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‘The Feminine Mystique’ turns 50

Musicians entertamassive crowd during “Strike for Equality” Aug. 26 1970 Daley Plazfor 50th anniversary ratificati19th Amendment Constitution. | Sun-Times files

Musicians entertain a massive crowd during a “Strike for Equality,” Aug. 26, 1970, in Daley Plaza for the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. | Sun-Times files

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Updated: March 11, 2013 6:02AM

Before women were allowed on the front lines or in the boardroom, before the words feminist and feminazi, before the idea of equal pay for equal work or work-life balance, there was “The Feminine Mystique.”

The book by Peoria-raised Betty Friedan turns 50 years old this month, a landmark anniversary for the premise that housewives might just be unhappy because they weren’t allowed access to intellectually fulfilling jobs.

Friedan famously called it the “problem that had no name,” writing “Each suburban wife struggled with it alone as she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night. She was afraid to even ask of herself the silent question: Is this all?”

Both credited and blamed with kicking off the women’s movement, Friedan’s book wasn’t specifically a call to arms. Though the author would go on to found the National Organization for Women, “The Feminine Mystique” was directed at a generation of women who married upwardly mobile World War II veterans, a legion of “Mad Men’s” Betty Drapers.

If these women complained of discontent, it wasn’t uncommon for a doctor to diagnose them with “housewives’ syndrome,” a malaise where shopping was considered a legitimate cure.

The book’s most consistent criticism hasn’t changed in five decades — that Friedan ignored the issues of working-class and minority women. Still, despite what some believe is too narrow a focus, one look at the gender makeup in virtually any American office is a testament to the book’s lasting impact.

“It really did change everything,” said Kathy Rand, a Lake Forest resident who is a member of the Veteran Feminists of America, a group dedicated to preserving the history of second-wave feminism, the women’s movement that started in the 1960s. “I don’t think you can estimate the impact that it had.”

Rand, now 67, was a single working gal active in the women’s movement when she read “The Feminine Mystique.”

“I couldn’t relate to not being able to have a job,” she said. Still, Friedan’s message of equality rang true, and on Aug. 26, 1970, Rand joined thousands of women in Daley Plaza for a “Strike for Equality” commemorating the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

Throughout the United States, housewives were asked to head downtown instead of into the laundry room. Working women skipped their lunch break to rally around the theme “Don’t Iron While the Strike Is Hot.”

“I was overwhelmed by this whole thing,” Rand said. “That day changed my life.”

Mary-Ann Lupa, a 70-year-old Portage Park resident, was one of the organizers of the Chicago strike, which Friedan had called for at a NOW conference in Chicago in March 1970.

“I wasn’t sure anybody was going to show up,” Lupa said. “[Friedan] was a great visionary. Besides her having the high intellect that allowed her to write the book, she had a tremendous vision of what women could be. It was in her heart, both intellectual and emotional.”

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