Movements for Change Against ‘A Problem that has No Name’
Written by Rehana Akudi
20th January 2020
In 1963, feminist writer and psychologist, Betty Friedan penned a controversial book that revolutionised how women viewed their role and identities. This book was titled The Feminine Mystique, which became a landmark and catalyst for the feminist movement. As many despondent housewives turned the pages of their copies of the bestseller, women across America identified with Friedan’s work on how deeply dissatisfied they were with accepting their traditional roles.
The American suburban housewife, considered the dream and goal for many, achieved an almost cult-like status during the 1950s. The ideal woman was portrayed by magazines, billboards and television advertisements. Even school home economics books taught young school girls:
Have dinner ready, prepare yourself, prepare the children, minimise all noise, be happy to see him, listen to him, make the evening his.
Suburban life grew rapidly post WWII, where it had offered the lure of home ownership to many middle and upper class Americans. By 1960, 19 million more people had lived in suburbs than in 1950. The pattern of suburban life was similar, despite race and class. The husband was the breadwinner and went out to work, whilst the woman stayed at home and looked after the house and children. Better-off women would have cleaners and most suburban housewives had labour-saving devices like a washing machine. Working women were excluded from friendship groups, or if they did not conform to demands like cutting the grass to a specific length, not having fencing or correct nap times for babies. Popular magazines would portray images of usually a doting white woman preparing a candle-lit dinner for her husband with the slogan: A Tempting table for his Highness. The media glorified the role of a traditional woman as the life to aspire to.
Frustrated with the status of a homemaker, Friedman sought out to discover the opinions of several of her old university educated classmates through a questionnaire on education for women. From it, she realised that they all shared the same feelings of discontent of their narrow roles. In her book, she laments over societal pressures,
What kind of woman is she if she did not feel this mysterious fulfilment waxing the kitchen floor? She was so ashamed to admit her dissatisfaction that she never knew how many other women shared it.
Friedan attacked the notion that women could only find fulfilment in the home as a housewife and mother. She urged women to discover and seek who they really were by not relying on their husband or devoting themselves to just their children.
The banality and limits of a domestic life led to a wave that transformed the political landscape. Women were inspired by Friedan’s book to take action against this “problem that had no name” which was shared by a generation of young women.
On 30th June 1966, Friedan co-founded and helped create the National Organisation for Women (NOW). This became to be the largest organisation supporting women’s rights, goals and pursued equality for women in the workplace. “Equal pay for equal work” was one of their vocal slogans as by 1970, roughly half of the country’s women worked outside the home, but their income was only about 60% of what men earned in similar jobs. NOW suggested Bill of Rights for Women, which sought to have equal access to education and employment, maternity leave and reproductive rights. The movement put pressure on the government by litigation, holding meetings, demonstrations and collecting petitions.
Championing for the Equal Rights Amendment, the movement had resulted into a cross-examination of politics that benefited white men in particular and discriminated against women. In 1968, NOW won a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Ruling whereby women could be jailed for twice as long as men for a similar crime. By 1974, there were over 40,000 members in NOW. Betty Friedan’s name has become synonymous with equal rights and feminism.
Was Betty Friedan to women what Martin Luther King was to black people?
How influential was her provocative work?
Is this book still significant or relevant today for female empowerment?
There still isn’t an Equal Rights Act today. Does this mean that the women’s equality movements were a failure?