A ranty, funny, dead-serious intersectional feminist blog.

That Darned Book, or Why We’re Better Off Now

Guest post by Bridget McKenna

I solicited the following guest blog after Bridget chimed in on another post to let us know that as bad as things seem right now, things are still better than they were just a few decades ago. Bridget’s work has appeared in science fiction magazines, computer games, and even in bookstores. Find out more about her on her website. ~Rosie

Recently a commenter here at Rosie’s place remarked on the subject of women’s rights and recent attempts by conservative lawmakers to wage war on them. “It seems lately that we are worse off than we have been in 100 years!” she exclaimed. I know she didn’t mean that literally, but it did remind me that women younger than I (which is to say most of them!) haven’t lived through nearly 70 of the last 100 years and may not have an image of the world before the pill or before safe, legal abortion became a fact. With those two immense historical changes, women in developed countries and a growing number of developing ones began taking charge of how many children they would have and when they would have them or whether they would have them at all.

It’s my belief that women are–despite some recent heavy hitting from extremists on  the right–NOT worse off than 100 years ago. Heck, I’m so old I can practically tell you that from experience! And the change that ignited a fire (again) under American women began with a book—The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan. Other writers wrote other books about women’s experience in that century, but this is the one women read and responded to in numbers.

And the response was long overdue. In addition to the many largely forgotten social inequalities of the time, birth control before my daughter was born in 1964 was clumsy and inefficient. Unplanned pregnancies were more the norm than the exception. Pregnancies that occurred before marriage usually led to hasty and often unhappy unions, and abortion, while available, was a minefield. In those days, you had to know somebody who knew somebody, and that somebody might be a doctor putting his or her license to practice on the line, or it might be a nurse or medical student with access to instruments and a knowledge of proper sterilization procedures, or it might be a guy with “a dirty knife and a folding table.”* If infection resulted, as if sometimes did, a woman’s choices were death or the hospital, where medical professionals who even suspected an induced abortion were obligated to inform the police. If you didn’t go to jail, they might.

You see this picture? That’s the other choice women faced if they couldn’t find or couldn’t afford the alternative: to induce an abortion at home by inserting a foreign object into their uterus and hoping they wouldn’t end up in prison or dead from peritonitis.

A medical doctor had the power to order a clinical abortion in cases of rape or incest. Sometimes a family doctor would push the rape definition to keep a teenage girl from carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term. Sometimes they would diagnose appendicitis, then remove a healthy appendix in order to induce an abortion.  I’m certain that if you studied surgical records from before Roe v Wade, you’d find an entirely disproportionate number of girls undergoing that surgery. Oh, and lest I forget, when my mother was a young woman, giving a woman any form of birth control, or information about birth control was punishable by a prison term. You read that right: People went to jail for telling other people how to avoid unwanted pregnancy. In the 1950s, laws restricting the sale of contraceptives were on the books in thirty of forty-eight states. I could write an entire article about Margaret Sanger and Dr. John Rock and the whole Planned Parenthood thing, and maybe I will, but for now I’ll just leave you with those thoughts. Chew well.

Before 1963, only a very few women of my generation were brave enough to fight for equality and reproductive rights, or aware enough to know there was a problem with women’s role in 20th century society, even though their mothers had worked in aircraft factories and government facilities such as printing plants (my mother) and supported troops in foreign lands (my mother-in-law), and their grandmothers had marched for the right to vote.

Now just say that out loud to yourself once or twice. The right to vote. Until 1920, American women didn’t have it except in Wyoming and some other progressive western states. By the way, the entire world wasn’t stacked against women, even if it sounds that way. When the US Congress opposed Wyoming’s suffrage law and threatened to withhold statehood in 1890, Wyoming told them to go to hell; they’d stay out of the union another hundred years before they’d take away women’s vote. They got statehood.

In 1963–the year The Feminine Mystique was published just 49 years ago–most women believed (or more likely thought they ought to believe) that they actually were second-class citizens. I know this because I was one of them, and so was every woman I spent any time talking with–mostly other young wives and mothers. Then some of us read that darned book, or talked to other women who had read it and books like it, and we gave our status in society some more thought. We did it, it must be said, to a lot of resistance and condescension from the men in our lives, most of whom thought things were fine the way they were. A few of them understood that the prevailing system of gender inequality was hard on them, too, for other reasons. Most were afraid of what the changes might mean to them and their relationships and their homes and their society. Some were willing to concede we had a point on equal pay.

Women not only didn’t get even close to equal pay 49 years ago, many if not most people–particularly men and women of earlier generations–still thought women shouldn’t work after marriage, or at least not after the birth of their first child. This put a lot of extra social and physical stress on men, who would often take a second job in preference to their wife finding employment. In the eyes of their fathers and most of their peers, they had failed as men if their wives took jobs. It took some courage to grow away from that social burden, just as it took courage for their wives to assert their right to full humanhood in a world that accused them of failing as women if they left the house.

