Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Friedan legacy

My take on Betty Friedan, at Reason Express.

If there was a modern-day feminist matriarch, it was Betty Friedan. She looked the part, in her later years: a grande dame never conventionally beautiful but strikingly majestic, a lioness in winter with a grizzled mane.

Friedan, who died last week at 85, was widely credited with—or blamed for, depending on one's point of view—launching the modern women's movement with her 1963 best-seller, The Feminine Mystique, in which she challenged the 1950s ideal of female fulfillment through marriage, motherhood and suburban domesticity. A woman of paradox, she often found herself on the losing side in the ideological disputes within the movement she helped create; and the loss was as much the movement's as hers. As American feminism marks the passing of its founding mother, it also finds itself looking for direction, and still grappling with some of the dilemmas Friedan faced more than 40 years ago.

Since the revelation a few years ago (in the 1999 book, Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique, by historian Daniel Horowitz), that the pre–Feminine Mystique Friedan was not the apolitical housewife and writer she made herself out to be but a journalist with a background in far-left labor union activism, some of Friedan's conservative critics have tried to paint her as a radical intent on subverting the American family and society. But actually, the radicalism of The Feminine Mystique was in many ways surprisingly un-radical. Friedan sought to change women's roles and bring them out of the private domestic sphere, but she wanted to integrate them into the mainstream of the public sphere, not to revolutionize it.

The vision of a good life that emerges from her book is saturated with a very traditional Western and American humanism that, in some ways, harkens back to the 19th century. She celebrated the "unique human live one's life by purposes stretching into the future—to live not at the mercy of the world, but as builder and designer of that world" (a capacity that, she argued, "occupation: housewife" did not truly fulfill with its endlessly repetitive domestic tasks), and urged women to join men in "the battle with the world."

The Feminine Mystique has its rhetorical excesses, most notably the outrageous metaphor of the suburban home as a "comfortable concentration camp" (on the grounds that it, too, reduces its inhabitants to purely biological living). But one thing it never did was pit men against women as enemies or victimizers, or fall into a "women good, men bad" trap. If anything, Friedan tended to view men as victims of domineering wives who, frustrated in their own ambitions, had to seek status and identity through their husbands and treated a man as an "object of contempt" if he couldn't meet those needs. Women's "wasted energy," she wrote, was bound to be "destructive to their husbands, to their children, and to themselves."

Recent scholarship has challenged the notion that that modern liberal feminism sprang fully armed from The Feminine Mystique like Athena from the head of Zeus. Horowitz argues that many of its ideas were being widely discussed by the time of its publication, even in the very same magazines that Friedan blasted for promoting the happy housewife myth. (While Friedan claimed that she had to uphold the ideology of domesticity in her own writings for those magazines, Horowitz showed that most of her articles celebrated independent women with achievements outside the home.) Nonetheless, there is little doubt that Friedan's best-selling book helped channel and focus the already simmering female discontent, and in that sense she played a vital role.

A co-founder of the National Organization for Women, Friedan later found herself sidelined. Part of this had to do with her abrasive personality. As Judith Hennessee records in her warts-and-all 1999 biography, Betty Friedan: Her Life, Friedan saw herself as the alpha female of the feminist movement and had a tendency to be hostile and paranoid toward anyone who could threaten that status—she even accused Gloria Steinem of being a CIA plant—as well as rude and bullying toward subordinates. But there were ideological conflicts as well, with Friedan in opposition to the movement's growing radicalism.

Friedan was appalled by activists who wanted to pattern feminism on what she called "obsolete ideologies of class warfare," activists who saw the family as inherently oppressive. She deplored men-are-evil rhetoric and the obsession with male violence against women. (Interestingly, Friedan's own marriage, which ended in 1969, was marked by recurring violence—though, by all accounts, she was at least as much aggressor as victim.) Friedan's initial antipathy to the movement's embrace of lesbian rights has been rightly seen as having a homophobic tint (particularly in view of a cringeworthy passage in The Feminine Mystique in which she decried the rise of male homosexuality in America and blamed it on frustrated housewives smothering their sons). However, it also needs to be seen in the context of the 1970s advocacy of lesbian separatism as a political revolt against men.

In the end, Friedan was marginalized if not ostracized by the feminist movement; by 1991, Susan Faludi was proclaiming her a part of the "backlash" because of her insistence that marriage and motherhood are essential to most women's happiness. But, partly because of that, feminism itself ended up being marginalized by American culture.

In 2006, it is increasingly clear that Friedan was right about one thing: the central issue of feminism should have always been the work-family balance. It is an issue that women confront again today, as debates rage about educated professional women "opting out" to raise children. Friedan didn't necessarily have the right answers—she was, to the end of her life, a fan of institutional, government-subsidized day care—but she raised, at least, the right questions. Dated though it is in many ways, The Feminine Mystique deserves to be read today as an eloquent reminder of the dangers of defining female identity through home and motherhood.

