Today, Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" -- the groundbreaking book credited for igniting the feminist movement of the 1960s -- celebrates its fiftieth anniversary of publication. Friedan's screed aimed to transform women's attitudes toward gender, challenging commonly-held assumptions about men and women at home and at work.
Stephanie Coontz, professor of family history at Evergreen State College and the author of "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s," argues that Friedan succeeded in revolutionizing American attitudes about gender.
"When she wrote it, there were still sex-segregated want ads," Coontz explains. "Help wanted female ads in The New York Times were able to say things like, 'you must be really beautiful to be hired for this job.' A woman with a college education, as late as 1970, earned less than a man with a high school education ... so these changes have been incredible."
Coontz contends that these changes are here to stay. "There really has been a change in attitude," she says. "Despite the recession, despite loss of men’s jobs and increases in women who have had to support their families, we don’t see any of the same resentment that we did in the depression.”
The feminist movement may have succeeded in changing American attitudes about gender, but concrete policy changes that enable equality -- particularly economic equality -- have stalled, Coontz argues. "For more than two decades the demands and hours of work have been intensifying, she says. "Yet progress in adopting family-friendly work practices and social policies has proceeded at a glacial pace."
Coontz advocates for policies to help men and women balance their work and family lives, similar to those enacted by many European countries over the last few decades. "Our society, our government, our political leaders have really failed to make any accommodation to the fact that not only do women have to work, but most women and men today would prefer to share both the breadwinning and the child-rearing," she says.