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Progress Stalled

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Jessica Bennett

“We could not imagine ourselves beyond the age of 21,” Betty Friedan wrote in 1963, in a message that shocked — and liberated — thousands of American women. “We had no image of our own future.” The argument, of course, was that women were stuck: stuck in the kitchen, the home, changing diapers and tending to dinner and baking pies and cleaning up suburban houses and popping tranquilizers as they squashed their ambitions. Friedan put a label on that emptiness — it was “the problem that had no name.”

Fifty years later, we’ve had a female secretary of state, female supreme court justices and a workplace in which women are the majority. Friedan’s message has been ingrained in a generation of young women who know what they want and stop at nothing to accomplish it. Women these days are excelling in school. They’re dominating the workforce. They’re receiving more advanced degrees than ever before. They’re doing so well, it seems, that most have no need to even read the great Friedan text — because, well, why read about stalled ambition when we’re bursting at the seams with it?

And yet, for third wave feminists like me, entering the workforce came as a shock. In age-old institutions seeping with male bosses, male culture and policies that assumed equality — because we’d already achieved it, right? — the sheer inability to acknowledge unequal footing seemed baffling. Friedan fought tirelessly for equal pay for women; she was there as the Equal Pay Act was signed into law in 1963. She worked to desegregate Help Wanted ads by gender (you know, curvaceous secretaries to the left, hard-hitting business executives to the right). And yet, this month, a report determined that the most common job for women remains secretary. Fifty years after the Equal Pay Act, women’s wages have risen less than a half-penny per year (from 59 cents to the male dollar, to just 77 cents now). Even among full-time working women, women earn just 81 percent what their male counterparts make today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — a full percentage point lower than what they earned the year prior.

Sure, much progress has been made — but somewhere along the way, it stalled. And the solution, it seems, is not as simple as fair pay legislation (though of course that certainly helps). On a larger scale, the wage gap is about many things: policies that don’t make it easy for mothers to re-enter the workforce, not encouraging women and girls to enter into high-paying careers like math and science. And then, of course, there is negotiation — perhaps the most controversial thing you can say about the wage gap these days — that women simply don’t negotiate like men, and are penalized when they do. (One study even determined they were just a quarter as likely as men to negotiate a first salary.)

What would Friedan say about all of this today? Well, as Anna Quindlen puts it in the afterword to the book’s 50th anniversary edition, it’s no doubt a message that “set off a social and political explosion.” And yet, it also makes clear just how far we still are from a leveled landscape.

Jessica Bennett is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic and Newsweek, where she was a longtime staffer. She is the executive editor of Tumblr.

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