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50 Years of Women's History -- What Would Betty Say?

03/15/2013 07:54 am ET | Updated May 15, 2013

One of the best new books to hit the market in the last month is also one of the best old books -- The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. Revolutionary when it came out in 1963, the book helped unleash the activism that became the "women's liberation" movement and pushed for equal social, political, and economic rights.

New York Times op-ed columnist Gail Collins wrote the introduction to the new 50th anniversary edition of Friedan's book, saying:

Every writer yearns to create a book that will seize the moment -- to perfectly encapsulate the problem of an era before other people even notice the problem exists. Of course, that almost never happens. . . But Betty Friedan won the gold ring. . . If there's a list of the most important books of the 20th century, The Feminine Mystique is on it. It also made one conservative magazine's exclusive roundup of the '10 most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries,' which if not flattering is at least a testimony to the wallop it packed. If you want to understand what has happened to American women over the last half-century, their extraordinary journey from Doris Day to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and beyond, you have to start with this book.

I recently interviewed Collins for my radio show Equal Time With Martha Burk. We talked about the impact of The Feminine Mystique on the future of women in the United States.

MB: In your introduction to the new edition you write: "The postwar suburbs were either heaven or hell for their inhabitants -- endless stretches of brand-new houses on quarter-acre lots, occupied, during weekday hours, entirely by women and children." Talk about this situation as they relate to what Friedan was saying in the book.

GC: Friedan was definitely not a happy camper in the suburbs. [The book] is a howl of rage and anger and irritation from somebody who was very smart and was a writer herself. When you read it, you find yourself getting so angry and understanding how the women's movement exploded so quickly.

MB: Criticism has centered around the fact that Friedan was writing about privileged, educated women stuck in suburbia, and she ignored the civil rights movement, 2012-06-12-yourvoicesmallest2.JPG working class women, single mothers, and did not address the lack of laws against discrimination.

GC: It's absolutely true. She was writing about middle class women who didn't have jobs, who were home while their husbands went off to work. It was because it was so specific that it was so powerful.

MB: Why did The Feminine Mystique strike such a chord at that particular time in history -- 1963. Was it because the nature of housework had changed from its farm-wife roots, labor saving devices, rising incomes allowing one earner to support a family, or all of the above?

GC: For most of our history people lived on farms. If you were a woman your options were to be a housewife, a domestic worker for somebody else, or maybe work in a factory. To be a full time farm housewife was the most empowering -- you were running your own shop [and had a lot to manage]. Everybody in the community knew how important you were. After World War II the job became much less demanding.

MB: Your introduction says it's important to realize that Friedan didn't create the women's movement. Commissions on the status of women had been working for years. Prohibitions against sex discrimination in employment were part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but that had also been in the works for years. Did she just tap into something that allowed the women's movement to happen?

GC: Yes, and it's an amazing thing to do if you are a writer. If you can be there at just that moment, and identify "the thing" that's out there before anybody else sees it - that's huge.

MB: Was Friedan a difficult person?

GC: She was rather famously a difficult person. The most agreeable people don't tend to be the ones who create the biggest outrage and noise.

MB: Do you think The Feminine Mystique will still be influential 50 years from now?

GC: People worry about whether young women are feminists. Young women are very committed to equal rights for everybody. My great worry about the next 50 years is about class -- the ability of people who are born poor to move up is getting narrower and narrower.

Listen to Gail Collins' full interview here: