How the women’s movement transformed society

After Betty Friedan got her Smith College classmates to complete a questionnaire about their lives at their 15th reunion in 1957, she immediately grasped the significance of their responses. Many of the highly educated women felt trapped by midcentury America’s constrictive domestic ideals, unfulfilled by the roles of housewife and mother.

Friedan, a freelance writer and a wife and mother herself, was unable to interest any magazines in publishing her findings. She instead embarked on writing “The Feminine Mystique,” the explosive and groundbreaking book whose 1963 publication turned its author into a celebrity and, more significantly, is credited with igniting the second wave of the feminist movement.

Women’s rights as human rights

Rachel Shteir’s brisk, compelling biography, “Betty Friedan: Magnificent Disrupter,” conveys the enduring importance of her subject’s signature work, which excavated the quiet desperation of a primarily white and middle-class subset of American women. In describing what she famously called the “problem that had no name,” Friedan, according to Shteir, “laid the groundwork for women’s rights to be regarded as a civil right,” a notion that while taken for granted today was hardly obvious at the time.

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