Fifty Years Later, Friedan Survey Finds Women’s
Roles Changed, Frustrations Remain
NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Fifty years ago Betty Friedan surveyed her Smith College 1942 classmates about their lives. Their answers led to her groundbreaking book "The Feminine Mystique" and ignited the women’s movement.
Earlier this year, when Smith alumnae from the Class of 1982 responded online to Friedan’s questions, their answers indicated that while women have made positive gains in employment, some aspects of their lives – notably childcare and housework – remain sources of stress as they try to achieve balance among their commitments.
“Many of the questions Friedan asked were not particularly relevant today,” said Nancy Whittier, professor of sociology, in reference to questions that assumed the respondents would be stay-at-home mothers. “But, at the same time, some of the dilemmas women face are frighteningly similar.”
Notable gains since Friedan’s time were reflected in employment information according to Whittier, who shared her preliminary findings with alumnae in May during their 25th reunion. Eighty percent of them are employed – the majority on a full-time basis. And, nearly half of those women – 41 percent – earn more than their husband or partner.
However, respondents noted childcare and housework as two areas of stress – areas that were also singled out by Friedan’s classmates.
Today, two-thirds of the survey respondents have children and the most common childcare arrangement they listed was “juggling” – piecing together care between school, babysitters, partners, camps and after-school programs.
Although women who are employed were more likely than women who do not work outside the home to say that their partners help with the housework, many said their partners did not do “much” of it. A quarter of the women said their husband or partner does “occasional or limited” housework tasks; 17 percent, “only yard work or repairs"; and 9 percent, “nothing.” Another 13 percent characterized the assistance as “significant but not equal.”
However, Whittier noted, the 22 percent of survey participants who reported their husband or partner does "equal or more housework" would have been unheard of among Friedan's classmates.
Today's survey participants indicated that the most common frustration in their lives was “lack of time and over commitment.” By contrast, they listed their commitments as "main satisfactions" in life: children, relationships with partner and family, and career accomplishments.
"Unlike 50 years ago, the majority of us are now working outside the home, reflecting our ability to incorporate all of our commitments into our lives," said Melanie Hatchell Taylor, a member of the Class of 1982 and a founder of The Girls Middle School in Mountain View, Calif. "In the process, we are raising a generation who are seeing the need, and the benefit, of more balance on the parts of both women and men, which is great progress."
Hatchell Taylor and classmate Ann Blanchard decided to reissue Friedan’s survey to their class after attending a discussion about "The Feminine Mystique" at Smith College in the fall of 2006, less than a year after Friedan died."
“At that moment we determined to reissue the questionnaire as part of what we call a ‘mid-life transformation opportunity,'” said Blanchard, a high-level television literary agent in the entertainment business for the past 15 years. “It was a chance to reexamine the experiences of a sampling of Smith women who came of age in a post-feminist world.”
The survey was completed by 175 women prior to the reunion, women who have likely read Friedan’s book, which sold more than 3 million copies by the time of her death.
"The Feminine Mystique" identified the "problem with no name" -- a general dissatisfaction among college-educated housewives raised during the post World War II era. At that time, her future promised limited career options and focused primarily on traditional family life and domesticity.
Of those who recently completed the survey, 71 percent are married and another 18 percent are unmarried but in committed relationships with either opposite-sex or same-sex partners. Their responses about relationships speak to the “critical ways you have worked to change the meaning of relationships” to fit your desires and needs, said Whittier. “That, of course, was Friedan’s intent,” she added.
At the same time, Blanchard noted, the areas of stress that her classmates identified are areas in which change is still needed.
“A lot of childcare proposals as part of the second wave of feminism are still not solved,” Blanchard said. “These are really collective problems, not individual problems.”
Whittier’s findings are preliminary data. As members of the Class of 1982 continue to respond to the online survey, the percentages may fluctuate over time. The original four-page surveys, which were completed by about 180 members of the Class of 1942, are available on microfilm in the Smith College archives.
Smith College is consistently ranked among the nation’s foremost liberal arts colleges. Enrolling 2,800 students from nearly every state and 61 other countries, Smith is the largest undergraduate women’s college in the country.
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