Betty Friedan first sent shockwaves across America in 1960, with an article in Good Housekeeping titled, “Women Are People, Too!” It asked the essential question for women at that time: Is this all there is?
It is difficult for us, born some 30+ years after this article was published, to imagine what that world was like. It is extraordinary how much the world has changed in such a short time.
There are no words for this search in the millions of words written for women about women these past 20 years in columns, articles, and books by experts that tell us that our role as women is to seek fulfillment as wives and mothers. The voices of tradition and the voices of Freudian sophistication tell us that we can desire no greater destiny than to glory in our role as women, in our own femininity. They tell us how to catch a man and keep him; how to breast-feed children and handle toilet training, sibling rivalry, adolescent rebellion; how to buy a dishwasher, cook Grandmother’s bread and gourmet snails, build a swimming pool with our own hands; how to dress, look, and act more feminine, and make marriage more exciting; how to keep our husbands from dying young and our sons from growing into delinquents.
They tell us — the psychologists and psychoanalysts and sociologists who keep tracing the neuroses of child and man back to mother — that all our frustrations were caused by education and emancipation, the striving for independence and equality with men, which made American women unfeminine. They tell us that the truly feminine woman turns her back on the careers, the higher education, the political rights, the opportunity to shape the major decisions of society for which the old-fashioned feminists fought.
Now a thousand expert voices pay tribute to our devotion from earliest girlhood to finding the husband and bearing the children who will give us happiness. They tell us to pity the “neurotic,” “unfeminine,” “unhappy” women who once wanted to be poets or physicists or Presidents, or whatever they had it in them to be. For a woman to have such aspirations, interests, goals of her own, the experts keep telling us, impairs not only her ability to love her husband and children but her ability to achieve her own sexual fulfillment.
How can a woman shut her ears to all the voices of the experts and listen instead to the voice inside herself that tells her something else? This is the question women are asking themselves and seeking to answer all over the country. I know, because in the past few years I have interviewed thousands of them. Sometimes a woman says, “I feel empty, somehow,” or “useless,” or “incomplete,” or she says it is “as if I do not exist.”
Good Housekeeping has run the piece again in their September 2010 issue. With it are comments from their readers at the time.
A sampling of how GH subscribers responded to Friedan’s article in 1960:
“I actually wept when I read it…. My own turning point came two weeks ago when I decided to start studying to be a doctor. These next four years, until my children are in school most of the day, are going to be very difficult, and I don’t know if I can do it — but at least I can try. Wish me luck!”
—Mrs. Michael J. O’Neill, West Redding, CT
“My deepest thanks. I am so sick of being told I should want to be “feminine” and enjoy the easy life my husband labors to give me. I don’t want an easy life built on somebody’s sweat. I want to be treated as somebody in my own right — because I am.”
—Irene Saylor, New York City
“I’m sick and tired of reading what women think. So Betty Friedan talked to hundreds of women? Well, she did not talk to me. What’s so terrible about housework? At least you can do it without even thinking. Try thinking about something else when your boss is dictating a letter to you. At home I’m my own boss.”
—Mrs. George M. Roesler, Jr. Victoria, TX
“It struck at the very heart of something that has caused me many hours of discontented soul-searching…. It’s good to know that I’m not an unrealistic, never-satisfied child in wanting something more, when I already have a wonderful husband and baby girl. But now, the really difficult job is mine — that of finding me.”
—Mrs. Joanne E. Shoestock, Drexel Hill, PA
Mrs. George M. Roesler, Jr. took issue with the aspersions cast on housework. At the time, no one said anything at all bad about housework. To do so was revolutionary, even sacrilegious. In order to make the point that housework was not all it was cracked up to be, women had to paint a very dreary portrait of it. Popular opinion has swung wildly from traditional gender roles to defiance-as-normality, and now it is settling somewhere closer to the middle. Mrs. Roesler, please be assured that your daughters and granddaughters now have the freedom to choose to work within or outside of the home, as they see fit. We are working hard to make sure no one casts aspersions on them for their choice.
The article became the jumping off point for Friedan’s landmark book The Feminine Mystique. She began this book with a chapter titled, “The Problem That Has No Name.“Again, Friedan examined the predicament of women who were told that wifely duties and motherhood were the pinnacle of their existence, only to find that this was not enough to nourish them intellectually, emotionally, or even spiritually.
Thank you, Betty. Thank you, GH, for giving her the opportunity to say what had been left unspoken for so long.