piece of information prompted me to write Betty Friedan a note, thanking her for what she did for my mother’s generation, and mentioning our vast common ground. I did not receive a reply. To this day, I feel strangely honored that I had close enough contact with Betty Friedan to have experienced what was said to be her legendary lack of social skills.
I didn’t think a lot about what feminism had done for my generation back then, but I appreciate it now. My mother was a Spanish major at Northwestern University who was recruited by the CIA for her language skills. My grandfather, who was otherwise in awe of his brilliant daughter, would not send her to law school on the basis that his tuition money would be wasted when she got married and started having children. Today, almost half of law school students are women. And my mother has two daughters who became lawyers.
It must be said that the women whose lives were most changed by Friedan’s book and what came after it were educated, middle-class women. They gained the social and economic freedom to decide how much they worked outside the home and whether or not they would primarily raise their children. The women whose lives do not seem to have changed for the better are a step down the economic ladder, working the equivalent of two or three full-time jobs without the economic ability to subcontract cleaning, cooking, or quality child-care.
I’ve been on both sides of this coin as a working woman and a mother. I believe we have come a long way but have much further to go. As we celebrate the anniversary of a very important milestone in the feminist revolution, let’s remember the women who do it all -- the child-rearing job, the house-maintaining job, and the paying the bills job – not because they want to, but because they have to. Maybe somebody should write a book for them.
Alison Vawter is an attorney and mediator in Macomb.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.