On an October day in 1964, a friend invited Erma to join her at a talk to be given in Dayton by Betty Friedan, the author of a new best-selling book, The Feminine Mystique. Just to put things in perspective, at this point Erma was not yet writing a humor column. She had three kids ages 11, 9 and 6. She felt buried in responsibilities while beginning to raise questions about whether packing school lunches again, doing laundry again, cleaning the house again, planning dinner again, attending another PTA meeting, driving another car pool and managing yet another kid’s daily drama was the peak of what she was supposed to live for.
Erma describes the restive state she and her fellow housewives inhabited when they went to hear Betty Friedan speak. “What if all my friends get jobs outside of their homes and I get stuck with all their kids who throw up and have to be picked up at school…? What if my husband outgrows me mentally and starts to shop for someone who has read something more current than a steam iron warranty?” They hadn’t read The Feminine Mystique yet, but they had heard enough about it to have an inkling that Friedan would meet them where they were, would give them a sense of being heard and understood.
And yet, when Friedan spoke, instead of feeling acknowledged for once, Erma and her friends felt chastised “like we were back in grade school and got caught chewing gum before we could swallow it.” Freidan challenged them: “This is not funny… This is a battle to emancipate women!… Marriage and motherhood are essential parts of life, but not the whole of it… This is a sexist society. You are not using your God-given abilities to their potential.” Betty Friedan was angry. The Midwest audience she spoke to was not ready for anger.
Erma writes about her confusion, “Maybe I felt threatened and frightened by the changes she proposed… I had a life going here. Maybe it needed work, but I had a husband and three kids that I loved, and I wasn’t going to discard it… But I liked the part about using your God-given potential. I wondered if I had any.”
Erma read Mystique cover to cover. In the end she agreed with Friedan’s analysis, but she differed in her way of dealing with it. Betty pointed out that housewives have no one to represent what the housewife contends with day after day, no one to stand up for them, no leader, no heroine; Erma concurred. While Betty wanted the world to take the women’s movement seriously, Erma felt laughter was essential. This gave her the impetus she needed. Over the next couple of weeks, she assembled a set of sample articles about life in the suburbs, describing exactly what wasn’t being addressed, but with tongue planted firmly in cheek. She took the sample articles in to the Kettering Oakwood Times, a local weekly, and proposed writing a regular column. The rest is history. In a year she was a syndicated humorist, and her popularity grew from there. Meanwhile, The Feminine Mystique became a best seller, with over one million copies sold in its first year.
Both Friedan and Bombeck brought women’s issues to light. Erma became the housewife heroine that Betty said didn’t exist. Yet perhaps, when we hold our sides at Erma Bombeck’s drolleries, we should give a nod of thanks to the unrest articulated and fomented by Betty Friedan.
—Susan Marie Frontczak
Susan Marie Frontczak is a renowned living history presenter from Boulder, Colorado, who portrayed Erma Bombeck in the touring production of “Ohio Chautauqua 2018: Modern Legends.” She returns to Ohio in June 2019 to reprise the role on outdoor stages in Defiance (June 4), Milan (June 11), Geauga County (June 18) and Warren (June 25), again as part of the same free series sponsored by Ohio Humanities. Additional performances are planned at the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center in Tarpon Springs, Florida, on March 10, and in Berthoud, Colorado, on Mothers Day (May 12, 2019). This essay is the third in a six-part series that will be published on humorwriters.org. Read her previous essays, Erma Bomeck’s humor: pleasure or pain? and Erma Bombeck, the suburban housewife. Photo of Susan Marie Frontczak portraying Erma Bombeck courtesy of Janet Adams.