When Betty Friedan (1921-2006) attended her fifteenth college reunion at Smith College, she conducted a survey among her fellow alumni. What the women she spoke to had to say about the state of their lives eventually became a book that, upon its release in 1963, would spark a national debate about a woman's role in American society. The Feminine Mystique begins, famously:
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. 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 ask even of herself the silent question-"Is this all?"
"The book reached millions of readers," says Kenneth C. Davis. "Women were...suddenly discussing the fact that society's institutions-government, mass media and advertising, medicine and psychiatry, education, and organized religion-were systematically barring them from becoming anything more than housewives and mothers."
"I realized that it was not enough just to write a book," says Friedan. "There had to be social change. And I remember somewhere in that period coming off an airplane [and] some guy was carrying a sign." That sign, which read, "The first step in revolution is consciousness," inspired Friedan to puts words into action by founding the National Organization for Women, the National Women's Caucus, and the National Abortion Rights Action League.
Viewed through the prism of the twenty-first century, Friedan's critique appears obvious...even tame. But that is the essence of social change. Initially rejected, new ideas are typically co-opted and eventually taken for granted. Friedan and her book played their role, it's the work of today's feminists that takes the struggle to the next level.