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Exposing the Feminine Mystique

Although the beginning of the'60s showcased women in frilly white aprons, spatula in hand and crying child on hip, females hadn't been in such a role forever. During World War II (1941–45), women left the sphere of house and home and adopted what had been considered male roles in society. They worked in factories and kept America running as the country's young men headed off to war. The famous image of Rosie the Riveter comes from this period. Other women joined the armed forces, and although they didn't have combat roles, they made great contributions to the war effort as nurses, motor mechanics, weather forecasters, air traffic controllers, and radio/telephone operators. However, when the war ended and the GIs returned home, many women were forced to leave their jobs to make room for the returning soldiers.

Fast forward a few years to the 1950s, when the World War II veterans, many of whom had been to college on the GI Bill, were earning good salaries. To accommodate these upwardly mobile families, suburban housing developments were springing up to provide safe and affordable housing. Middle-class white women, lured by white picket fences, new laborsaving appliances, advertising and marketing messages, and the ideals presented on television adopted the roles of mother, helpmate, and homemaker to the exclusion of almost everything else. In fact, this view of the proper role of middle-class women in society became so pervasive that a woman choosing to remain single or to successfully pursue a career was looked on as either a pathetic spinster or a cold dragon lady.

The idyllic script for women's roles in society, of course, didn't apply to all women. Working-class and poor women of all races did just what they always did — they worked to survive and provide their families with the necessities. Often the work was backbreaking, demeaning, or mundane, and the pay was much less than a man would receive for the same job. At times, working conditions were brutal and unsafe. Their work was often treated as less than professional, thereby justifying the employers' desire to pay low wages and offer few benefits. For example, in the 1950s, black women often worked as cleaning ladies for more well-to-do families. Though the work was difficult and demanding, the families they worked for didn't even have to provide social security contributions for them.

Early in the'60s, suburban white middle-class women supposedly had it all. They didn't have to work, had lovely homes, beautiful children, attentive husbands, new cars, and an increasingly prosperous lifestyle. But even though life seemed heavenly, underneath it all, many of these women had vague feelings of uneasiness and boredom. They couldn't quite put their finger on it, but they had a sense that life must have more to offer than marriage, babies, and a well-ordered house. Many of these women were also well educated and somehow felt vaguely guilty that they'd abandoned their ideals and wasted their educations pursuing a life that would reach no further than the kitchen or the laundry room. They became resentful of the mind-numbing boredom of their daily routines. But how could they complain? They had everything they ever wanted.

In 1963 Betty Friedan put those unspoken feelings in print with the publication of her book The Feminine Mystique, bringing to light the dark side of the domestic dream. After the book hit shelves nationwide, nothing was ever the same. According to Friedan, the feminine mystique was the mistaken theory that marriage, homemaking, and childbearing were the ways that women could fulfill themselves. She contended that the media and advertising were the creators and purveyors of that vision as a way of maintaining demand for consumer goods.

In preparation for her revitalizing work, Friedan interviewed thousands of women, giving them the opportunity to say what they really felt about their lives. They reported that although they were happy with their families and felt that they'd achieved everything they ever wanted, something was missing. After talking to those women and hearing the same feelings expressed over and over again, Friedan had a title for the book's first chapter: "The Problem that Has No Name."

After the book was published, millions of other women recognized themselves in its pages. They remembered who they were in college and in their short-lived careers and wondered where their bright, stimulated, and interesting selves had gone. The Feminine Mystique led women to examine their lives, and the results changed American society. When women reconnected with their less domesticated selves and demanded gender equality in the family, workplace, and government, they instigated social changes that continued into the next millennium.

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