(The following is a guest post by Audrey Fischer, editor of the Library of Congress Magazine.)
It’s been 50 years since pioneering women’s rights activist Betty Friedan stunned the nation with her controversial book, “The Feminine Mystique.”
In what became known as a manifesto, Friedan urged women to eschew the cult of domesticity and address “the problem that has no name”—the feeling among many 1950s housewives that something was lacking in their lives. Offering an antidote—the pursuit of higher education and meaningful work—she raised the consciousness of her generation and those that followed over the past half-century. (Note: The 50th Anniversary Edition of “The Feminine Mystique” has just been published by W.W. Norton).
My mother was one of those women. Friedan’s words sent her back to college in 1964 to finish what she started before she dropped out to marry and start a family. At 42, she became a New York City teacher, a career that fed her soul—and her family—and afforded her a comfortable retirement 25 years later.
Multiply my mother’s experience a million-fold over the past five decades (during which time 3 million copies of Friedan’s book were sold) and you have a seismic change in society—women entered the workforce in record numbers, men began to help with housework and child care, and, just a few weeks ago, the ban was lifted on women in combat.
Friedan’s book can’t be credited with all of these changes, but it certainly deserves to be one of “The Books That Shaped America” as it was recently designated by the Library of Congress, along with 99 other titles.
In what was one of her last public appearances, Friedan spoke at the Library on March 10, 2005, to mark Women’s History Month. She died on Feb. 4, 2006, her 85th birthday.
In her talk, the founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus and co-founder of NOW (National Organization for Women) lamented that “although women comprise 51 percent of the population they constitute only 12 percent of Congress.” With a record number of women in the Senate (20), the recently sworn-in 113th Congress has 101 women in its ranks (or about 19 percent) so progress continues to be made.
During her appearance at the Library, Friedan graciously signed my 1972 paperback copy of her book—purchased for $1.25 for a women’s studies class—thereby helping to shape me and another generation of women.