In 1957, as her 15th college reunion was approaching, writer Betty Friedan (February 4, 1921 — February 4, 2006) set out to survey university graduates about their education, life after college, and their present life-satisfaction. In a series of articles, Friedan noted a recurring pattern — the quiet, recondite, yet intense unhappiness of women in the golden age of the housewife. Termed “the problem that has no name,” it spurred an outpour of passionate responses from women for whom it resonated deeply. Friedan wrote:
The shores are strewn with the casualties of the feminine mystique. They did give up their own education to put their husbands through college, and then, maybe against their own wishes, ten or fifteen years later, they were left in the lurch by divorce. The strongest were able to cope more or less well, but it wasn’t that easy for a woman of forty-five or fifty to move ahead in a profession and make a new life for herself and her children or herself alone.
In 1963, after witnessing the profound cultural resonance of the topic, Friedan reworked the articles into The Feminine Mystique, which went on to ignite the second wave of modern feminism and to become the most influential book on gender politics in contemporary history. It championed women’s reproductive rights, called for better education, criticized workplace laws and cultural attitudes towards childcare responsibilities and, above all, advocated for women’s right to freely explore the fundamental question of what it means to live a full life.
Each suburban wife struggles 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 ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?’
In 1970, on the 50th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted American women the right to vote, Friedan organized the nation-wide Women’s Strike for Equality. It culminated with a New York City march led by Friedan herself, which drew 50,000 women and men and became one of the largest marches in history. The following year, she and other front-line feminists founded the National Women’s Political Caucus and continued to work tirelessly for the full inclusion of women in mainstream society.
Friedan passed away on her 85th birthday, bequeathing a powerful legacy that shaped the feminist movement not merely as relentless advocacy for women’s equality but as enduring protection and celebration of the human spirit.
Learn more: Wikipedia | Autobiography
There’s a legendary story about milk bottles and the college reunion. Have yet to see it in any of the Feminine Mystique stories, so it may just be Smith lore.