For the longest time, whenever I sat down to watch Julia Roberts’ Mona Lisa Smile, I had the sneakiest suspicion that I’d ‘seen’ this all somewhere. Or, that I had heard these women’s stories before. Here was one woman who’d led a mini-posse of younger women to rebellion against patriarchy – and the story, far commoner though it is now, was a hard fight in the 60s (the timeline Roberts’ movie used).
Then, one Saturday afternoon, I had one of those ‘ah-ha!’ moments while squaring away my oldest bookshelf. I found a dog-eared copy of a book that a college professor had recommended I read.
“You’ll realise that it means something else to you, at every stage of your life,” she’d told me as I’d scribbled The Feminine Mystique in an illegible scrawl on a piece of paper and rushed off to the library.
She was right, in that each time I’ve re-read that book, I’ve felt a different emotion: approval, disillusionment and making my peace with the thought that the author wrote it at a different time, in a different world.
Betty Friedan wasn’t an easy read – and I don’t mean the book.
But here’s the deal. A lot of men and women who choose not to identify as ‘feminists’, grasping at ‘far harmless’ straws such as ‘humanism’, fail to understand that life has been rendered easier in 2017, courtesy Friedan and her coterie in the mid-1900
s. Did you know, for instance, that Friedan was the first to verbalise the word ‘sexism’ when she wrote the chapter – ‘The Problem That Has No Name?’
On the 47th anniversary of the Women’s Strike for Equality – led by Friedan – here are a few facts you may not have known about the woman who began the second wave of feminism:
1. She Was Told to Read Less to be ‘More Feminine’
It is easy to figure where the first seeds of Betty’s discontent were sown. When she was younger, Friedan loved to read and would voraciously scoop up piles of texts to read. Her father, in fact, would pepper her with questions at the dinner table about current affairs and politics.
But it didn’t last. Her friends called her a ‘bookworm’ – not a gracious term at the time – and her parents were worried she’d seem too masculine for reading or knowing too much.
When she came home from the library loaded down with books, her father told her, “Five books at a time are enough. It doesn’t look nice for a girl to be so bookish.”
2. She Felt Guilty About Not Working
Friedan married an actor and stage producer Carl Friedan in 1947, and went on to mother three children with him. Friedan had, prior to the marriage, worked as a reporter in a number of news agencies, reporting on the issues plaguing working women – primarily that there was little space for them.
The first wave of feminism in the 1920s had ensured women enter the World War firmly in step with men; however, post-war, most had been expected to return to the “hearth and the home” making way for the men once again.
Friedan, post-marriage, immersed herself in community activities, et al.
But it wasn’t enough.
3. She Realised Her Classmates Were Dissatisfied Too
In 1957, Friedan’s alma mater – Smith College – asked her to prepare a questionnaire for her old batchmates, for their 15th college reunion.
Friedan felt vaguely guilty at this honour as she felt that she hadn’t realised her potential post college. At the time, a theory prevailed that higher education was preventing women from enjoying their “more traditional roles”, such as those of a mother and a wife. Betty posed pointed questions to her old graduating class and realised that they were all in the same boat.
These women were deeply dissatisfied with their lives – and Friedan made all of these responses a part of her seminal book, The Feminine Mystique in 1963 – dismissing the idea that women had to fit roles set aside for them by patriarchy.
The first few pages of her book had this powerful beginning:
“It was a strange... sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban [house]wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries… she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – ‘Is this all?’”
4. She Was Afraid Gay Rights Activists Would Hijack Her Movement
Friedan soon realised, after the success of her book, that words were no longer enough. She went on to co-found the National Organisation for Women (NOW) – which brought out the first Women’s March For Equality on 26 August 1970.
However, she constantly worried that the more radical undercurrents of the movement – such as gay rights – would undermine the movement and derail it. She’d once said, “the whole idea of homosexuality made me uneasy”.
Friedan did go on to change her stance later, but her homophobia wasn’t the only criticism levelled against her. The Feminine Mystique was criticised for its focus only on “middle-class, white women” – completely excluding women of colour and the lower classes.
5. She Didn’t Want to Shut Out Men
Friedan was clear that she wanted the status quo to change – but she wanted it to change with both sexes at the helm. She wanted men and women to share the power equally, and in an interview to Life magazine in 1963, made her position clear:
Some people think I’m saying, ‘Women of the world unite – you have nothing to lose but your men’. It’s not true. You have nothing to lose but your vacuum cleaners.
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