Last Friday, exactly 53 years ago to the day, a book was published that started by asking the question, “Is this all?” The book, written by Smith College graduate Betty Friedan, is called “The Feminine Mystique” and it is generally considered to have launched a revolution that changed society in America and around the world.
Friedan based the book on a survey she did of her classmates at their 15th reunion in 1957, at which she asked her telling question. At that time women were assumed to be content with their lives if they had a husband, a home and children. The answers she received proved otherwise. For this sample of women, that was resoundingly not enough, and from those answers and her own experience she began to advocate that women be educated not to get a husband but to be an individual. To women today, this thesis seems obvious, but at the time of her book, Friedan’s message was greeted with astonishment. She was overturning the role of women in society that had existed for pretty much all of recorded history.
The same week Friedan’s book came out, my husband and I were married in a beautiful wedding that my parents made for us in New York. That night, we flew to Chicago where my husband was finishing school. I immediately got a job to support us until he graduated and we returned to New York. Were Friedan’s words ringing in my ears? Hardly, for I had recently graduated from a college whose president had repeatedly delivered that same message. These were Barnard College President Millicent McIntosh’s words:
“Don’t make your goal in life simply to find a husband. You cannot know what lies ahead for you. You may not find that special person, you may get divorced or be widowed. Prepare yourself for the future by getting a good education.”
How true! I was able to support us in those early years because of my education and was able to carry on and care for my family after my husband died at an early age because of my solid identity. All widows eventually do this. It certainly helped to be prepared.
When the youngest of my three children started first grade in 1976, I launched my own business. It was the hometown newspaper you are now reading 40 years later. Within five years after I stepped back into the workplace, women had indeed “left their kitchens,” as Republican presidential candidate John Kasich controversially said this week, to get jobs outside the home. Some started businesses of their own. Some of those women, wives and mothers, helped me immeasurably to grow my business. Women were hungry for a creative role and an individual existence outside the home in addition to their meaningful work maintaining the family.
When more women began to work and the idea of wives earning salaries became more acceptable, the two-paycheck families became the norm. This in turn brought forth all sorts of new issues: latchkey children, gender equality in the workplace, redefinition of roles within marriage, glass ceilings, higher divorce rates, balancing work and family for women and men, the child care industry. All are familiar themes to us now.
In a way, my life and those of my contemporaries span the dramatic changes Friedan’s book and McIntosh spoke of, for we are living examples of those truths.