Betty Friedan goes beyond gender limits

November 09, 1997|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,SUN STAFF

"Beyond Gender," by Betty Friedan. Edited with Brigid O'Farrell. The Woodrow Wilson Press. $22.95.

When Betty Friedan's "inner Geiger counter" began ticking loudly in the early 1960s, she wrote "The Feminine Mystique" and touched a spark to the repressed ambition and anger of millions of dissatisfied women. The movement those women created proceeded to challenge the status quo of gender roles and responsibilities and turn conventional wisdom upside down.

Friedan's Geiger counter is ticking again. This time, her attention is homed on difficulties created in part by the successes of the feminist movement.

As more women work out of the home - whether from economic necessity or from professional aspirations or a mixture of both - there is less time for families, for community, for nourishing the ties that bind women, men and children into healthy families. Meanwhile, both women and men are feeling the sting of corporate downsizing, mandatory overtime and stagnant wages.

What to do? Friedan's latest tract, "Beyond Gender: The New Politics of Work and Gender," attempts to address those issues by searching for a new paradigm - ways to restructure the economy so that all workers can better balance obligations to their employers, their families and to the larger community.

"Beyond Gender" is largely a narrative history of Friedan's own thinking about these issues, amplified by conversations with friends and participants in seminars she has run at the Woodrow Wilson Center and other places. The topics are familiar to anyone concerned about family issues: the increasing polarization between the wealthy and the poor; the effect of downsizing on the families of laid-off workers, as well as on those of the over-taxed employees who retain their jobs; the impact of welfare reform; the time pressures that strain working parents everywhere; and so on.

Friedan notes that these discussions can still spark divisions among feminists, with some arguing that the women's movement should focus primarily on women, not on economic issues that affect both women and men. Friedan is frank about her discomfort with this kind of thinking, arguing that it is both divisive and destructive since it encourages a backlash against women's success.

Friedan's quest is for a "new paradigm" that goes beyond the old sexual politics pitting men against women. Instead of dividing people into special interests, the new paradigm would instead create ways for both women and men to find fulfillment and decent wages in work, while also having the time and energy for a healthy home life and participation in the larger community.

Much of "Beyond Gender" is devoted to discussion of such possibilities. Flex-time, shorter work weeks, pro-rated benefits for part-timers and other good ideas get prominent attention. But neither Friedan nor the participants in her seminars seem to have a clear notion of how best to move these proposals from theory to reality, or even much optimism that it can be done. After all, who can now imagine Congress legislating a 32-hour work week?

Plenty of readers will agree with Friedan that we need a new paradigm of work and family. But what they find here will be more food for thought than a road map for getting there.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial page editor at The Sun. She is author of Mortal Matters: When a loved one dies (1990).

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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