In 1963, when a suburban housewife named Betty Friedan asked, “Is this all?” the answer, first whispered over 5 p.m. martinis, eventually grew to the sound of a million women roaring.
Second in a three-part series
To understand the roots of feminism, you need to understand waxy yellow buildup.
That, in turn, requires grasping that kitchen floors once had to be polished, and that many women felt judged by how well their linoleum glowed.
So in 1963, when a suburban housewife named Betty Friedan asked, “Is this all?” the answer, first whispered over 5 p.m. martinis, eventually grew to the sound of a million women roaring.
Friedan posed the question in her book “The Feminine Mystique,” which explored the vague dissatisfaction many women felt within their seemingly contented lives — a condition that became known as “the problem that has no name.”
The book, spirited from kitchen to kitchen, proved immediately popular — thanks to the 1950s.
“To look at 1963, you have to look at the 1950s,” said Elaine Tyler May, a University of Minnesota professor and author of books about women’s rights, the birth control pill and more. “You contained all the anxieties of the age in the family.”
After the seeming blandness of the ’50s, families were dealing with a nuclear-war threat, budgeting to afford labor-saving appliances, moving to spanking new suburbs and grappling with marriages that were becoming far more sexualized.
Life may have felt like a pressure cooker, “but it was promoted as the good life, the fulfillment of pent-up desires,” May said. “But it was a framework that couldn’t hold.”
The ‘click’ effect kicks in
If there was an anthem to the cause of women in 1963, it may have been recorded by 17-year-old Lesley Gore.
In “You Don’t Own Me,” the singer declared her frustration with a boyfriend always telling her what to do and say, treating her as his to display.
You don’t own me, don’t try to change me in any way / You don’t own me, don’t tie me down ’cause I’d never stay.”
The song clicked with listeners, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard pop singles chart (just behind the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand”).
Adrienne Christiansen, an associate professor of political science at Macalester College in St. Paul, suggested that many events of 1963 had “this sort of ‘click’ effect” — separate influences coming together with a magnified impact.
Women, she added, had fought for their rights before, finally gaining the vote in 1920. They stepped up to work in factories during World War II (until the men returned home) and were involved in labor unionizing and the burgeoning peace movement.
Yet those decades may have seemed like “the feminist doldrums,” Christiansen said, because such work largely went uncredited. As the United States moved into the 1950s, and corporations competed to create new consumer needs, “we ended up with the mythology of this very white happy little homemaker whose greatest concern was waxy yellow buildup.”
This image was primed to explode.