After authors commit ideas to paper, as Betty Friedan did in 1963, their texts often develop a life and a history of their own. A symposium held at the Newberry Library in November 2013 called “The Feminine Mystique at Fifty: Reflecting on the Book That Inspired, Angered, and Forever Changed America” joined in this project by bringing activists, scholars, and members of the Chicago community together for a frank discussion of Friedan’s legacy. As the symposium’s organizers, we intended the symposium to explore the book’s and Betty Friedan’s significance to the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s. We sought to foster discussion of how The Feminine Mystique speaks—or does not speak—to problems that women faced then, and still struggle with today.
Our morning panel featured historians of post–World War II feminism and The Feminine Mystique. Feminist activists from Friedan’s era who are still active today, mostly in the Chicago area, served on the afternoon panel. Both sessions were greatly enriched by the questions posed by the symposium’s audience. Panelists and questioners alike parsed Friedan’s insights on gender expectations, self-fulfillment, sexuality, career, family life, and feminism, as well as the book’s impact on millions of people, including the men who joined women’s movements in the 1960s. Activists spoke of the origins of their feminist activism, their experiences in the Chicago and national movement, and their memories of interactions with Friedan.
Invariably, though, The Feminine Mystique shifted its meanings as a text in the course of the daylong symposium in 2013. The scholars’ panel, assembled around the theme of Friedan’s book, delivered a strong impression of the book’s historical importance. Yet the activists spoke not just to the impact of The Feminine Mystique but also to other influences, such as Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood Is Powerful (1970), on the formation of their consciousness. Their [End Page 1] comments highlight the many strands of feminist thought under discussion at the time. The activists, and historian Katherine Turk’s paper, addressed the book’s blinders—from the perspective of those outside the white bourgeoisie or those on the left—especially as they stressed issues in workplace and labor history. Friedan’s messages of personal fulfillment and social engagement achieved through women’s careers, for example, failed to resonate among women already in the workplace who had had little choice but to leave home. Activists also discussed what it meant to them that Friedan, in 1963, replicated her era’s bigotry toward homosexuality. They enriched our understanding of Friedan as a leader in the women’s movement by recalling their impression of her demanding personality and her tendency to leave the hard work of organizing to others.
At the same time, the scholars’ panel and the activists’ panel—and audience questions during both sessions—shared many themes. Notably, both focused on the cultural representations of women, demonstrated by historian Elizabeth Fraterrigo’s work on feminist media criticism. They also both addressed the idea of women’s human fulfillment. Historian Susan Levine stressed the Feminine Mystique’s call for women’s concerted action, going far beyond self-fulfillment, and arguing that subsequent generations of feminists lost sight of Friedan’s more helpful insights on human potential. Moreover, along with historian Turk, activists found histories that focus on division within the movement unhelpful regarding Chicago. Instead, the activists placed particular emphasis on the Chicago’s women’s movement’s distinctive ability to unite across divisions of race and sexual orientation that so roiled the national women’s movement during the same years—exemplified by Friedan’s 1970s outcry against the “lavender menace,” meaning lesbian presence, in the movement.
The symposium “The Feminine Mystique at Fifty” was supported by the Newberry Library. The Newberry Library is the home of the monthly Seminar on Women and Gender, which we have been coordinating since 2007. The symposium was also indebted to the Chicago Area Women’s History Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes the documentation, interpretation, preservation, and sharing of Chicago women’s history. We are grateful to Mary Ann Johnson...