Betty Friedan: Is that all?

The sort of kitchen that should have made every American woman of the 1950s very happy.

Betty Friedan: ‘Is that all?’

‘It is ridiculous to tell girls to be quiet when they enter a new field, or an old one, so the men will not notice they are there. A girl should not expect special privileges, because of her sex, but neither should she “adjust” to prejudice and discrimination.’ Betty Friedan

Billie Jean King was a very famous tennis player and one of the most successful players in the history of the women’s game having won 39 Grand Slam titles, 12 in the singles with a further 27 in the doubles and mixed doubles. But despite these many triumphs, some of her most significant time on court came in an exhibition against a washed-up 55 year-old man who had challenged her to a match. It was 1973 and Mrs. King’s opponent was a former tennis champion called Bobby Riggs (1918-1995) who believed that women had no right to equal prize money with men as they were simply not good enough. Riggs had retired from tennis many years before and was well past his best but he had recently beaten the famous Australian Champion, Margaret Court. He was expected to win ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ against the 29 year-old King, the high profile leader of the campaign for equality in tennis. The match took place at the Houston Astrodome and attracted a record TV audience for a tennis match. Played over the best of five sets, King won in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 but the significance of the result went well beyond money, pride or fame.

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Billie Jean King, winner of the ‘Battle of the Sexes’. (Author: David Shankbone; Source: here)

Billie Jean King was challenged to game of tennis by Bobby Riggs because she was the most high-profile figure in the campaign for equality for women in tennis. More specifically she wanted equality between women and men not only in terms of prize money but also in respect and status. At Wimbledon in 1968, for example, the first time the tournament was open to professionals, the men’s champion won £2000 while the women’s champion won £750. The argument used was that the women’s champion had it a lot easier than the men’s as women played only three set matches while men played over five sets. Many women’s matches, especially in the early rounds, lasted barely an hour, such was the lack of competition, while the greater depth of ability in the men’s game meant that the champion could expect to have faced far greater challenges on his way to the title. This was the long established norm and one which most people saw no reason to change.

For Billie Jean King, though, this was all a matter of justice and equality so that, even before she had retired from playing, she moved in to the administration of the women’s game and set herself the target of achieving equal prize money with men. Over the years, progress on this matter was achieved until, in 2007, Wimbledon joined the US and Australian Opens in paying equal prize money to everyone, while the French Open paid equal money to the Champions. Billie Jean King was seen as a champion of the campaign for equal rights for women but she was not working alone nor acting in a vacuum. Her work developed out of her belief in the ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’ which had developed in the USA from the early 1960s. And that movement had begun with the 1963 publication of a book called ‘The Feminine Mystique’. The author was a woman called Betty Friedan and this section looks at her work.

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Betty Friedan (1921-2006) (Author: Fred Palumbo; Source: here)

Betty Friedan (1921-2006) was born in the city of Peoria, some 140 miles south-west of Chicago in the state of Illinois just after the Great War. She became a writer and journalist and had strong left-wing sympathies in her twenties and thirties. She was forced to leave her job as a journalist when she became pregnant for the second time in the early 1950s but she continued to write as a freelance journalist, being paid for each piece she did for any newspaper or magazine. Following a reunion of women who had been her classmates at college, a group who had lived through the boom years of post-war America, Friedan found herself both saddened and inspired by what she had heard them say. On the surface they were from an extraordinarily privileged generation that seemed to have everything they could want, having moved beyond the struggles of the Great Depression to enjoy homes, education and wealth on an incredible scale as the new middle-class suburbs spread across the USA. They had cars, TVs, gardens and parties. They went on holidays across the US and around the world, had a wonderful range of clothes and shoes and met up with friends for drinks on an almost daily basis. The extraordinary rise in the wealth of middle class America after World War II had given them many new and  improved labour saving domestic devices almost overnight. Their homes were filled with giant fridges, washing machines, vacuum cleaners and even pop-corn makers. By comparison with every previous generation, these women should have been positive, happy and, above all, fulfilled. But Betty Friedan’s conversations had revealed that, below the surface, many women in America were far from happy. She believed that her contemporaries from her college days had so much and yet they were deeply dissatisfied and unfulfilled; above all, they were bored.

This feeling led Betty Friedan to undertake a wide-range of research, thought and reflection. What was wrong? How had it happened? Was it true? Were her classmates a true reflection of what was happening across the USA? By comparison with their mothers and grandmothers, the women of the fifties and sixties seemed to have all that they could have dreamt of materially. In a time of extraordinary economic growth, unemployment was low, pay was rising and technology was making new goods available. Their husbands jobs meant that middle class women were expected to stay at home, leaving them with lots of free time to themselves. Smaller families, convenience foods and new technology meant a world of leisure opened up before them each day. However, with the shopping and housework done before lunchtime, those days often stretched out before them towards a tedious horizon. Friedan’s conversations and research revealed that daytime TV, charity work and ‘Tupperware Parties’ could only bring satisfaction to a few or for a short time; the materialistic dream had lost its appeal for many women in America.

