Volume 14, Issue 19 ~ May 11 - May 17, 2006


Thinking of You, Betty Friedan

The Woman who Changed Motherhood

by Helena Mann-Melnitchenko

Clutching the microphone, Betty Friedan, a stocky middle-aged woman in a white cotton dress and a straw hat, addressed my graduating class. She reminded me of the powerful Mother-Goddess found in prehistoric excavations. But ancient Mother-Goddesses are silent. Friedan spoke with energy and passion.

It’s been 34 years and I still remember her exhortation: “You’ll get little pleasure from scrubbing floors,” she said. “Put those diplomas to use.” With a graduate degree in education, this mother of two daughters took her advice to heart.

When Friedan (1921-2006), the founder of NOW, the National Organization of Women, died February 4 in Washington, the revolution that she started in 1963 with the publication of The Feminine Mystique has taken many turns. It had plenty of criticism as it changed the prevailing view of women as housewives and mothers. More praised than reviled, Friedan received many honorary degrees. She agitated and marched with Gloria Steinem and other women who wanted to change the world. The Washington Post, in Friedan’s long obituary, printed a photo of the women’s march on Washington. Our own U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski was among the marchers.

For Friedan, it all started with a class reunion. A 1942 graduate of Smith College with a degree in humanities, she took a survey of her classmates 15 years after graduation. What she found was discouraging. In mid-20th century, her educated and highly talented classmates were dissatisfied with their lives as wives and mothers. A wife and mother herself, she too felt that there was more to life than shining floors. Five years later, The Feminine Mystique hit the bookstores like an exploding bomb.

That year I was a new mother with my undergraduate degree hanging above the diaper-changing table. Somehow I found time to read Friedan’s book. I put it aside, tending my daughters full time for the next eight years. Nevertheless, a germ of an idea took root in my mind.

It’s difficult for young women today to appreciate how women’s lives have changed in the second half of the last century and the beginning of this one. When I and two other mothers in our circle of friends enrolled in a graduate program, our friends asked: “Why?”

The answer was that we wanted to use whatever talents we had and to contribute to society.

Fortunately, our husbands supported us. But it wasn’t always easy. When we began teaching and one of our children had a fever of 102, we had to tell the principal we were sick. Sometimes my husband stayed home from his job. There was no such thing as being allowed to say it like it was: My child is sick. I have to take her to the doctor.

Today’s mother not only has that right, she has the right to maternity leave, as does her husband. She has a choice to be a full-time mother or to be a mother who goes to work. Many professional opportunities are open to her. And if she loves to do hair, she does that. Some women chose not to become mothers. And that’s OK, too.

Fatherhood has changed as well. Most fathers take a more active role in bringing up their children than their father’s did. I find it a very positive trend.

Mothers juggle many balls. What takes precedence? Filing a legal brief or cheering a daughter on at a gymnastics competition? I am amazed with what grace they keep all those balls in the air. Who knew women had such strength? Betty Friedan, a strong controversial woman, a firebrand, the woman who spoke with such passion at my graduation, knew what a woman can do.

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