180: The Self-Empowered Woman: Mystique/Lean

Dear Followers,
Welcome to Women’s History Month!
For today’s post, instead of introducing you to a historical woman who was a real trailblazer, I’d like to highlight two important books—published almost exactly 50 years apart—that symbolize the progress women in America have made over the past half century.
The first book, which has just been republished with an introduction by Anna Quindlen, was credited with starting second-wave feminism. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (who died in 2006), addressed the simmering unhappiness felt by suburban housewives across the country in the in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Friedan, who had given up a prestigious Ph.D fellowship in psychology because her boyfriend felt that it would “threaten their relationship,” spent years in the New York Public Library researching Freud, Maslow, Margaret Mead and David Riesman in order to better understand (and skewer) the myth of “the happy housewife.” She also examined the pervasive messages in women’s magazines (both editorial and advertising), which urged women to center their lives around their husbands and children while simultaneously scolding them for their failure to be flawless.

Friedan focused on what was then called “the problem that has no name,” which was the unhappiness and sense of unease that many suburban housewives felt in post-World War II America. Without doubt, her book galvanized women and has been considered essential reading for any student of women’s issues. Friedan worked for a short while as a reporter for radical newspapers, and even had a file with the F.B.I. She had critics from almost every walk of life, but there can be no denying that The Feminine Mystique changed the way millions of women regarded their life choices.

The second book, which was just recently published, is Lean In by 38 year old Sheryl Sandberg. She is the wildly successful COO of Facebook, who has two degrees from Harvard and at age 29 was Chief of Staff at The U.S. Treasury. Every year since 2007, she has been included in Fortune magazine’s list of the 50 most powerful women. In other words, she is the type of woman who simply didn’t exist back when Betty Friedan published her controversial book in 1963–when women couldn’t even gain admission to Harvard.

Like Friedan, Sandberg is receiving a great deal of criticism for her book because it suggests that women need to be more proactive when it comes to creating an effective professional life. Her book began when she delivered a 2010 speech at a TED conference, and was also influenced by speeches she delivered at Barnard and Harvard Business School. Sandberg makes suggestions to her readers like, “You will never know what you are capable of unless you try,” and “Don’t let your fears overwhelm your desire.”

In today’s world, it’s important to remember that 70 percent of women with children in the U.S. have jobs outside the home and that for the past 30 years more women have earned college degrees than men. In light of those two statistics, it doesn’t make sense to her that women still earn only about 77c for every dollar earned by a man. She argues that “We deserve equal pay, we deserve an equal voice, and we deserve to sit at any table we want to sit at.”

These two books–from totally different authors–are thought provoking and “revolutionary” in their own separate ways. It’s helpful for us to look at what life was like before women had any economic clout, and it’s also useful to hear ideas about how to best capitalize on our careers.

Looking forward to your comments…

About Marilyn Murray Willison

The author of six non-fiction books, Willison worked as Health and Fitness Editor at the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, and wrote book reviews, health, beauty, fashion, and travel articles on a regular basis for the Los Angeles Times. Her byline has appeared in a wide variety of American newspapers and magazines.