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As Women's Rights Movement Hits 50, There's More Work to be Done

  • Faiza Elmasry

Fifty years ago, a book by Betty Friedan sparked a national conversation about gender roles, launching a movement to empower women both at home and in the workplace.

Over the past five decades, The Feminine Mystique sold more than 3 million copies, and inspired millions of women to fight for their rights.

The spark

In 1957, Friedan conducted a survey of her college classmates for their fifteenth reunion.

Many of these well-educated and well-off women said they were unhappy being housewives, even though many had homes in the suburbs, children and bread-winning husbands.

Friedan went on to talk with other women about their lives, and how they were portrayed in media.

She originally intended to publish an article, but no magazine accepted it. So she published a book instead: The Feminine Mystique.

Breaking ground

Stephanie Ortoleva, a feminist and human right activist, read the book in the 1970s, when she was in law school. She still remembers Friedan’s words, “...why should women accept this picture of half-life, instead of a share in the whole of human destiny?”

“It broke ground that hadn’t broken before," Ortoleva said. "It also really raised very important issues about objectification of women and dressing us up, making us become sort of playthings as oppose to presenting images of women as strong and powerful people.”

She feels Friedan’s arguments spoke to her generation, especially when she was studying law.

“Even though my law school was somewhat progressive and that we had a very large class of women," Ortoleva said, "but still, most of our professors were men and that’s why we all decided to sit in the front row of the classroom so no professor could ignore us.”

Ortoleva belives the women’s movement has made significant strides since then.

“Women are being involved in some professions that were barred from being engaged in previously," she said. "We’re making some political progress. We're making progress on reproductive health. Economic equality is getting better.”

Younger generation

Susan Mottet is president of the Washington D.C. chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which Friedan helped found in 1966. She says the younger generation of feminists has made its own contribution.

“We still use the political process, getting the right people elected," Mottet said. "But certainly, and this is something the younger generation of men and women within the movement have helped with, is new ways to engage media, really engaging social media to get your perspective out there.”

Although Mottet believes there is still a ways to go before women are truly treated equally in America, many in the younger generation don't feel the need to get involved.

Katayoun Kishi, a 23-year-old graduate student, and her friends don't consider themselves feminists, although they are aware of what the women’s movement has achieved.

“I think that we are resting on the laurels of the feminists that came before us, that we’re living the lifestyles that we’ve been afforded by them," Kishi said. "That's maybe why we don't feel the need to be out there marching, because we're not feeling the same discrimination they felt before us.”

Equality and justice

For Ortoleva, that doesn't mean the women’s movement is no longer relevant, in the U.S. or around the world.

“I work with a feminist in Colombia. I work with feminists in Egypt, Japan, South Korea," she said. "I think it’s very much of a global movement. There are serious challenges, whether it’s the persistent rapes in India,whether it’s the forced sterilization of either women with disabilities or Romani women in Eastern Europe. That’s why we talk about global feminism.”

There are different concerns, but the goal remains the same: equality and justice for women and men.

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