On February 19, 1963, Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique is published, shaking the ground beneath an American society rooted in a myth of pleasant domesticity and supported by the physical and emotional labor of women.
Friedan may not have been the typical housewife—she had been involved in radical politics from a young age and had a degree in psychology from Smith College. But she is often credited as the first to give voice to the suffering of millions of seemingly content American women.
The book examines the many ways in which women were still oppressed by American society. In addition to scholarly research, Friedan drew on first-hand accounts from housewives to explain how women were taught that homemaking and raising children was their sole purpose in life, how the education system and field of psychology made women who sought fulfillment elsewhere seem "neurotic" and the myriad ways that women's magazines, advertisers and other elements of society reinforced women's secondary status.
Even before it was published, The Feminine Mystique was called "overstated" and "too obvious and feminine" by people within the company that published it. After its release, much of the criticism essentially labeled Friedan a hysteric, while many women took offense at her suggestion that they were not fulfilled by their family and domestic duties. Other critics pointed out that Friedan focused almost exclusively on straight, married, white, middle-class women, or charged that she was complicit in the demonization of stay-at-home mothers.
Some of these criticisms have persisted, but only because The Feminine Mystique has remained relevant from the moment of its publication through the present. One the first signs of the emerging Second Wave Feminism, Friedan's work was crucial in giving language to the frustrations women felt in the '50s and '60s. The book is credited with mobilizing a generation of feminists who would tackle a number of issues left unresolved by First Wave Feminism. Friedan influenced the push for the 1963 Equal Pay Act, the budding pro-choice movement, and other activists, both through her writing and through her co-founding of the National Organization for Women, whose charter she drafted in language similar to that of her book.
On the 50th anniversary of its publication, The New York Times wrote that "it remains enduring shorthand for the suffocating vision of domestic goddess-hood Friedan is credited with helping demolish."