Today marks the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan's seminal book -- The Feminine Mystique. It changed my life.
Then, as now, I was in a book group, while living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My husband was in a post doctoral program at Harvard and I was a stay at home Mom with two children, ages three and one and a half. I tidied up the living room and quickly finished reading a bedtime story in preparation for the meeting that night in our apartment.
Fifty years later, I remember it well. Our book discussions had previously been agreeable in the true sense of the word. We had agreed on the books we had read. Not that night.
The Feminine Mystique divided us right down the middle. It was as if a baby gate had separated us into two camps. Half of the group was irate. What does she mean, telling us that being mothers and homemakers was not enough? They felt threatened by Friedan's accusation that women were programmed by Madison Avenue to purchase beautiful refrigerators, instead of using their brains in the workplace.
I, as you might suspect, was on the other side, heaving a huge sigh of relief. At last, someone was saying the words that I had often held to myself, for fear of not being regarded as a good wife, especially a good doctor's wife who would have sacrificed her career for his.
The message I took away was that I was a person in my own right. I could be free to develop my potential, use my education, and make a difference in the world -- in addition to being a good wife and mother. It was a radical idea. It was, yes, liberating. What I did not know that night was that the debate that began in my living room in 1963 continues today.
Women and men are still sorting out their roles, figuring out the relationship between the sexes -- who should pick up David from childcare, who should prepare dinner, and who should help Emily with her homework.
The conversation that Betty Friedan began gave birth to the feminist movement in America. Today, the concept of women's rights has grown far beyond her original intent. Hillary Clinton said it best at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.
"Women's Rights are human rights, and human rights are women's rights."
Developing nations that adhere to women's rights are more likely to move towards democracy and to adhere to the principles of a civil society for all.
Eighteen years after Beijing, we know that there is a clear connection between gender equality, economic prosperity and political stability. Those countries that enable women and girls to be educated, to be treated as equal citizens, have experienced the greatest economic growth in recent years. Those that continue to repress women and girls have fallen to the bottom.
Betty Friedan began the conversation for equal opportunity for women. It is our charge to continue her work for gender equality throughout the world.
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