What women wanted - and what they got

21:02, Jul 27 2013
WHAT WOMEN GOT: Has the entry of women into the workforce been at the expense of family life?

It's 50 years since the publication of The Feminine Mystique, the book credited with sparking feminism's second wave. So what is the state of womankind half a century on? 

The immediate impact publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique had in 1963 on life in a state unit in Ngaio, Wellington, was zilch.

The book may be deemed to be among the most influential of the 20th century, but nobody knew it then, and what a privileged, radicalised Jewish woman educated at a top American university thought about the constrained lives of women would have been as relevant to my solo mother's life as the Higgs boson. She knew nothing of what Friedan called "the problem that has no name," its symptom the wasted education of Friedan's clever contemporaries at Smith University.

As was usual in her family, my mother left school at 15. She teetered, in 1963, on the edge of mental illness, for which there were as yet no helpful drugs. Most of her problems could have been solved by money she could not hope to earn, and had failed to marry. There was no equal pay outside the public service, where it was a new idea, so she'd joined it. That's how she got the state unit, at a rent level she could just afford. On Lambton Quay in 1963 smart women still wore tall, horse-turd hairdos thick with lacquer and teasing; there were urban legends about insects breeding in them and eating through to their brains.

Stiletto heels still ruined linoleum floors. Women wore corsets, girls wore easies, and there was no pantyhose; they wore stockings. Smoking was still glamorous. Pubs closed at 6 o'clock. Some people had TV. Women were expected to be nice. My mother, glimpsing a debt collector, would shut the doors and hide inside. Once, peeking through a slit in the kitchen door, she saw one squeezing the washing on her clothesline to see if it was still warm. Bills mounted in her letterbox unopened. Her problem was a common and universal one, its diagnosis straightforward: she was poor, inadequately educated, female and desperate.

In 1963 Aunt Daisy died and Sylvia Plath killed herself. The Beatles' leap to stardom began, and President John Kennedy was assassinated. The Beach Boys sang 'Little Deuce Coupe', and The Ronettes 'Be My Baby'. In Bassett Road, Auckland, there was a machine-gun killing, and a teenage hooker brought down Britain's War Secretary, John Profumo. Alvin Toffler would later say Friedan had "pulled the trigger on history". By 2000 her book had sold 3 million copies, and feminism was hitting its stride. My mother, who always thought a man would be the logical solution, didn't live to see that happen.

In New Zealand, this year, 50 years after The Feminine Mystique, it is:

• The 120th anniversary of women's suffrage.

THE FEMINIST MYSTIQUE: Betty Friedan, who died in 2006.

• The 120th anniversary of the first woman mayor in the British Empire, Elizabeth Yates in Onehunga.

• The 80th anniversary of the election of the first woman MP, Elizabeth McCombs.

• 16 years since Jenny Shipley became our first female prime minister.


BODY IMAGE: In 1963 women still strapped themselves into corsets.

• 14 years since Helen Clark became the first female prime minister to be elected (her term and Shipley's making 11 years in which we were led by women.)

• 66 years since Mabel Howard became our first woman Cabinet minister.

• 23 years since Penny Jamieson became the world's first female Anglican bishop, in Dunedin.

• 23 years since Dame Catherine Tizard became our first woman governor-general.

• 14 years since Sian Elias became our first woman chief justice.

So many triumphs, so much to crow about. There will always be unexpected consequences, though. So crowing first, then annoying questions.


Women now do better than men at all levels of education, and more women than men now have degrees. In traditional female jobs things have changed, too. We may still dominate nursing, but we've cranked up both its training and its salaries. We dominate teaching, as always, but have yanked up the status and salaries of preschool and primary teachers, along with their qualifications, to give them parity with secondary school teachers.

QUESTIONS: In upgrading nursing to degree level, did we make gaps for less educated women to do tiresome former nursing work for low pay, effectively creating a nursing elite and a nursing underclass?
Why has the rise in professionalism of the new elite not extended to aged care, and the care of people with special needs? With the rise in numbers and influence of midwives - another new elite and overwhelmingly female-dominated profession - have women been denied real choice - the argument in support of the rise of midwives in the first place - and is it an entirely good thing that family doctors have been edged out of maternity care? Why has the rate of caesarian sections not declined dramatically since male-dominated, supposedly surgery-focused birth practice ended? Why do women buy into the "too posh to push" condemnation of elective caesarians, but not, say, cosmetic surgery?