Betty Friedan found that many of her contemporaries were deeply unhappy and confused because they lacked any sense of fulfilment, challenge and purpose. Women lacked opportunities for self-expression, intellectual growth and risk-taking. The social norms of the time were rooted in those of the previous generation which expected, or even demanded, that women were mothers, the figures who stayed at home, cooked and cared for their children, always at the service of their husbands. They were not expected to socialise alone. Their greatest satisfaction was to come through having children who did well at school and college, children who were neat and polite. If they had been given opportunities in education, they were still expected to forego these in favour of the traditional roles of housewife and mother. They were expected to be subservient to their husbands in all matters, be it finances, where to go on holiday, what to eat or who drove the car. Friedan saw that wealth had brought opportunity and time for the modern women but society had not moved with the changes so creating a vacuum at the heart of many women’s lives in the shiny, affluent suburbs of Middle America. On the back of these discussions, Friedan gave shape to the thoughts and feelings of millions of women in her ground-breaking book, ‘The Feminine Mystique’, one of the most important, successful and influential non-fiction books of the century.

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Many adverts encouraged the belief that a woman’s fulfilment was best expressed as a housewife and mother.

(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

‘The Feminine Mystique’ was a powerful book with a hard message which struck at the heart of American society. Friedan’s revolutionary analysis led to attacks on numerous people, groups and institutions: Sigmund Freud’s ill developed psych-analysis, pretty much all men for their role in oppressing women, the Government for its lack of support and intervention on behalf of women, big business for its employment policies, the churches for their teachings and the exclusion of women from power and even some women, for the way they created a myth of ‘proper’ womanhood. The book caused a sensation on its release in 1963, a year of turmoil, change and reflection in the USA. Friedan encouraged the reader to look at things with new eyes, to seek opportunities, to challenge the established attitudes, to see themselves in a more positive light and to demand new ways  of living as a woman. With titles like ‘The Happy Housewife Heroine’, ‘The Sex Directed Educators’ and ‘Progressive Dehumanization: The Comfortable Concentration Camp Summary’, the book almost courted controversy. Certainly few institutions, systems and values in Western society did not come under attack, either directly or indirectly. It was a controversial best-seller and Betty Friedan became a major figure in US society, loved and hated, admired and feared, in equal measures.

Betty Friedan’s main ideas included:

• Equality with men in terms of economic opportunity, meaning equality in wages because men were usually paid more than women for doing the same job;

• The right of women to develop a career path just as men could;

• The opportunity for women to have a voice and a say in affairs both in the home and community as an equal with men;

• The need for women to be able to work as well as to have a family because she saw the fulfilling of the traditional role of housewife and mother as being stifling for many women, especially where they had studied and were skilled to a high level: why should this all be sacrificed to raising a family? This was summed up in her famous question, the question that lurked in the back of many women’s minds as they shopped and cleaned, namely, ‘Is this all?’

• The right to legal abortion as she believed women should have control over their own bodies and the nature of her family commitments.

Many women responded to the book’s rallying call for a ‘New Plan for Women’ by putting Friedan’s ideas and analysis into action. For some this happened in relatively ordinary but significant things like the sharing of household chores, getting their own car or getting a part-time job. But a few women became more extreme in their approach, forming the small and notorious ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’ or ‘Women’s Libbers’. They were a little like the Suffragettes had been in Britain, when they used violence and aggression as they campaigned to win the vote for women half a century before. Although small in number, the Suffragettes tactics ensured that they started many debates and attracted lots of attention in the media. The ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’ protested by holding marches, disrupting beauty contests and, occasionally, burning their bras and other underwear in public. The burning of bras and corsets not surprisingly attracted plenty of attention and was supposed to be a sign that such items were worn only for the pleasure and satisfaction of men and to make women conform to a social stereotype, even if it caused discomfort. The attacks on competitions such as the Miss World contest in 1970, were based on the idea that they were seen as degrading to women and done simply for the pleasure of men.

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A Women’s Liberation Movement protest in Washington, D.C., in 1970.

While the hard-liners of the campaign for equality grabbed most of the headlines, there was a broader, mainstream movement, too. The situation was very similar to that in the campaign for votes for women in Britain before the Great War. The NUWSS (the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) were the peaceful, patient and quietly determined group of campaigners known as the ‘Suffragists’, while the WSPU (the Women’s Social and Political Union) were the far smaller, aggressive and violent ‘Suffragettes’. While the Suffragists adopted campaign methods such as signing petitions, attending meetings with MPs and writing letters to the newspapers, the Suffragettes adopted more extreme tactics, such as chaining themselves to the railings at Downing Street, throwing manure at MPs in Parliament and setting fire to golf clubhouses and pouring acid on the greens of the golf courses where they new men who opposed them were members. While people at the time and the average student of history remembers the more dramatic stories, the truth is that the arguments were really won by the  quieter campaigners and the extremists probably held back progress by presenting an ‘unattractive’ face to many ordinary people, both men and women.