Friedan was highly critical of Freud's views on women, but she embraced his view that love and work are the two basic elements of a fully human life, and passionately believed that women's lives should have both of those elements. In that, she was right. And perhaps, after all the battles between gender warmongers and latter-day champions of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan's vision of feminism as an equal partnership between men and women is the one that will endure.

A few additional reflections. I had two occasions to meet Friedan in person. In 1995, we were together on C-Span's Washington Journal show, discussing the day's news; though generally genial and friendly, Friedan made one comment that struck me as quite rude, and a cheap shot to boot. (Ironically, when I popped my tape of the program in the VCR the other day and randomly fast-forwarded, that was the exact spot on which I hit "play.") When we were discussing welfare reform and I said that it would be good idea to allow more experimentaion by the states, Friedan shot back, "You haven't been in this country long enough to know that the states won't do certain things unless the federal government makes them." By that time I had been in the U.S. for 15 years, hardly a new arrival fresh off the proverbial boat.

Several years later Friedan was a keynote speaker at a conference of the Women's Freedom Network, a "dissident feminist" group I had helped launch. The WFN was explicitly identified as being in opposition to establishment feminism (as well as traditionalist, Phyllis Schlafly-style anti-feminism), so in a way it took guts, and true intellectual independence, for Friedan to agree to attend and speak. I have to report that the conference organizers experienced firsthand, when working out Friedan's travel arrangements, some of the primadonna-ish ways chronicled by her unsparing biographer Judith Hennessee. Yet in her appearance at the event, she was gracious, warm, and charismatic.

Is Friedan's legacy compromised or even discredited by the revelation that she shaded the truth about herself in The Feminine Mystique, downplaying both her past political radicalism and her professional activities? A reader responding to my article yesterday suggested that Friedan was feminism's James Frey. In fact, as Alan Wolfe argued in this 1999 essay in The Atlantic, Friedan's self-presentation as a trapped suburban housewife just like the ones in her target audience had a lot to do with her book's appeal. But at the same time, Friedan did not not exactly make things up. (As Judith Shulevitz noted in her reply to Wolfe, Friedan had, in fact, been a victim of sex discrimination: the union newspaper where she had worked fired her after she got pregnant a second time.) And her case does not really stand or fall on the total accuracy of her depiction of her own experiences. The Feminine Mystique was not a memoir.

Friedan's depiction of the culture was not wholly accurate, either. The ideology of domesticity was not -- as one would sometimes think reading The Feminine Mystique -- enforced with a quasi-Stalinist rigor. Some years ago while doing research for my book, Ceasefire, I came across a library book published in 1960, titled College for Coeds. While hardly feminist, it decried the notion that "girls must choose between marriage and a career" and described working women in glowing terms as "acquiring a sense of fulfillment" and realizing "their importance as individuals."

And yet the larger picture holds. Friedan wrote in a culture in which, when Sandra Day O'Connor graduated third in her class at Stanford Law School, she could get no job offers from law firms except for secretarial jobs; in which, when the future Elizabeth Dole told her mother she was going to law school, her mother was so distressed she became physically ill.

To some extent, Friedan glamorized careers. (Her New York Times obituary featured a quote from The Feminine Mystique in which a college-educated housewife complains that very little of what she does during the day is "really necessary or important"; but surely, quite a few professionals could describe their jobs the same way.) And while she asserted, in a 1963 interview, that her slogan was not "Women of the world unite — you have nothing to lose but your men," but "You have nothing to lose but your vacuum cleaners," she seemed to give little thought to the question of who, come the revolution, would do the vacuuming. (The Feminine Mystique never mentions any changes in men's family roles, and sometimes Friedan seems to assume that women would have no problem balancing work and home if they just used their time more efficiently.) While she addressed many of those issues in her subsequent work, her proposed solutions were too one-size-fits all and too government-oriented.

Does this diminish Friedan's stature as a visionary? Not to me. She forcefully asserted that women's humanity transcends their biology; and she just as forcefully asserted that women's bonds with men, and with children, transcend patriarchy. And that's enough.


Anonymous said...

"Recent scholarship has challenged the notion that that modern liberal feminism sprang fully armed from The Feminine Mystique like Athena from the head of Zeus. Horowitz argues ...."

Cathy, Horowitz doesn't *do* sholarship. This is like citing Lott.

Anonymous said...


This is the smartest commentary I've read on Friedan anywhere. Thank you. I'd write more but I'm alone in a house with a two year old right now and don't think it is likely I can cobble together anything worthy of posting. I'll try later or tomorrow.

Robert said...

Barry, I believe you're conflating Daniel Horowitz, who is a respected scholar, with David Horowitz, who is a political activist.

Cathy Young said...

Barry, Robert is right. Wrong Horowitz. And I'm sure that both Horowitzes would be appalled at being so conflated. *G*

Cathy Young said...

Oh, and Helaine--thank you. Look forward to more from you.

Robert said...

Yes, I think we'd have a definite matter:antimatter situation going on with the two Horowitzes. (Obviously there is a parallel universe which has somehow gotten mixed up with our own, and we wound up with both of the mutually antithetical D. Horowitzes.)

mythago said...

