- Activists’ Panel
How and when did you first become aware of The Feminine Mystique? Describe the context in which you learned about it. How did it strike you at the time? How did it influence you? If the book had little influence on you, please tell us why, and perhaps identify a book that did influence you instead. Because I know that not everybody was influenced by The Feminine Mystique.
I don’t actually remember when I first heard about the book, although I believe it was while I was at Carleton [College]. My major adviser was Paul Wellstone, and so we had a lot of terrific opportunities to learn about social and political movements. My mother raised five children and had a very successful career, but did have primary child-care responsibility. I don’t remember her reading the book. I don’t remember seeing it in our house. There were a lot of other books about politics, but not that one. So, the book that really compelled me to act, to answer Mary Ann’s question, was Robin Morgan’s collection of essays, Sisterhood Is Powerful (1970). I was handed that book actually while I was in Chicago in an urban studies program for political activists who were interested in urban policy, and it just blew me away. And so, I then went back and started reading a lot of different pieces of literature, and I just felt that that’s how I came to The Feminine Mystique in this broader context of trying to understand political activism by women and becoming an activist myself. I did have the opportunity to work with Friedan later, so perhaps when we get to that point, I’ll talk about that.
Well, I first read The Feminine Mystique when it was published in 1963. My best friend had given me a copy for my seventeenth birthday, and it was my first real introduction to the idea of women’s rights [End Page 3] and women’s liberation. I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I grew up in Wauwatosa, about ninety miles north of here, a suburb of Milwaukee, in the 1950s, and that was Middle America, suburban, very white, middle class. In the early fifties, I developed the two great interests of my life—politics and science. And in ’52 we got a tv, and I remember watching political conventions, and I thought, “This is terrific. This is very exciting.” And then I got involved or interested in astronomy, and I started reading what I could about that, and decided I wanted to be an astronomer. I wanted to go into space. But the reality in that time was that the opportunities for girls were extremely limited. I remember in the late fifties as people were talking about going to college, a number of the girls were saying, “Oh, I want to go and get my mrs degree.” And I was fairly clueless, and I thought, “Well, I’ve heard of a ba and a PhD. What’s an mrs?” And then I figured it out, and I looked around, and the adult women in Wauwatosa seemed either to be wives and mothers or they were old maid schoolteachers. And I decided then that if those were my choices, I was going to be an old maid schoolteacher.
And when I read The Feminine Mystique a few years later, it basically said to me that there could be other choices for women. We weren’t quite there yet, and in fact, in ’64 I started at Carleton. I’m not sure quite why Carleton is so prominent on this panel, but it’s a good school. And when I got up there, there was no organized women’s movement. In fact, in my first year at Carleton the female students had to wear dresses to dinner. If you were going to be out of the dorms after seven o’clock, you had to sign out. This summer one of my...