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The Persistent Mystique

For Christmas, my youngest son gave me a copy of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. It was first released in 1963, when I was a toddler. My mother read it after she had my younger brother, her third and final child. She told me last week that the book “turned her world upside down.” And I can see why. It was and continues to be a book that questions women’s place and role in society – and while it was published more than a half century ago, its findings still prove true today.

What The Feminine Mystique explores is the time period after World War Two, when women were expected to be content with marrying young, having children, and keeping house. It was a myth launched and propelled by women’s magazines, which were increasingly written by men, Friedan discovered. And she admitted, as a magazine writer herself, that: “I helped create this image. I have watched American women for fifteen years try to conform to it. But I can no longer deny my own knowledge of its terrible implications.”

What was it that American women were trying to conform to? “The image of woman that emerges from this big, pretty magazine (McCall’s 1960) is young and frivolous, almost childlike; fluffy and feminine; passive; gaily content in the world of bedroom and kitchen, sex, babies, and home…the only goal a woman is permitted is the pursuit of a man.”

“Where is the world of thought and ideas, the life of the mind and the spirit?” Friedan, a 1942 Smith College summa cum laude graduate, asks.

What I wonder is how far these magazines and their impact on American women have come – or not come – since 1960. Yes, there are magazines geared toward the working woman who is looking to “do it all.” But most of the taglines I see have more to do with flat abs, fuller breasts, easy weeknight recipes, weight loss strategies, and make up tips than anything thought provoking, ethically challenging, or marginally global in scope.

In 2016, women can pursue a meaningful career, as long as they are also able to care for the children and run the household or find (and justify the expense of) someone who can. Women are accepted in the workplace, even though they do not make as much money as their male colleagues. And we have more freedom to choose what we wear, although fashionable clothing for women continues to cling and reveal. Much of what Betty Friedan, founder of the National Organization for Women, started in the 1960s is just as desperately needed today.


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