It's a good overview--and you're correct to point out that the larger impact of the work is not diminished by Friedan's problems--but there's an awful lot of soft-pedaling there. Blaming the (rather tiny) lesbian separatist movement for Friedan's homophobia? Uh, not so much. And while it's obviously important to point out how the separate-spheres system also restricts men, those 'dominating' women are more pathetic than threatening to their husbands.

It's like listening to conservatives who shriek "Class warfare!" at the slightest suggestion that poor people exist. The fact that sexism disproportionately benefitted men and that the housewives Friedan wrote about were subordinate to, and dependent on, their husbands isn't man-hating or attacking men.

Lori Heine said...

Most of the commentary I have read about Betty Friedan is much less balanced than that which appears here. The majority of people weighing in seem to be riding their own, personal hobbyhorses.

Betty Friedan asked more questions than she answered. That seems to be true of most thinkers. She was an important figure, but she merely started something and left others to complete it.

Since her passing, I have heard, variously, that she was "anti-gay," that she was "pro-gay," that she didn't like men, that she liked men too much, that she didn't give women enough credit, that she gave women too much credit, and thus and such and so forth. But she was only one human being, she was very much the product of her time (as even those who set out to change things always must be), and she did the best she could with what she had to work with.

Given some of the lunatics that have taken over at least the liberal wing of the feminist movement, it is sort of refreshing to re-read Friedan. She's so relatively un-nutball, she actually makes me nostalgic for the early Sixties.

mythago said...

lori, I don't see that you can on the one hand claim she was a 'product of her times,' yet laud her for producing a work that challenged and was in opposition to the dominant thinking of her times.

Her homophobia was fairly well-documented; I think one would have to be a little out of the reality-based paradigm to paint her as "pro-gay".

Lori Heine said...

And just a P.S. here. Simply because Friedan didn't want to see the gay rights movement conflated with feminism, that hardly means she was a homophobe.

There's too much muddy thinking going on in our society today. Issues that ought better to be treated separately get all stuck together in a huge, messy, gooey, scary wad. I speak as one who is both a lesbian and a feminist. Each issue, of course, boils down to basic human rights, but each is better served by being considered on its own merits.

Betty Friedan got us thinking about womens' role in society. That, in and of itself, was a powerful and significant legacy. I'm not sure why so many people think she should have saved the whole world.

mythago said...

Simply because Friedan didn't want to see the gay rights movement conflated with feminism

If it were really "simply" that Friedan saw the two issues as separate, sure. That's not the case. Friedan saw lesbians as a credibility threat and, from all accounts, didn't think much of them on a personal level.

While I agree with you that the all-issues-are-one viewpoint is sloppy thinking, so is the viewpoint that every cause is carefully separated into its own little Plexiglass cube, with no possible relation or overlap. It's silly to pretend that there is no relationship between sexism and homophobia, or to ignore the historical use of lesbian-baiting as a club to bash feminists.

I'm not sure why so many people think she should have saved the whole world.

I'm not sure why so many people think that honoring her legacy while acknowledging her faults is such a terrible thing, or that one either must praise her or condemn her 100%

Revenant said...

lori, I don't see that you can on the one hand claim she was a 'product of her times,' yet laud her for producing a work that challenged and was in opposition to the dominant thinking of her times.

I don't see why not. History is filled with examples of people who radically challenged the status quo in one area, but exhibited entirely conventional thinking in others. Original thinkers are seldom original in *every* aspect of their thinking.

Lori Heine said...

Revenant is right. Human progress is pretty much a matter of "two steps forward, one step back," as the saying goes. We learn a little as we go.

I can understand why heterosexual feminists, back in the Sixties and Seventies, didn't want to get saddled with the "all-feminists-are-lesbians" albatross many anti-feminists tried to hang on them. Was that ignorant thinking on the part of feminism's critics? Of course it was. But that's simply where society was at that time. (To some degree, sadly, that's where it still is.)

There are a lot of people who have furthered civilization, and to whom I am grateful for their contributions. That doesn't necessarily mean I would have them all over for pizza and beer.

Someday, a future generation will be chuckling at what dinosaurs we all were. I don't think any of us can totally escape being products of our own era.

Cathy Young said...

I don't blame Friedan for being concerned that feminism would be equated with lesbianism. When you're making an argument for women's independence, careers, etc., you don't want it dismissed as "Oh, only lesbians want/need that." But I do think that from what I've read, Friedan went far beyond that.

Anonymous said...

To use a somewhat hackneyed but still relevant analogy - Lincoln was firmly against the institution of chattel slavery, but like the vast majority of 19th Century whites he did not believe that blacks on the whole were the intellectual equals of whites. That makes him a flawed vessel in the eyes of many 20th and 21st Century activists, but it hardly diminishes the magnitude of his actual accomplishments in the context of his times.

mythago said...

History is filled with examples of people who radically challenged the status quo in one area, but exhibited entirely conventional thinking in others.

Exactly. Which is why it's appropriate to note the warts, instead of getting mad that it's tarnishing the hero in question's legacy.