In the campaign for equality for women in the wake of ‘The Feminine Mystique’, there was an equivalent of the ‘Suffragists’ who offered an alternative to the ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’. This group was more patient and less confrontational, quietly arguing for equality by challenging the system and the men that controlled it. This was ‘NOW’, the ‘National Organisation for Women’, a group set up by Betty Friedan herself in 1966 and which generally looked on with some anxiety as the ‘Women’s Lib’ approach attracted the mockery and ridicule of many in society at large. Just as with the Suffragettes, the argument was used that women who behaved in such a way did not deserve equality as they were violent, emotional and unreasonable.

The women’s movement really came to prominence in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1960s, the high profile of that movement, under Martin Luther King’s particular leadership, raised issues that made many women think in a similar manner, namely seeing themselves as second-class citizens to American men. There were clearly some similarities both between the issues which inspired the two movements and the ways in which they were treated. Both were mocked by some politicians, organisations and commentators in the media; both movements split into more than one group over issues such as their tactics and goals; and both fell short of total victory as the Sixties ended with much that was unchanged in the struggle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of Middle America. But both movements also achieved significant changes that impacted on US and western society so that overt racism and feminism are no longer anything like as widespread or ‘normal’ as they were in the years after World War II.

While equality with men may have been achieved in tennis, there are many areas where supporters of Friedan’s ideas would say work still needs to be done. One of these is especially significant in the eyes of many campaigners, namely, politics, or more specifically, ‘leadership in Governments’. Ask many Western people to list well-known female politicians and they’ll probably come up with a limited list , certainly one which would be far shorter than an equivalent list for male politicians. In Britain, Margaret thatcher will still lead the list, although there might be  a mention for Barbara Castle, Shirley Williams, Ann Widdecombe, Theresa May, Margaret Beckett, Yvette Cooper, Harriet Harman and Diane Abbott – but you would be pretty committed to get a list that long. In Europe, Petra Keely, a key figure in the founding of the Green Party in Germany would get a mention, as would Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, but the point is that Frau Merkel is usually the only female leader when the Presidents and Prime Ministers of the G20 gather; there are very few high-profile women in leadership around the world. This simply reflects the reality of political life in most countries from Russia, China and Japan to Egypt, Canada and Peru because there have been very few women who have attained prominent positions of power in politics over the last century.

On this matter of women who have led a national Government was actually a Sri Lankan, Sirimavo Banadaranaike, in 1960. She was followed by Indira Gandhi in India in 1966 and then Golda Meir in Israel in 1969. More women have led countries since then but they remain in the minority by far. In Britain, there is an on-going concern over the number of women MPs and as members of the Cabinet, both of which remain well below the 50% level that is expected in some quarters. Elsewhere, Julia Gillard was Prime  Minister of Australia for a rather uncomfortable and bruising time between 2010 and 2013, while Jenny Shipley (1997-99) and Helen Clark (1999-2008) have led New Zealand. One of the worst records, perhaps, is that of the USA, the land of opportunity, where no woman has so far come close to being president or even to being the candidate for one of the major parties in more than two centuries. There is still some way to go if full equality for women is to be obtained, not just legally and in theory but also in reality and expectation.

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Golda Meir (1898-1978), Prime Minister of Israel (1969-74), one of the few women to have led a modern nation state. (Author: Marion S. Trikosko; Source: here)

Going back to the work of Betty Friedan, ‘The Feminine Mystique’ was a remarkable book that gave a real insight into the hearts and minds of millions of, though not all, women in the USA in the 1960s. It acted as a trigger for social debate and marked a step change in the role, hopes and expectations of women and it challenged many men, businesses and institutions to consider their own attitudes and actions. Betty Friedan was not the only person to play a role in seeking equality for women and her book was not the only factor that shaped ‘the battle of sexes’, as some saw it, but both she and her book played a hugely significant role in shaping opinion. After 1963, the rise of feminism became so much more likely, especially when placed alongside the availability of the contraceptive pill, greater access to education and the acceptance of principles embodied in the Civil Rights Movement. It is fair to say that many women found confidence and affirmation through Friedan’s work and her message, knowing they were not alone and understanding that taking control of their own destinies was an option, something which had never been available to any previous generation. The consequences were far reaching, impacting on the work place, marriage, family life, abortion rights, music, fashion and almost every other area of life.

Betty Friedan played a major role in shaping modern Western society and equal prize money in tennis was just one thing that flowed from her big question: ‘Is that all?’

 

Find out more:

Books: ‘The Feminine Mystique’ by Betty Friedan (Penguin Modern Classics); ‘A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs and the Tennis Match That Levelled the Game’ by Selena Roberts (Crown Publishers, 2005); ‘Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports’ by Susan Ware (The University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

Films:Far from heaven’ starring Juliette Moore and Dennis Quaid (Eiv Studios, 2003); ‘Pleasantville’ starring Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon (Warner Home Videos, 1998) and ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman all offer some insights on the relationships and values of the 1950s.

 

 

 

 

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