It Changed My Life

The Feminine Mystique at 50
Betty Friedan in Israel, 1973. Photo courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryBetty Friedan in Israel, 1973. Photo courtesy of Schlesinger Library
By Jenny Gotwals, Lead Manuscript Cataloger, on behalf of the exhibit committee of Amanda Hegarty, Amanda Strauss, Sherrie Tuck, and Bruce Williams

As the repository of Betty Friedan’s papers, the Schlesinger Library is in a unique position to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her book The Feminine Mystique. We decided to install an exhibit in the library that focuses on the book’s backstory—the research Friedan conducted, the book’s publicity, and the public response to it.

Friedan kept voluminous drafts of the manuscript along with research notes on cards and scraps of paper. She also kept letters that readers wrote her over the years, reviews of the book, and event flyers. To tell the story of the book, we chose from thousands of documents. At least 25 boxes contain material related to The Feminine Mystique, and Friedan’s notes and drafts alone fill 14 boxes.

The exhibit begins with drafts of a questionnaire Friedan sent to her Smith College classmates; she wanted to assess their lives 15 years after graduation. The responses were one of the factors that led her to write The Feminine Mystique. Some of the questions seem obvious, rote. Others are puzzling 50 years later, such as “Do you put the milk bottle on the table?” We included an original questionnaire with answers in the exhibit, and created a facsimile of the original blank questionnaire for visitors to take with them. What questions might be asked today to elicit similar information? Beyond the obvious change in how milk is sold, do housekeeping decisions now function as a marker of social class or culture?

Most of Friedan’s notes and other informal writings appear in a scrawl that’s often difficult to read. She paid someone to type her drafts, and thus was forced to write the more complete drafts in a neater hand. When Friedan’s son Jonathan visited the library a few years ago, he most wanted to see drafts of The Feminine Mystique on the yellow legal pads he remembered so well from his childhood. Several pages of those drafts are displayed in the exhibit.

Friedan was a working journalist, but writing an entire book proved difficult for her. She submitted what she thought was a final manuscript in 1960, and her agent, Marie Rodell, delicately suggested that no publisher would take the book as it was. Friedan revised and revised, and in 1962 W. W. Norton signed on as publisher. To fuel interest in the book, Rodell sent excerpts to a number of prominent magazines. Many publications rejected them; several of these letters, some quite comical to the modern eye, are shown in the exhibit. McCall’s agreed to publish an adapted chapter and was deluged with letters from readers who were furious at Friedan’s suggestion that being a housewife and mother was not fulfilling.

Betty Friedan during a television interview, 1970s. Photo courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryBetty Friedan during a television interview, 1970s. Photo courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryThe Feminine Mystique caused a sensation. Friedan received thousands of letters from readers, many of whom told the ordinary, sometimes amazing, sometimes tragic stories of their own lives. To enable more of those letters to be seen, we have displayed a large selection of them on an iPad.

The exhibit also includes excerpts from several of Friedan’s radio interviews from 1960 to 1965. It is thrilling to hear her voice and enlightening to hear the interviewers. The questions, responses, and assumptions make clear the sort of world into which The Feminine Mystique burst. Women were expected to be satisfied in the roles of wife and mother, and Friedan’s claim that those roles were causing mental illness was shocking to many.

Gerda Lerner was just beginning her career as a historian when she wrote to Betty Friedan in March 1963. She praised the book but also questioned why Friedan had addressed only middle-class, college-educated women. “Working women, especially Negro women, labor not only under the disadvantages imposed by the feminine mystique, but under the more pressing disadvantages of economic discrimination,” she insisted.

If Friedan responded to this prescient critique, her letter has been lost to history. The Schlesinger Library also holds Gerda Lerner’s papers, but a reply from Friedan is not among them. Lerner’s letter is written on both sides of a sheet of paper. We scanned it, and a digital surrogate of page two is exhibited alongside page one so that visitors can read both.

In the decade after The Feminine Mystique was published, Friedan became involved in a number of organizations that worked toward women’s equality in America. Her status as a public figure brought attention to some of these groups. Thousands of women worked together to change or enact laws, hold protests, raise consciousness, and support women running for office. Writing a best seller changed Betty Friedan’s life, and the organizations she helped found contributed to changing the lives of many other American women.

The Schlesinger Library holds the records of the National Organization for Women, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now NARAL Pro-Choice America), and the National Women’s Political Caucus—organizations that Friedan was instrumental in founding and that continue to work for women’s rights.

From Friedan's Smith College class of 1942 survey. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryFrom Friedan's Smith College class of 1942 survey. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

the path of friedan’s papers

In August 1970, the Schlesinger Library first approached Betty Friedan about donating her personal papers as well as the records of NOW. The personal was never far from the political organization she was dedicated to. She had several offers for her archives but chose Radcliffe because of its convenience to students and activists and because of our dedication to both the organizational records and her personal papers.

The first 38 boxes came to the library in May 1971. Much of the material was boxed and sent by Friedan’s assistants. In some cases, boxes were filled with small notes on scraps of paper, as if Friedan or someone else had swept them from a table and sent them directly to the archive.

The last material came in 2007, a year after Friedan’s death. The collection now totals 134 linear feet of paper, 151 sound recordings, 62 videotapes and other film material, and hundreds of photographs.


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