Fifty years ago: A book that changed lives

Books can influence us in many ways. Both fiction and nonfiction can have powerful effects on our psyche. (This is not about print vs e-books; that’s another essay.) Books by authors like Margaret Atwood, Alberto Moravia, Richard Powers and Virginia Woolf had an impact on me. And the history of the Spanish Civil War by Hugh Thomas opened a new window for me about political history. But none of them totally changed the way I viewed the world and my place in it as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique did.

friedan coverI can’t believe that this book was published 50 years ago. Because I can still remember my thoughts and feelings as I read it. I can remember the chair where I sat in the house on Maple Street in River Falls, Wisconsin. My memories of reading The Feminine Mystique are almost visceral in their power. (The book cover shown is my 1964 paperback. Yes, a book cost 75 cents then.)

Over the last few days, the book and its impact are getting some attention in the news media. Shockingly, the topic of women’s rights and woman’s place in the world is still subject to debate.

The most important thing about The Feminine Mystique is that it made me realize that my dissatisfaction with my stay-at-home-mom life was not without validity. I had a degree from the best journalism school in the country (yes, that would be Mizzou) and several years of newspaper and PR experience. And I spent my days taking care of home and two little boys (who now have their own boys). Until they went to school, part of the day’s routine was an hour for naptime in their room. Yes, I knew they weren’t sleeping, but it gave me an hour of peace. Soon after that, I found an excuse to go to work full-time when my husband needed to take a year off for graduate school. I worked in a series of great and challenging jobs for 47 years — without a break. I loved all my jobs until I retired last year.

In one of my essays in November, I mentioned some things I wasn’t allowed to do because I was a girl. But there were plenty of other issues later. Such as credit cards and bank accounts.  Everything was in my husband’s name. That’s the way it was. When I wanted my own Marshall Field’s charge card after I was separated from my husband, I had to argue with the credit department and prove to them that I had a job and was not being taken care of by a man. And did you know that help-wanted ads were divided between male and female jobs? Yes, there was a section headed Help Wanted—Women.  So even though there are still plenty of women’s issues to work on, some things have improved.

I’m glad to see that the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique is being recognized – and that it’s generating debate and discussion. There have been several articles recently that explore the book and these issues today. Here are three I like. Please add your own by commenting on this post.

“The Feminine Mystique Reassessed after 50 Years” by Jennifer Schuessler

“The Feminine Mystique at 50” by Gail Collins

“Why Gender Equality Stalled” by Stephanie Koontz

I see I have written a whole post without any reference to Bruce Springsteen or rock and roll. Hmmm. Well, I wasn’t a Springsteen fan 50 years ago and his first album (Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.) wasn’t released until 1973.  Sounds like another anniversary coming up.