Betty Friedan's passing

Posted: Feb 08, 2006 8:05 PM

Two famous women died last week. And surely Betty Friedan would have noticed the irony that the one whose funeral made the national news was the woman who became famous through her husband.

None of which is to take away from the grace and dignity with which Coretta Scott King bore her widowhood. Living up to the position of national symbol is difficult work. So the nation paid fitting tribute, in the person of Coretta Scott King, to the passing of a great era of civil rights.

But of the two women, just as surely it is Betty Friedan who has the better claim to have actually changed history.

For the better or for the worse? Her death might be the occasion for a serious and long-delayed re-evaluation of the social revolution of the last 40 years known as feminism. Conservative critiques of feminism have a certain time-warped quality, a reluctance to acknowledge that the fruits that all women enjoy are the product of this tree. Social movements do not succeed on this scale unless they identify and respond to some real and deep human need.

Yet too many orthodox feminists have made of feminism a dogmatic religion; they seem more interested in defending its purity and goodness than in reflecting on the decidedly mixed impact of social changes of the last 40 years on women's lives. No woman I know wishes to "turn back the clock" to a time when women were blocked from fulfilling their career dreams. But how do we move forward without acknowledging the losses, as well as celebrating the gains?

Feminism arose on the left, but it succeeded in large part because its primary goals were so congruent with the broad sweep of capitalism: eroding barriers to market production. Today, thanks to feminism, anything a woman wants to do that she can do on her own -- or with the help of the market -- she is now more free to do. But anything that requires social support to accomplish -- such as getting stably married and having children -- has become immeasurably harder.

The problem that feminism has never yet named is that women want to have children, and children compete with our ability to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into market production. Our children, by turning us into mothers, make us vulnerable, economically and emotionally.

Orthodox feminism's most persistent answer to this problem has been to call for a network of daycare centers. Well, we have them now. Certainly affluent, educated women have no problem with access to child care, and yet the problem of motherhood remains. The problem is that love, care, connection and intimacy with our children compete for our time and energy with ambition, power, glory and money, in ways that are different for mothers than for fathers.

Orthodox feminism's secondary solution, to make men more involved in children's lives, has been stymied by its simultaneous commitment to divorce, unwed parenting, and female sexual "autonomy" as signs of social progress. If men aren't in the home, they can hardly do any of the housework, can they?

Until feminism can come to grips with sexual reality -- with the ways in which men and women differ -- it will remain flummoxed and silent about some of the most important problems women now face.

We come into this world not only as human beings, but as boys and girls who long for and need a culture that affirms the value of both male and female. The sex roles of the 1950s were unsatisfying to too many women, and so in need of reform. But to jettison the idea of sex itself, to make androgyny the goal, was feminism's fatal mistake.

We are still waiting for the next generation's Betty Friedan to lead us anew.