Like it or not, we live in a world riven by polarities: black/white, red/blue, left/right. Our emotional responses to subjects that demand reasonable debate but show us to be blinded by rigid points of view can even be measured by the latest technology of brain imaging. We cheat both the record and ourselves when we overlook the hard truths embedded in the ideas of people we dislike (or think we should dislike).
There was considerable gnashing of teeth among some conservatives the other day on the occasion of the death of Betty Friedan. When certain of her critics paused to consider her legacy, they focused only on what they didn't like about the revolution she midwifed.
There was, to be sure, lots not to like. Betty Friedan was one tough mother. She overstated her case about the boredom of the 1950s American housewife, and she indulged in vicious and damaging hyperbole, describing the suburban housewife as living in a "comfortable concentration camp." But she transformed certain female realities that would benefit generations that came later, whether pleasing to liberal or angering to conservative.
Before she wrote "The Feminine Mystique" in 1963, many women who aspired to work in certain trades or pursue careers in the professions were consigned to the closets of their suburban homes, both literally and figuratively. She blazed a way out into a world of expanded opportunities that young women today expect as their natural due. It's important not to confuse Betty Friedan, the mother of modern feminism, with all that came after her. When she saw the damage wrought by radical feminists, she challenged the movement she founded, confronting the lesbian conspirators who would ignore the emotional wants and needs of women who yearned to be full-time mothers, or who wanted to mix family with work. She was denounced by some of the sisters as "bourgeois."
In her 1981 book, "The Second Stage," she examined some of the not-so-good changes her revolution had wrought. She told of the "executive assistant" she met in the office of a Los Angeles television producer. The woman, in her late 20s, beautiful, accomplished and "dressed for success," liked her work and saw it as a rung on the ladder to greater opportunity. "I know I'm lucky to have this job," she told Betty, "but you people who fought for these things had your families. You already had your men and your children. What are we supposed to do?"