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Digital History ID 3339

 

Hosted by Jack Bailey, a gravel-voiced former carnival barker, “Queen For A Day” was one of the most popular daytime television shows of the 1950s. Five times a week, three women, each with a hard-luck story, recited their tales of woe--diseases, retarded children, poverty. The studio audience, with the aid of an applause meter, would then decide which woman had the greater misfortune. She became "queen for a day." Bailey put a crown on her head, wrapped her in a mink coat (which she got to keep for 24 hours), and told her about the new Cadillac she would get to drive (also for the next 24 hours). Then, the queen was presented with gifts: a year's supply of Helena Rubinstein cosmetics; a Clairol permanent and once-over by a Hollywood makeup artist; and the electric appliances necessary for female happiness--a toaster oven, an automatic washer and dryer, and an iron. The gifts provided everything a woman needed to be a prettier and better housewife.

One woman in the television audience was Betty Friedan. A 1942 honors graduate of Smith College and former psychology Ph.D. candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, Friedan had quit graduate school, married, moved to the New York suburbs, and bore three children in rapid succession. American culture told her that husband, house, children, and electric appliances were true happiness. But Friedan was not happy. And she was not alone.

In 1957, Friedan sent out questionnaires to fellow members of her college graduating class. The replies amazed her. Again and again, she found women suffering from "a sense of dissatisfaction." Over the next five years, Friedan interviewed other women at PTA meetings and suburban cocktail parties, and she repeatedly found an unexplainable sense of melancholy and incompleteness. Friedan noted, "Sometimes a woman would say 'I feel empty somehow ... incomplete.' Or she would say, 'I feel as if I don't exist.'" Friedan was not the only observer to detect a widespread sense of discontent among American women.

Doctors identified a new female malady, the housewife's syndrome, characterized by a mixture of frustration and exhaustion. CBS broadcast a television documentary entitled "The Trapped Housewife." Newsweek magazine noted that the nation's supposedly happy housewife was "dissatisfied with a lot that women of other lands can only dream of. Her discontent is deep, pervasive, and impervious to the superficial remedies which are offered at every hand." The New York Times editorialized, "Many young women ... feel stifled in their homes." Redbook magazine ran an article entitled "Why Young Mothers Feel Trapped" and asked for examples of this problem. It received 24,000 replies.

”Why” Friedan asked, “were American women so discontented?” In 1963, she published the answer in her book, The Feminine Mystique. This book, one of the most influential books ever written by an American, helped to launch a new movement for women's liberation. The book touched a nerve, but the origins of the movement lay in the role of females in American society.

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