Women in the 60s–and in the 50s where they’d come to consciousness–were portrayed in the media as wives and mothers. They might do other things, but first and foremost they existed in relation to their husbands and children. It was popularly assumed that women who went to college did so to pursue a better class of husband; it was called “getting an MRS degree.” They were affectionately denigrated on popular TV shows, and made the butt of jokes for their silly ways much the way men are now. Their job was to have dinner ready, kids clean, and house spiffed up by the time their husbands got home. There were a lot of vodka bottles hidden in laundry baskets in those days, because until women read that darned book, they thought that if they felt they were made for more than this, THERE WAS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THEM. Their doctors tut-tutted and wrote them prescriptions for tranquilizers.

There were always women who broke out of that mold—who had brilliant careers with or without marriage and family, and made names for themselves, and excelled, but during my formative years they were considered exceptional cases. The popular view was they had given something up—something intrinsic to being a “real woman.” Because a real woman was first and foremost a reflection of her man. And so if you didn’t have one of those, you’d better bend all your feminine wiles to getting one; a good provider who’d hopefully be a good husband or father. And if it befell you weren’t happy, some older female relative would be there to tell you “Well, at least he doesn’t hit you.” If, in fact, he did hit you, good luck. The police were very little help, and the church and families often counseled abuse victims to stay in the relationship in preference to being without one. Being in a marriage was more important to many people than being happy or fulfilled or even safe in one. Of course that was all about to change, big time. And a great deal of it was on account of that darned book, The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan. Read it if you want to understand how American women went from being suffragettes and flappers and Rosie the Riveter to the mostly cowed creatures we were fifty years ago. It’s been called “the book that pulled the trigger on history” for a lot of good reasons.

Women asking for the equal rights in the workplace or for the right to choose when or if to have children is a huge and disruptive occurrence in any society, and it frightens some people the way civil rights and gay rights and a lot of other social changes frighten people, and for a lot of the same reasons.

I’ll be the first to say we need to stand up to keep the rights we have and to make life better for women in America. But trust me–I’ve been there and I’ve been here, and here is better.

*In the 1987 film Dirty Dancing (which takes place around 1963) Billy Kostecki, played by Neal Jones, tells Johnny (Patrick Swayze) what it was like to take their friend Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) to meet “a guy” someone knew who would terminate her pregnancy. Sound clip here. Penny develops a life-threatening infection from the procedure.

9 responses

  1. Pat MacEwen

    After reading this, I’m remembering the hit TV shows of the era – Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best and the like. Mrs. Cleaver, I’m convinced, was a closet alcoholic, and Wally lived in a different closet. It’s a “golden age” that never was, and yet that is what the more fact-free type of conservative chooses to idealize. Somehow they never seem to remember another hallmark of that period: Tailgunner Joe McCarthy and the House Unamerican Activities Committee. It wasn’t just women they want to put back in the box. It’s everybody.

    February 22, 2013 at 4:24 am

  2. karawynn

    Thanks for expanding this into a full article, Bridget. As I wrote before, I appreciate the perspective.

    I now want to go read The Feminine Mystique. Putting it in the queue …

    October 9, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    • Yeah, I just bought the ebook. I’m going to really enjoy re-reading it.

      October 9, 2012 at 10:13 pm

  3. That was a fine article, thank you! I enjoyed it very much. Women have come a long way in 100 years and with many miles to go. I grew up in the era where one wasn’t a woman unless she had that all-important man — even if he hit her or bored her to death. The Feminine Mystique changed my life enormously as it did for so many other women. I was one of those women who was on physician issued drugs and also drank a lot of alcohol to balance the effect of uppers during the day and downers for night. The Man and I divorced in 1976 and I’ve been joyfully single and on my own since then. I came across my copy of The Feminine Mystique the other day when I was weeding-out my bookcase. I put it by my bedside to re-read and remember how far we’ve come and why we’re here and why we need to keep up the good fight.

    September 26, 2012 at 3:38 am

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the article. The Feminine Mystique was a profoundly important book to women of our generation, and I believe it led indirectly to a lot of the rights we enjoy today.

      And yes, those rights still need us to support them against renewed attacks. I wouldn’t have believed it was possible to see so much effort dedicated to removing them as I’ve witnessed in the last couple of years.

      September 26, 2012 at 4:51 pm

  4. Rosie, thanks for letting me shoot my mouth off about the bad old days. It’s an honor to be featured here!

    September 24, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    • The pleasure is all mine. Thank you for a fine article.

      September 24, 2012 at 11:41 pm

      • Fran Stewart

        Yeah! I for one am always glad when you start telling stories, Bridget. You’re dripping with smarts and experience!

        December 18, 2014 at 2:33 pm

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