Feminism’s Turning Point

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published on February 19, 1963. Shots had been fired earlier, and fusillades followed, but Friedan’s book “pulled the trigger on history” (Alvin Toffler), scoring a direct and explosive hit on the belief that women should “desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity”:

For the first time in their history, women are becoming aware of an identity crisis in their own lives, a crisis which began many generations ago, has grown worse with each succeeding generation, and will not end until they, or their daughters, turn an unknown corner and make of themselves and their lives the new image that so many women now so desperately need. In a sense that goes beyond any one woman’s life, I think this is the crisis of women growing up — a turning point from an immaturity that has been called femininity to full human identity.

In her 2006 memoir, Life So Far, Friedan describes how the feminist movement grew quickly through the mid-sixties, especially after the newly formed National Organization for Women (NOW) began to mobilize. If Friedan is right in thinking that “the women’s movement was and is the second chapter of the American Revolution,” its Boston Tea Party moment was in February 1967, when NOW took action against the sexist laws surrounding help-wanted ads — allowing airlines, for example, to use gender, age, and physique requirements in their ads to convey a “Coffee, Tea or Me?” image for stewardesses. “Looking back on it now,” recalls Friedan, “I marvel at our nerve”:

There were so few of us, but we organized simultaneous demonstrations at EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] offices all over the country and tipped off the television networks. In view of the cameras, we dumped newspapers all tied up in red ribbon tape at the feet of the government agents. I went with my bag of papers to see the head of the EEOC in New York and demanded that a hearing be held on the help-wanted ads and that the law be enforced on behalf of women. He thought we were cute and was utterly condescending, reacting to women speaking out as if he were hearing a dog talk.

In her Introduction to the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique, Anna Quindlen notes that the book is still a worthwhile resource for “the incomplete rebuilding of the social landscape it helped to level.” Over the past half century, the leveling and the rebuilding have continued on multiple fronts, and with mixed results. In Teach a Woman to Fish, the prominent women’s advocate Ritu Sharma — she co-founded the influential Women Thrive Worldwide organization — presents numerous case studies demonstrating how gender equality has and has not improved in countries initially resistant to it. “Nothing fits me as well as a Victoria’s Secret bra,” begins the chapter “Two Cups of D,” Sharma’s investigation of employment conditions in several Sri Lankan lingerie factories which make those bras. Sharma describes how the factories have introduced principles and practices that have fundamentally improved and empowered the lives of female employees. But Sharma offers overwhelming evidence that much more needs to be done, and that the Western consumer must help do it:

There are thousands of people in corporations across America that spend every day worrying about what you think: of their products, of their ads, of their packaging, and on and on . . . So let’s whisper something new in corporate ears. If enough of us shoppers asked about how corporations treat women, take care of the environment, and protect human rights, I guarantee you that they will respond — and fast.