The Schlesinger Library exhibition It Changed My Life: The Feminine Mystique at 50 was open from October 1, 2013, through February 6, 2014 and is available online.
In 1963, journalist Betty Friedan described a malaise among American housewives who felt trapped by the expectation that they be fulfilled by the role of wife and mother. Friedan's assertion that women needed meaningful work to be fulfilled propelled her book to the best-seller list and began a national conversation about gender equality. The Schlesinger Library's exhibit, drawn from Friedan's voluminous papers, traces The Feminine Mystique from Friedan's initial research and drafts through its marketing and publication, and on to responses from readers, parodies, academic studies, and anniversary editions.
Betty Friedan was a freelance journalist with three children when she began the book that would be The Feminine Mystique. She tried to interest magazine editors in stories about the unhappy and unfulfilled educated wives and mothers she encountered among her Smith College friends and suburban neighbors. Ultimately she acquired a book contract and advance from W.W. Norton. In addition to reading the works of social scientists and conducting hundreds of interviews with women, Friedan analyzed advertisements, short stories, and feature articles in popular women’s magazines. Writing in longhand on yellow legal pads, Friedan wrote and rewrote numerous drafts. The text that was published in 1963 took Friedan more than five years to complete.
Promotion of The Feminine Mystique began before its publication. Several women's magazines published excerpts from the book in the months before its publication. These magazines received volumes of letters from readers. Some subscribers were outraged and others were thrilled by Friedan’s claim that being a wife and mother was not enough to give women satisfaction in life.
Friedan traveled across the United States to promote the book. The lecture bureau W. Colston Leigh billed it as a “provocative and profound evaluation of the dilemma of women in America today.” Publicity for Friedan’s appearances suggested that The Feminine Mystique would help women understand themselves.
The Feminine Mystique was a sensation among readers, and it changed Betty Friedan's life. She was sought by the media as an expert on women's status in America. Friedan capitalized on her fame to found and promote several organizations seeking political and legal equality for women: National Organization for Women, National Women's Political Caucus, and National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws.
President's Commission on the Status of Women
In December 1961, President John F. Kennedy established an advisory commission to assess the position of American women in society. The first commission of its kind, it was charged with developing "recommendations for overcoming discriminations in government and private employment on the basis of sex," and was made up of 26 legislative officials and civic leaders. Members included Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, a female senator, and two congresswomen, Radcliffe College president Mary Bunting and National Council of Negro Women president Dorothy Height. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the commission until her death in November 1962.
After meeting for two years, the commission presented its final report to President Kennedy on what would have been Eleanor Roosevelt's 79th birthday, October 11, 1963. The report explored some of the issues discussed in The Feminine Mystique, and it recommended a set of initiatives and policies—including affordable child care, paid maternity leave, and federal laws barring sex discrimination.
The Schlesinger Library holds a set of official records from the commission as well as the papers of eleven women who were closely involved with the commission.