Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Woman Spoke Up—The Book that Changed America

On February 19, 1963 W.W. Norton and Company issued Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.   That book, along with the nearly contemporaneous arrival of the Pill as a reliable and affordable form of contraception, ushered in the social and political movement sometimes called the Second Wave of Feminism.

With astonishing speed—less than a decade—that movement would embrace and personally empower millions of women with local level consciousness raising groups, sophisticated national organizations, political operations, and a network of publications.  Long held assumptions about home, family, work, and other issues would be turned on their heads.  It was in a real sense a revolution.

Almost 50 years later the spasmodic eruption of the extreme right wing in the country, empowered by the election of Republicans to national and state level legislative power,  has turned its attention to undoing that revolution.  That is what the current uproar over contraception and abortion is really all about—attacking the gains women felt so confident it that they thought they could never be challenged again.  About 25% of the American population wants to turn back the clock to what they imagine was a safer world where everyone knew their place and “morals” ruled.  They want to recreate the very environment that Friedan rebelled against.

Friedan was born Bettye Naomi Goldstein in 1921 to a Jewish family in overwhelmingly Goyish Peoria, Illinois.  Her father owned a local jewelry store and her mother wrote society news for the local paper—until she was forced to give up her career after marriage, something she urged her daughter never to do.

Growing up in the Depression years, she became inflamed with a passion for social justice.  She also acutely felt the sting of common anti-Semitism.  She developed an interest in Marxism while still in high school, which may have been why, despite being a regular contributor, she was turned down for a spot as a columnist. 

In 1938 her family found enough money to send her to prestigious Smith College, one of the Seven Sister Schools to the then all male Ivy League.  Excelling academically, she won a scholarship to continue her education, pursuing a degree in psychology.  She also continued writing, including placing several poems in the campus literary magazine and rising to editor of the newspaper in 1941.  Under her leadership, the paper took a sharply political and leftist tone.

After graduating with honors in 1942, she went to the University of California at Berkley on a Fellowship.  She plunged into radical political activity there as well.  But in 1943 she abandoned her academic aspirations at the urging of her then boyfriend.

After leaving school she went to work as a journalist for left wing and labor outlets, first  The Federated Press and then beginning in  1945,  the United Electrical Workers UE News.

While working at the UE News, she married advertising executive Carl Friedan in 1947.  As she continued her career the couple would have three children and move to a comfortable suburban life.  Ironically, here union employers forced her out in 1953 after the birth of her second daughter. 

Friedan then turned to freelance writing, often contributing to main stream women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan.

In 1957 Friedan was asked to write an article on what happened to members of her graduating class for their 15th reunion.  She sent questionnaires to as many as she could find and received over two hundred replies.  Most of her classmates, it turned out, had abandoned careers to raise families.  And they were miserable and unfulfilled.  Intrigued by what she called problem that has no name, she embarked on further research and study.

When the women’s magazines to which she regularly contributed all rejected an article on the subject, Friedan was furious and went to work expanding the article into a book. 

Among other things, she came to the conclusion that popular women’s magazines and cultural in general had abandoned independence as a goal for women and pushed the ideal of finding fulfillment in marriage and family life.  When the nuclear family could not fulfill women and when they lost their identity and sense of self, women became conflicted, guilt ridden, and neurotic.

Friedan advocated for women to pursue careers either in lieu of marriage and traditional family life or within a re-defined marriage of equals.  She outlined the cultural, political, and economic barriers to fulfillment and advocated action to tear them down.

The result was The Feminine Mystique.  It created an immediate sensation, zoomed to the top of the non-fiction best seller list and stayed there for months.  Its notoriety was stoked by the shocked and horrified response of many, mostly male, reviewers and the press in general. 

But women, especially middle class women, responded urgently to the books message.  They began meeting in living rooms, libraries, church basements, and coffee shops in small groups to compare their own experiences creating a boom in consciousness raising groups that gave women the support of their sisters and empowered them to act.

A sudden celebrity, Friedan found herself anointed de facto the leader of a new movement.  In 1966 she helped make that status official by being among the founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which quickly gave political muscle to the new movement.  She was elected NOW’s first President and launched their first major initiative—a push to revive the moribund Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution and get it ratified by the States.

She served NOW as President until 1970 and then went on to lead the national Women’s Strike for Equality, and led a march of 50,000 women in New York City.  The next year she teamed with her sometimes bitter rival for leadership of the movement, Gloria Steinem, to found the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Friedan was also a founder of the organization that became the National Abortion Rights Action League.  Despite this she later regretted the emphasis on abortion and sexual rights, believing that the core of the women’s struggle was economic opportunity.  She was also uncomfortable with the rising visibility and importance of lesbians in the movement, although over time her notorious iciness and became more accepting.

Friedan was not without critics—and not all of them were enemies of the women’s movement.  She was abrasive, often angry, and hard to work with for associates.  She demanded deference to her position as an indispensible founder.  Beyond personality, some critics of her landmark first book took her to task for writing only for highly educated women in the solid middle class.  Indeed they were the focus of The Feminine Mystique and the backbone of the early movement.  Non-whites and working class women—women who had always worked to support their families and had jobs instead of careers—were at best the subject of benign neglect.

Friedan, originally a socialist and labor person, seemed to have forgotten some of her own experiences.  But she firmly believed that the ERA and reforms like insuring equal pay would raise all boats and elevate the status of pink collar workers along with educated professionals.

But the seeming disdain of the early movement for working class women, and their perceived antagonism to women who chose a traditional family role, quickly became the nucleus around which the rising right wing movement of the late 20st and early 21st Century spun its fantasy of snobbish elites turning class resentments against feminists and other progressives. 

Friedan continued writing, speaking and organizing almost to the moment of her death.  She never mellowed. She died on her 85th birthday, February 4, 2006.  She left behind three children—and the Women’s Movement.

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