Women in the Workforce on the 50th Anniversary of ‘The Feminine Mystique’
12:30 pm, February 19th | by Colette McIntyre
Betty Fredian’s controversial and groundbreaking polemic on the unhappy housewife turns 50 today and while women’s labor-force participation has certainly increased since The Feminine Mystique was published, the traditional gender roles and beliefs that plagued Friedan and her fellow housewives have failed to disappear.
In 1963, the idea that women could be intellectually and emotionally fulfilled outside of the domestic space was revolutionary. At the time, society advocated a marital division of labor in which women abandoned all aspirations and ambitions outside of the home and tended to the chores and children. Husbands entered the workforce while wives were kept in suburban homes. Friedan kicked off the women’s movement when she dared to suggest that the suburban wife might want more. Loosely based on a survey of Smith College alumnae and Friedan’s own experiences as a 42-year-old mother and housewife, The Feminine Mystique explored wives and mothers’ doubts, frustrations, and unhappiness. In the text, Friedan identified the “problem that has no name,” the aimless dissatisfaction that married women felt:
Each suburban wife struggled with it alone as she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night. She was afraid to even ask of herself the silent question: “Is this all?”
The Feminine Mystique changed the way that women perceived their own roles and consciousness; societal attitudes towards gender and labor were challenged and shifted. Friedan’s text sold more than 3 million copies and became one of the most influential books of the Twentieth Century.
Undoubtedly the modern working woman is indebted to The Feminine Mystique and Friedan’s fight against sexist oppression. Yet, whereas Friedan’s band of feminists fought for entrance into the workplace, today’s fight is for a balance of roles. While The Feminine Mystique’s housewives wanted more, women now worry that they can’t have it all; we wonder whether it’s possible to step into the workforce without sacrificing the domestic sphere that women like Friedan liberated us from.
The egalitarian ideal that Friedan lobbied for has turned out to be more difficult to achieve than just a seat in a boardroom. When demands at home aren’t being met, more often than not, women are the ones who cut back or leave their jobs and fulfill the obligations at home. Women are still tethered to the domestic expectations that trapped Friedan’s generation; gender equality has failed to spread to questions of who is taking out the trash and which parent is picking the kids up from soccer practice. The result is the new phenomenon of “opting out“: in 2007, a smaller percentage of married women with children were working than in 1993; studies show that mothers are perceived as “less competent and committed” than non-mothers while the opposite is true for working fathers. We pretend that women have a choice in the matter, but the truth may not be so simple: almost 30 percent of mothers who wanted to re-enter the workplace were unable to do so and, of those who did return, only 40 percent found full-time professional jobs.
We have stopped short of facilitating true gender equality in the work place and the home by failing to implement policies that would make work-life balance easier to achieve. Almost two hundred nations — including “undeveloped” countries such as Haiti and Afghanistan — have laws that provide all women, and in some cases men, with both income and job-protected time off following childbirth; the United States does not. It has been more than 20 years since the US passed any major federal initiative to help workers achieve a work-life balance.
While we claim that expectations have changed since The Feminine Mystique was published and women are now free to be both mothers and CEOs, our policies certainly don’t reflect this. As Ann Marie Slaughter’s controversial Atlantic essay explored, the happy, “have-it-all” working woman may be — at the moment — just as mythical as Friedan’s happy, “this-is-all” housewife.
[Photo via Forbes]