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The ever more volatile civil rights movement “caused a deep consciousness-raising,” Christiansen said, as did the emerging antiwar movement, which had a strong vein of sexism. Women were more educated, yet still had few opportunities to apply their knowledge.
In October 1963, the final report of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women was published. The commission, which first met in 1961, was in no small part the result of Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt’s widow, agreeing to throw her considerable political capital toward Kennedy’s election campaign in exchange for him supporting women’s rights.
While the report recommended affordable child care, paid maternity leave and equal hiring practices, it was silent on the issue of the Equal Rights Amendment — which had been introduced to Congress in 1923.
Foot-dragging on recommendations as basic as prohibiting pay discrimination where men and women did similar work made the fuse of feminism burn with more heat. One result was the National Organization for Women, or NOW, founded in 1966 with Friedan as its first president. From 28 women, the group has grown to more than 500,000 members, with chapters in every state fighting discrimination in the workplace, schools and the courts, maintaining women’s reproductive rights and advocating for lesbian rights.
In 1963, though, such work was in the future.
May said she’d once gotten to read letters sent to Friedan about “The Feminine Mystique.” “I was struck by how so many of them said, ‘It’s too late for me, but it’s not too late for my daughter.’ ”
Daughters weren’t the only ones inspired to reject traditional women’s roles. Some men also responded to the emancipatory rhetoric. “Even fathers were saying, ‘Don’t join the rat race; it’s killing me,’ ” May said, noting how men also felt a social strain to support their families without being seen as “needing” to let their wives work.
The movement, founded by middle-aged women, seeped into younger generations.
May, an 11th-grader in 1963, recalled protesting her school’s dress code for required skirt lengths, while boys protested for the right to grow their hair longer.
Christiansen suggested that this particular fuse of feminism ultimately kept sparking, becoming a force behind the men’s movement that began gaining traction in the mid-1970s — and perhaps saw its apex with Robert Bly’s “Iron John: A Book About Men” in 1990.
Friedan’s book “lit a fire of recognition,” she said. While any bra-burning was more metaphorical than factual, all sorts of constraints were being cast off, thrown onto kitchen floors whose gleam was fading.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185