OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON amp#45;amp#45; This year marks the 45th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique . Today, many social conservatives still blame Friedan and feminism for inducing women to abandon the home for the workplace, thus destabilizing families and placing their children at risk.
But feminism was always more of a response to women entering the labor force than its cause. In Western Europe and the United States, early capitalism drew huge numbers of young, single women into industries like textiles. Mill owners often built dormitories to house young female workers. Many of these workers became early supporters of both the anti-slavery and the women’s rights movements, while middle-class women were energized by (and sometimes envious of) working women’s vigorous participation in the public sphere.
By the time Friedan’s book was published in 1963, capitalism was drawing married women into the expanding service, clerical, and information sectors. Friedan’s ideas spoke to a generation of women who were starting to view paid work as something more than a temporary break between adolescence and marriage, and were frustrated by society’s insistence that the only source of meaning in their lives should be their role as housewives.
Wherever women enter the labor force in large numbers, certain processes unfold. Women begin to marry later and have fewer children, especially as they make inroads into higher education or more remunerative careers. They are also more likely to challenge laws and customs that relegate them to second-class status in the public sphere or mandate their subordination within the family. Often, governments and employers then find that it is in their interest to begin to remove barriers to women’s full participation.