I decided to listen to Fresh Air on KALW this morning, because Terry Gross was interviewing Stephanie Coontz, who just published a reconsideration of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. The show is worth a listen.
I haven't thought about the Fifties for quite a while, but that was the world I grew up in. The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963. I was seventeen, a senior in high school, when it came out. As Coontz admitted herself, I've never read the book (she now has, of course). But I know the world that produced it. Girls going to college now probably can't even imagine a world in which a young woman in college was expected to emerge with her "Mrs." degree - any academic achievements for her were entirely secondary.
I should probably just encourage you to read both of these books (Friedan, and Coontz' Strange Stirrings), but I want to share some of my memories. I still remember the pain when nobody ever phoned me except to get help with the homework - I graduated number 7 in a class of 750, the kiss of death for a young woman. My sister, a C student, had flocks of friends and was always on the phone. (There's a whole story behind her grades, since her IQ actually tests higher than mine; but this is my turn.) Worse, I was articulate and literate - I read constantly and used "big words." "The boys" didn't like girls who used "big words" and certainly not girls who argued with them.
I still remember the family gatherings; every time the aunts came over, they wanted to know when I was going to get married. I used to hear, "oh, isn't it a good thing you're getting a college degree, since you haven't got a husband yet." Now, one of these aunts married a man who beat her; another one married a man she once stood off with a kitchen knife. So maybe they weren't the best source of advice. But I didn't learn the truth about those marriages for decades. So everybody was happy when Karen married an Air Force sergeant she met in a bar in Cupertino. Of course, he had a high school diploma to my Masters in Library Science; and there were one or two other incompatibilities. It lasted about 5 years. I've often wondered where my life would have gone if I hadn't felt the constant pressure to get married.
Post-World War II, the U.S. was a man's world. Women existed to keep house, raise children, and make men comfortable. Women Did Not Work. (They did, of course; I'm talking about the ideal.) Rosie the Riveter had left the factory and was baking cookies. Betty Friedan's book went through female society like a bolt of lightning because, for the first time, she asked publicly, "Is this all there is?" Every college student, every young person, thinks they're going to change the world. In the Fifties, young women were only allowed to think they would marry a man who was going to change the world. What this produced, of course, was a generation of women who expected the man to do everything except cook and clean; and when their men died, or left them for a trophy wife, they didn't even know where the bank account was.
For the young woman unfortunate enough not to catch a man, there were few jobs available; and for all too many of them the ad read, "must be extremely pretty." I remember, in my senior year in college, suddenly realizing that I was going to have to get a job. I had very few options. With my undergrad degree in English, nursing was out. I looked at teaching, considered the classrooms I'd been in, and couldn't bear the idea. I didn't know what a secretary was, then (given how secretaries were treated, probably just as well). Fortunately, my mother worked in a library, and she suggested I go to grad school and get my M.L.S., so I did. But - those were my options. I now think I would have made a good journalist; and I know I would have made a good scientist, but "girl reporter" was something in the comics, and girls didn't major in science and math. I later spent 19 years as a computer engineer, writing software and maintaining systems; this wasn't even a possibility when I graduated in 1968. The field was there; but I didn't know it. You can only take the roads you know exist.
Today's world, God knows, isn't perfect. But at least it mostly accepts women as full human beings, with the same hopes and aspirations as men. In the Fifties, that wasn't so. And that was the problem. Watch reruns of "Ozzie and Harriet," and put yourself in Harriet's shoes. Wouldn't you ask, "Is this all there is?"