Early feminist movement

1963: the beginning of the feminist movement

Sylvia Plath died in 1963.Sylvia Plath died in 1963. Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS

"Is this all?" That was the question that echoed around a generation of US housewives in the early 1960s. Theirs was the problem with no name, wrote Betty Friedan in her 1963 bestseller, The Feminine Mystique, and the symptoms were legion. They included creeping fatigue, tranquiliser and alcohol abuse, bleeding blisters that appeared suddenly on their arms, which doctors attributed not to the cleaning fluids they used constantly, but a deeper malaise. In the years since the war, women had grown smaller (department store buyers reported they had shrunk three or four dress sizes), more feminine (30% of women dyed their hair blond), and apparently much sadder.

That icon of femininity, Marilyn Monroe, had died of an overdose the year before, and Sylvia Plath – just as outwardly feminine, but with a hidden, crackling rage – killed herself in London in 1963. Her death came not long after she published her novel, The Bell Jar. It was the story of Esther Greenwood, who goes to New York to take up an internship at a women's magazine, as Plath once had, before finding she can never quite match her inner life to the perfect face she has to present.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.A desperate, exaggerated femininity was being held up as an ideal for all women. In January 1963, Gloria Steinem, then a freelance journalist, packed her leotard in a hat box and auditioned to become a Playboy Bunny in an undercover assignment for Show magazine. Steinem exposed the low pay, sexual harassment and racism – black women were sniggeringly referred to as "chocolate bunnies" – and later, when she had become a feminist leader, wrote that all women were treated as bunnies.

A US debate that had started tentatively with President John F Kennedy's 1961 commission on the status of women blew up with Friedan's book, and continued, in 1966, with the creation of the National Organisation for Women, which Friedan initially led. These ideas began floating over to the UK – the feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham has said she began hearing arguments for women's liberation from the US and Germany around 1967. It was an age of early marriage in Britain, and larger families. The average age of first marriage for women in 1961 was 23.3, compared with 30 today; the average woman in 1964 had 2.95 children in her lifetime, while now she has 1.95.

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