In February 1963, the journalist Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, in which she described a malaise among American women: “The problem that has no name.” Narrowed expectations in American society, shaping women to be housewives and mothers, were preventing women from fulfilling their potential. Women felt they must conform to an image of femininity that limited their self-fulfillment and damaged their psyches. Originally subtitled “The Educated American Woman, Her Problems and Prospects,” The Feminine Mystique described and spoke mainly about the lives of white, college-educated middle- and upper-class housewives. Thousands of these women wrote to Friedan about their own experiences; some claimed that reading her book changed their lives. Friedan’s own life changed as she became an immediate celebrity and expert on “the American woman.”
The Feminine Mystique continues to reverberate through American culture. This year, the 50th anniversary edition of the book garnered reviews, essays, and commentary in almost every major American publication, both in print and online. The themes the book explored—gender, power, equality, and representation—remain contested matters in American society.
Betty Friedan donated her papers to the Schlesinger Library beginning in 1971. The collection (134 linear feet) includes correspondence, original manuscripts, photographs, organizational records, audiotapes, and other material. This exhibit traces The Feminine Mystique from Friedan’s initial research and drafts to the book’s 50th anniversary edition. Links with the contemporary President’s Commission on the Status of Women, also celebrating its 50th anniversary, are explored. A necessarily selective history, the exhibit highlights the book’s role as both a catalyst and a reflection of changing ideas about gender.
It Changed My Life: The Feminine Mystique at 50 will be on view on the first floor of the Schlesinger Library during regular library hours: Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.