Betty Friedan still shaping the feminist movement

ALICE STEINBACH

August 27, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

It's probably just a coincidence that in 1963 these two major events occurred: One, Betty Friedan's revolutionary book "The Feminine Mystique" appeared; and, two, the popular television show about the ideal family of the 1950s, "Leave It to Beaver," disappeared.

Nonetheless, coincidence or not, it is tempting to look back and see symbolized in these two events an important turning point in the evolution of a woman's place in society.

Of course, of the two it was Friedan's book that altered the social landscape, changing the way we live and the whole trajectory of relationships, families, politics and the workplace. "The Feminine Mystique," in the opinion of sociology professor Amitai Etzioni, is "one of those rare books we are endowed with only once in several decades, a volume that launched a major social movement."

This quote from Professor Etzioni comes straight from Playboy magazine, the issue just out that features an interview with none other than the founding mother of contemporary feminism herself, Betty Friedan. And in this so-called Year of the Woman, it seems appropriate to revisit the woman whose recharting of the social map set a new course for our society.

It's also appropriate -- and necessary -- to remind ourselves exactly what it was that Friedan did.

It had nothing to do with bra burning or reviling men or abandoning families. What Friedan did was to tell women everywhere that the problem they suffered from -- "the problem that had no name" -- resulted from a society whose social, educational and commercial pressures had created a harmful discrepancy between what women really are and what they are told they should be.

For those of you who are too young to remember, I'll just insert one little example of what society's male-dominated attitude was like back in those days: In 1956, Life magazine interviewed five male psychiatrists who pronounced that female ambition was the root of mental illness in wives, emotional upset in husbands and homosexuality in boys.

In those days, the ideal woman was a version of June Cleaver: the "happy Mom" who not only was always there for Dad and the kids but, more important, embraced such a role as the only role for women. The premise put forth by Friedan's book -- that women might want more than just the June Cleaver role -- was, and continues to be, the most hotly debated issue surrounding feminism.

Friedan revisits the issue in the Playboy interview, saying: "I never believed that feminism was opposed to family. Feminism implied an evolution of family. Feminism was not opposed to marriage and motherhood. It wanted women to be able to define themselves as people and not just as servants to the family. You want a feminism that includes women who have children and want children because that's the majority of women."

It is this sort of observation by Friedan that has met with hostility from some younger feminists, including Susan Faludi. Faludi, the author of "Backlash," has accused Friedan of damaging the feminist cause by suggesting the women's movement was failing because "its leaders had ignored the maternal call."

It is a charge Friedan answers this way in the Playboy interview: "Faludi is right that the backlash has undermined much of the progress we made. But the answer is not to ignore that most women want families. The women's movement started with many women who already had children and didn't want to be defined solely in those terms."

It's an interesting observation -- that many of the women who started the movement were mothers. And it may account, in part, for some of the tension between older feminists and younger feminists. Among those younger women who want but have not yet had children, some of the toughest decisions -- or choices, if you prefer -- lie in their futures.

And I'm willing to bet that no matter what track these young mothers choose -- the stay-at-home track, the Mommy Track, the fast track -- they will feel some guilt. Which is why it's important for women to support and respect one another's decisions. Whatever they may be.

Or as Friedan puts it: "I am against polarization of women against women whether it comes from Dan Quayle or Susan Faludi or Camille Paglia."

She's still Betty, isn't she, after all these years.

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