Monday, February 06, 2006

Life and Times

Over the weekend feminist Betty Friedan passed away. Hailed in both life and death as an icon of Feminism, I have a vague, half-hearted connection to her: she went to Smith College, my wife’s alma mater. Her iconic status comes from authoring the book The Feminine Mystique and co-founding NOW. I would like to take a look at this woman who many consider to have essentially helped found Second Wave Feminism.

Bettye Goldstein was born in the Midwest in 1921 to a jewelry store owner father and a newspaper editor mother. Although as a Jew she felt discriminated against during her high school years in Peoria, she lived a life of privilege and eventually attended Smith College (which, I must add, is as academically tough as they come in addition to being a not-inexpensive ivy league school). She went on to grad school in Berkeley (studying psychology) and turned down a fellowship for PhD work in psychology in about 1942.

Drawn to journalism in imitation of her mother, after leaving school Betty went to Greenwich Village and became a journalist. She married Carl Friedan, a budding theatre director, in 1947, eventually having three children. At the birth of her third child, Betty and her family moved from the garden apartment community of Parkway Village in Queens to Rockland County. During this time she continued to work as a journalist, primarily as part of the labor movement of the period.

According to ‘the story’ Betty conducted a survey of her fellow Smith alumnae in 1957 and discovered that most were unhappy; this, it is said, was the spark that led to The Feminine Mystique. The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963 and was pretty much an instant hit.

The core argument of The Feminine Mystique is that the concept that women find happiness in the family is a false consciousness; that men returning from WWII wanted mothering from their wives, causing an environment where women lost their identities by being subsumed into their families. The truth, she argued, was that women were to find fulfillment in work outside the home, in a professional career. She also argued that children were made weak-willed and listless by being too much in the company of their mother and that removing them from the family earlier would be better for them.

In 1966 Betty co-founded the National Organization of Women and served as its first president, from ’66 to ’70. In 1969 she also co-founded NARAL. Also in 1969 was her divorce from Carl, whom she accused of beating her; he strongly denied those claims and Betty later retracted them. She continued as an activist, writer, and speaker until her death this last weekend.

From biography to obituary, most writings of Betty’s life seem oddly similar and oddly bland. Her life after the presidency of NOW and her divorce is largely absent from most biographies, even while listing her bibliography. It can be difficult for people to learn what her husband Carl’s profession was, or even the names of her children and where she worked as a young woman. For all of her impact and the fact that she is largely the link connecting groups like NOW and NARAL to each other as well as founding them, we know far, far less about her personal life than we do about, say, Gloria Steinem’s own life. There is some speculation that if her supporters believe details of her life would undermine her message. Let’s look at it, shall we?

Her various biographies agree that Betty was born into a family that can be described as ‘upper middle class’. Although she often described herself as a ‘typical suburban housewife’, in interviews she admits that she hated the suburbs and never lived there, instead moving from privileged urban life to an exclusive exurban area to raise her children. While in interviews and articles she repeatedly claims that after she was fired during her second pregnancy she became ‘essentially a housewife’, in reality she maintained a full-time job outside the home as a freelance journalist and employed a full-time maid. Indeed, her husband complained at the time that she was so busy with her career he felt that she was neglecting her role as a wife and mother. While this may not be a damning statement to a modern feminist, it sorely undercuts her claims that she was ‘trapped’ at home, unfulfilled.

In actuality, Betty Friedan was a highly-active communist activist and agitator. A staunch Stalinist, some argue that Betty’s opposition to the ‘nuclear family’ had a lot more to do with the communist theory than with ‘liberating’ women. So her contention that the ‘woman problem’ only interested her after her Alumnae meeting is almost certainly false. Her long devotion to communism is well described in many of the links here, as well as in Daniel Horowitz’s book Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminist Mystique. When Betty learned that Prof. Horowitz planned to tell the truth about her work at the time of the writing of The Feminine Mystique she accused him of ‘red baiting’ and refused to cooperate.

Indeed, the influence of communism on modern feminism is so great that it is impossible to deny that Second Wave Feminism is no more than an outgrowth of communism. Communist theory held that only by eradicating the morals and customs of the past could the utopic communist world be made. Thus much of the language of Feminism is borrowed from communist writings, ranging from the support and promotion of abortion to idea of the exploitation of women by men being a part of existing political and economic structures. Some scholars have noted that feminism has weakened or died in post-communist Europe.

Another complaint about The Feminine Mystique and Second Wave Feminism is that both focused on, essentially upper-middle class White women. The author bell hooks points out that the call for women to leave the home and find a fulfilling career ignores poor women for whom a lifetime of work was the norm and who considered domestic life a luxury to be desired. Further, hooks points out that Friedan and the other leading feminists of the time (mostly upper-middle class Whites, as well) failed to discuss, perhaps even realize, who would be called in to replace the educated, upper middle class Whites who were leaving the home.

My conclusions? Betty Friedan was an effective writer and justly an icon for the feminist movement. She was also a Stalinist, lied about her background to be more appealing, and effective, and was almost solely interested in people she was most familiar with, people like herself: wealthy, educated, professional women with no need to work, but instead a surplus of time and money based upon their social and economic situation.

Since the publication of The Feminine Mystique the divorce rate has exploded, the number of children without fathers has gone from almost-none to the majority of all children, and the average woman has become less likely to marry or have children. Yet single women are poorer than married women, especially if they are single mothers. Contrary to conventional wisdom, study after study finds that married women are better off than single women. As time goes on, young men are less likely to marry because they can gain many of the advantages of marriage (companionship, sex, social connections, etc.) without the legal and ethical obligations of marriage. In short, more women are educated and have careers. But more women are single, poor, unwed mothers.

Millions of American women embraced Second Wave Feminism. The results have been, at best, mixed. While women seem to have more choices in education and careers, they are more limited in family and home life. They have given up the prospect of stable homes for fickle careers and fewer marriage prospects. My big questions, though, is this: if Betty had told the truth about her background, would as many women have followed her?

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