Betty Friedan and the "Feminine Mystique"

Posted: Feb 09, 2006 12:05 AM

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?"

 Like most revolutions, feminism pushed the culture a few inches too far, ignoring the iron law of unintended consequences. Women who put their careers above all often found themselves listening to the remorseless ticking of their biological clocks without a man to love or child to nurture. Feminists had ignored Mother Nature, and Nature is the toughest mother of all.

 The number of childless women in their early 40s doubled over two decades. One study found that 42 percent of successful women in corporate America were childless after 40. The numbers grew in other professions as well, as women became workaholics like the men they had railed against. By the 1970s, Betty Friedan's famous "feminine mystique" had hardened into conventions that deprived women of the warmth and caring that had marked their sex as la difference.

 Betty Friedan made the mistake of imagining that all women were alike. She underestimated the passion of the conservative women led by Phyllis Schlafly, who almost single-handedly defeated the Equal Rights Amendment. In one debate, Ms. Friedan screamed at Mrs. Schlafly: "I'd like to burn you at the stake." Phyllis, who never loses her cucumber-like cool, replied: "I'm glad you said that, because it just shows the intemperate nature of proponents of ERA."

 Betty Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly clarified the issues for women, issues that still teeter on the seesaw of public opinion. Betty had the media with her, but Phyllis had a grass-roots movement of her creation that's still alive and well. John Kerry won the majority of single women in 2004, but George W. won the overwhelming majority of married women, who figured he would be more likely to keep the home fires ablaze.

 Betty Friedan was contemptuous of the radical feminists who set women against men, women again women, feminists against family. She warned young women of the peril of distorting the priorities of women and starting a war nobody could win. She was right about that, too.