In The Feminine Mystique – Betty Friedan’s 1963 attack on domesticity – the author describes how she “gradually, without seeing it clearly for quite a while…came to realize that something is very wrong with the way American women are trying to live their lives today.” Despite the outward appearances of wealth and contentment, she argued that the Cold War was killing happiness. Women, in particular, faced strong public pressures to conform with a family image that emphasized a finely manicured suburban home, pampered children, and an ever-present “housewife heroine.” This was the asserted core of the good American life. This was the cradle of freedom. This was, in the words of Adlai Stevenson, the “assignment” for “wives and mothers”: “Western marriage and motherhood are yet another instance of the emergence of individual freedom in our Western society. Their basis is the recognition in women as well as men of the primacy of personality and individuality.
Friedan disagreed, and she was not alone. Surveys, interviews, and observations revealed that countless women suffered from a problem that had no name within the standard lexicon of society at the time. They had achieved the “good life,” and yet they felt unfulfilled. Friedan quoted one particularly articulate young mother:
I’ve tried everything women are supposed to do – hobbies, gardening, pickling, canning, being very social with my neighbors, joining committees, running PTA teas. I can do it all, and I like it, but it doesn’t leave you anything to think about – any feeling of who you are. I never had any career ambitions. I love the kids and Bob and my home. There’s no problem you can even put a name to. But I’m desperate. I begin to feel I have no personality.