50th Anniversary of The Feminine Mystique and Women in the Workplace

February 20, 2013 | Karin

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. It is an important book to read to better understand second wave feminism in America.  A number of our NeW chapters have read it and also our Online Book Club read it. A New York Times article, Criticisms of a Classic Abound, about the anniversary notes the role of the book in feminism, while also acknowledging some criticisms of the book and Friedan.

That phrase [feminine mystique], of course, became famous when “The Feminine Mystique” was published, 50 years ago on Tuesday, to wide acclaim and huge sales, and it remains enduring shorthand for the suffocating vision of domestic goddess-hood Friedan is credited with helping demolish. But her book has been shadowed by its share of critics ever since, including many otherwise sympathetic scholars who have doggedly chipped away at its own mystique.

Friedan, who died in 2006, was not just the frustrated “housewife” of her official biography, they point out, but a former left-wing journalist and activist whose jeremiad appeared in a climate that was more primed to receive it than she might have admitted.

Friedan wrote of what she saw as the condition and frustrations of women at the time. Where are we today?

An article in the Wall Street Journal this week highlighting an effort by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to bring women back to its firm coincides nicely with the anniversary week.

McKinsey & Co. wants its moms back.

The big consulting firm is quietly reaching out to female employees who left some years ago—presumably to start families—to see whether they are ready to return.

Details of the initiative, still in its early stages, are sketchy, and McKinsey offered no further information, except to say it isn’t a companywide policy. But the effort is one small signal that at least some companies are re-examining some of the most basic terms of women’s working lives.

Other big consulting firms have had already some success attracting more women back to the work.

The other Big Three consulting firms have their own programs targeted at current and former female employees. At Bain & Co., a group of partners oversees women’s initiatives, staying in touch with female alumni and promoting flexible work options.

More than 100 women, most of them mothers, have returned to the firm since 2000, says Russ Hagey, Bain’s global chief talent officer and a senior partner. The firm says more than 80% of its female partners have taken advantage of flextime.

Boston Consulting Group says it focuses heavily on recruiting and retaining women, offering part-time options, mentoring and professional development programs. Lucy Brady, a BCG partner and mother of three, says she was appointed partner while working part-time at the firm, which she has done for 10 out of 15 years.

Too often feminists call for government involvement in private businesses to supposedly benefit women. As we reflect this week on The Feminism Mystique, it is nice to see a private company taking action on its own accord to benefit women.

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