Fifty years ago, on February 13, 1963, the publication of US writer and activist Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique sparked a new awakening in the thinking of women across North America.
Friedan denounced the repression women suffered in the aftermath of World War II, when they were forced out of wartime jobs and convinced to accept the role of keepers of the home.
Profiteers of the market launched an unrelenting but subtle propaganda campaign to venerate women as wife and mother. This role, Friedan said, was the “feminine mystique”.
This domestic existence became, Friedan wrote, “a religion, a pattern by which all women must now live or deny their femininity”. In submitting to this concept of womanhood, women gave up their self-respect, recognition of their talents and abilities, and — most importantly — their identities. Fundamentally, Friedan said, this was a scam to sell more consumer goods to women, who were to be the major purchasers for home and family.
The middle-class women living in their complacent homes, Friedan explains, found it impossible to adjust to them because of their narrow sphere of existence. They were very unhappy and dissatisfied, but they were unable to identify their dilemma — which Friedan called, “The problem with no name.”
I was 22-years-old when Friedan’s book came out. I quickly bought a copy and read it with excitement.
True, I was already for women’s rights and did not orient to a life as wife and mother. Also, she didn’t talk about how the feminine mystique was related to segregation against Blacks or laws against women’s reproductive rights, issues so important to my generation. And her focus was on educated, middle-class women — not my milieu at all.
But what she wrote rang a bell. I recalled my father, in the late 1950s, berating me about my role as a woman in society. “For females to be anything other than nurturer, wife and mother is unnatural,” he would roar. The conflict went on for years and caused me a lot of grief.
Friedan’s book told me that my teenage problem was not personal; it reflected pressure on women right across the society.
My family had suffered from the McCarthy witch-hunt against “reds” in the 1950s and the Cold War. These threats hung heavy over the future of young people, who became known as the “silent generation”. I saw a parallel here. McCarthyism took aim against freedom of speech and association; the feminine mystique bore down on women’s freedom to be themselves.
A year after Friedan’s book appeared, I read an article by the socialist anthropologist Evelyn Reed that told me more about the link of the feminine mystique and right-wing ideology.
The program of pushing women back in the home was the very one that Hitler promoted in the 1930s with his “Three K’s: Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, cooking, church),” Reed explained. This same package was now being sold to American women.
It was progressive middle-class women in North America, Reed wrote, who “led an inspiring ‘feminist’ struggle for women’s rights in the previous two centuries. Out of those battles, they won the right to higher education, participation in production, professional careers, independent ownership of property and the vote.”
The history of these pioneer fighters for women’s rights were given the deep-six, Reed explained. “Fighters for women’s rights were portrayed as ‘embittered sex-starved spinsters’ incapable of fulfilling their ‘femininity’ as wives and mothers.”
These women had been inspired and “spirited women” who had the “unforgivable traits” of “enjoying their participation in the struggle for social change,” Reed said.
The feminine mystique had set a “pattern of behaviour and aspiration” for working-class housewives, Reed said. Working women thought they could have a better life as a full-time housekeepers and mothers. But now Friedan’s book was promoting a new rise of feminism.
When I joined the US Socialist Workers Party in 1959, I read Frederick Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Through it I understood how women’s oppression was rooted in capitalist society and their liberation would come through socialism.
The SWP was always for women’s rights, but didn’t put this into practice. This changed at the rise of the feminist movement, which demanded that the party put its words into deeds. The party began to learn from feminism and to change before my eyes.
We understood feminism as support for women’s liberation and opposition to male chauvinism — what is now called “sexism”. I was a feminist — a socialist feminist.
A new layer of young women rose out of the campaigns for civil liberties, against the bomb, and for Black rights. These women were displaying what Reed had called the unforgivable trait of enjoying their participation in the struggle for social change.
Our battle cry for women’s equal rights, for birth control and control of our own body, for sexual choice, child care, equal opportunity in education and in the job market, reverberated in the socialist organisations.
A new code of conduct was established in the SWP whereby violence by members against women was no longer permitted, including within the confines of private life. This new norm was effective because it was supported by mass sentiment across society as a whole.
Women had kept the party going on a daily basis. They had always led the subscription campaigns, fund drives, and organisational campaigns, and did a lot of administrative work. But they received little recognition from the leaders, who were men. It wasn’t until the rise of the women’s movement in the 1960s that we won a new respect.
Women were elected to the national leadership, first as alternates but nonetheless with recognition. Young women were joining the party in larger numbers, and they insisted on this change.
The party plunged into the struggle for women’s rights. It published books and pamphlets on women’s fight for equality. Women were encouraged to express their and the party’s ideas.
The party embraced affirmative action: every branch promoted women who showed interest or talent in leadership. I became head of typesetting in the party print shop and was then celebrated as the first woman operator of the web press in the State of New York.
My printshop career reflected the way women, by the end of the 1960s, were pushing their way into careers previously closed to them: in law, medicine, and other professions, and also in industrial jobs with equal pay. When I left my printing post, I became an oil refinery worker in Louisiana and later Virginia.
Of course, I had co-workers who could not accept this change and fought the integration of women just as they had fought the integration of Blacks. But as women on the shopfloor, we felt we had rights as part of a national women’s movement, and we stood our ground.
Today, Friedan’s Feminine Mystique is remembered as the book that helped launch the “second wave of feminism” in the 1960s. Led initially by privileged, educated women, this movement expanded to embrace women students and workers — a mass movement that effectively gave the feminine mystique a good kick and opened up a world of new opportunities for women.
Although today, we have not gone backward to the feminine mystique, we have lost much ground on the rights we won then. We continue to struggle for the right to control our own bodies, against violence to women, for equal recognition of women as human beings, and for a socialist world that will bring liberation to all.