In 1963 women moulded themselves, as best they could, into an ideal hourglass body shape with the use of tight corsets, easies and uplift bras. Fashion models were not, as yet, anorexic or aged 12, and size O was unknown. Vaginas and nipples were only displayed by accident. Fat became a feminist issue when Susie Orbach's book argued that a lousy dynamic between men and women ultimately caused female obesity.

QUESTIONS: Does sexism explain widespread obesity among men, women and children? Is the fitness craze a positive for health, or does it more often reflect body image anxiety? When and why did cosmetic female genital surgery become mainstream? And Brazilians? Is it liberated to be Botoxed? Have we brought breasts and vaginas into public view, and does it matter?


In 1963 the pill had arrived, but doctors refused it to unmarried girls and women. No other contraception was as effective. Men talked about women being 'frigid'. Pregnant unmarried women either 'had to get married' or gave up babies for adoption. Pornography was illegal, G-strings were only seen on strippers,and the sex trade was illegal, as was abortion, as was homosexuality. No abortions were recorded in 1963.

QUESTIONS: Has legalising prostitution been a good thing for women? Last year's number of (now-legal) abortions was the lowest in 20 years, 14,475. How do we reconcile that figure with today's easy access to all forms of contraception? Has the rise in explicit R18 material since 1963 altered our attitudes to sex, and is it for the better? What happened to all the frigid women? And - given the abortion figure - does sex education in schools really make a difference?


Women barely figured in crime statistics in 1963, as perpetrators of just six percent of all crimes. Domestic violence was not taken as seriously as violence outside the home. Child sex abuse was seldom reported/known. Defence lawyers were free to trash the characters of rape complainantsin court. Reported rapes were few.

QUESTIONS: What explains the rise in female prison inmates from 1986-2009 of 297 percent, as against 161 percent for men? Why are female fraudsters on the rise, and in these times of equality, why do women get lesser penalties than men for identical offending? Why are 60 percent of female prisoners Maori? Are women committing an increasing number of violent crimes? To what do we attribute the rise in child sex abuse, or do we believe it was always like this? Why - still -do so few women pursue rape charges against their attackers?


In 1963 most women married and were the child-minders and housekeepers of their family, financially supported by their husbands. They typically earned less than men if they worked, and were unlikely to be promoted ahead of male colleagues. Families could afford to buy a home on one income.

QUESTIONS: Do women in paid work still have chief responsibility for childcare and housekeepingas well? Do most women now earn as much as most men? What effect may being unable to afford their own homes, even with both parents working, be likely to have on families?


In 1963 only heterosexual marriage was possible.There was social discrimination against people in de facto relationships, and against unmarried mothers. Gay live-in relationships, if known about, were rarely acknowledged. The vast majority of children lived with both parents, and only 3332 extramarital births were recorded. There were no women's refuges dealing with domestic violence.

QUESTIONS: What may be the implicationsfor marriage now that it is open to all genders? Why is marriage itself in decline, and why do same-sex couples seemingly want to buck that trend? By 2001 a third of all NZ families had a solo parent, and 25 percent of children are now said to live in poverty. Is there a direct link? The number of parents, mainly women, on the domestic purposes benefit rose from 17,231 in 1975 to 112,383 in 2010. How and why did this happen? What are the implications for their future when 45 percent of babies in this country are currently born to unmarried women, and why do women make that choice? Has there been a rise in domestic violence, or was it previously under-reported?


In 1963 there was no Ministry of Women's Affairs.

QUESTION: What does the Ministry of Women's Affairs do?


• What would Betty Friedan make of Madonna, Tracey Emin and Lady Gaga?
• Would she have enjoyed Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill?
• If she were young today would she have a pierced nipple/clitoris/tongue?
• What would her tattoo be, and where would she have it?
• Where did suburban neurosis go?
• Why are twice as many women as men currently on antidepressants?
• Why do three times as many men as women commit suicide?
• How are university women's studies courses faring?

A BIGGER QUESTION: In 1981, Friedan published The Second Stage, a follow-up covering what had happened since 1963, in which she wrote about the difficulties of women trying to have it all. She was criticised for abandoning the feminist critique of traditional gender roles when she described what she saw as the failure of feminism to value family life and children. What might she write today?

Sunday Magazine