Fifty Years after The Feminine Mystique

What’s Changed at Home and at Work?
Betty Friedan with her husband, Carl, and their son Daniel, the first of their three children. The Friedans divorced   after 22 years of marriage. Photo from the Papers of Betty Friedan, Schlesinger LibraryBetty Friedan with her husband, Carl, and their son Daniel, the first of their three children. The Friedans divorced after 22 years of marriage. Photo from the Papers of Betty Friedan, Schlesinger Library

“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women.”— opening line of The Feminine Mystique


As the repository of Betty Friedan’s papers, Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library had good cause to recognize the first 50 years of her pathbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique. The library marked this anniversary with an exhibit drawn from Friedan’s papers and with a panel discussion at which two scholars spoke passionately about the gains women have made in the past several decades and the challenges that still remain.

“This is not your grandfather’s patriarchy,” said Stephanie Coontz, who teaches at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and whose most recent book is A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (Basic Books, 2012). She outlined the strides women have made, including earning more college degrees than men. Nonetheless, she said, “at every level of education, the average woman, working full-time, still earns less than the average man with the same credentials.”

One area where women have lost ground in the past 10 years, Coontz said, is reproductive rights, and not just on controversial issues such as abortion, but on matters about which most Americans agree, such as access to contraception.

Ariela Dubler ’94, the George Welwood Murray Professor of Legal History at Columbia Law School, agreed with Coontz that much has changed for women in the past 50 years. She said she is struck, however, by the “gendered” conversation that still occurs in this country about women at home and work. “The message that home and work conflict is conveyed uniquely to women,” she said. “No one ever told me not to use big words, but many people told me not to have a baby before I got tenure. Many well-intentioned people.”

Dubler is currently writing a book titled “The Parental Difficulty,” about the ways in which the law has contributed to our understanding of mothers’ and fathers’ roles at home and at work.

Search Year: 
2014