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.
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.