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 capacity…to 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 Reason.com 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.