When feminists were divas

The figures who founded modern feminism were outrageous, outspoken and sometimes out of their minds -- but they were never boring.

Published June 9, 2000 7:10PM (EDT)

Recently, appearing on a radio show during the publicity tour for her new memoir, "Life So Far," Betty Friedan fielded a call from a testy listener who complained that interviewers always seem to be more interested in the personalities in the women's movement than they are in the issues. Friedan agreed so heartily she walked right off the show.

Though a classic piece of Friedan bravado, the protest was a bit of a jaw-dropper; a self-described "ham," Friedan is notorious for being one of feminism's biggest microphone hogs. The caller's lament, however, is far from new. Feminists have a long and rich history of disparaging the media's interest in "stars," as the early radical women's liberation groups scornfully dubbed any woman who garnered too much attention. The point was supposed to be the ideas, the analysis (arrived at collectively, of course), the action called for, not the spokeswoman: the message, not the messenger.

An odd position, when you consider that this is the movement that came up with the slogan "the personal is the political." Now that feminism's great "Second Wave" of the '60s and '70s is a good 25 years past, and its veterans and chroniclers are setting down records of its history with the benefit of perspective, the issue of "personality" remains a tricky one. More's the pity because no political movement of the past century was so bursting with fascinating, combative, maddening and outrageous characters. Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone, Flo Kennedy, Susan Brownmiller, Robin Morgan, Rita Mae Brown and the profoundly wacky Ti-Grace Atkinson: There's raw material here for a half dozen Verdi operas and at least a couple of Shakespearean plays.

In recent years, some feminists, like Friedan, have written accounts of their experiences intending to counteract other writers' less than flattering versions of the same events. Still others, such as Ruth Rosen ("The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America") and Brownmiller ("In Our Time"), have written histories in order to preserve a vanishing body of memories or to inform younger generations whose ignorance astonishes them.

It shouldn't. The women's movement hasn't metamorphosed into a pop cultural-historical artifact the way the civil rights movement has, by becoming the subject of "landmark" TV documentaries, approved high school curricula, recognized holidays and earnest issue-oriented movies, even though its influence has been at least as widespread. Perhaps that's because Americans are still so ambivalent about the changes it prompted and the intimate battles it enjoined (particularly when it comes to the murky matter of who, exactly, were the bad guys). Or perhaps it's because feminism has obtained the reputation of being dour, prissy and, worst of all, dissembling when it comes to admitting the complexities of gender relations and human character.

For this last reason, I suspect, few people realize how immensely entertaining histories of Second Wave feminism can be -- though often it's the least "respectable" books that are the most fun. Rosen's history, published this March, and Flora Davis' 1991 volume, "Moving the Mountain: The Women's Movement in America Since 1960," are worthy and valuable books written by professional historians, but it was Marcia Cohen's "The Sisterhood: The True Story of the Women Who Changed the World" (1988), a breathless and ever-so-slightly trashy account of the lives of feminism's movers and shakers, that had me avidly turning pages.

Judith Hennessee's 1999 biography "Betty Friedan: Her Life" and Sydney Ladensohn Stern's equally unauthorized "Gloria Steinem: Her Passion, Politics, and Mystique" (1997) make for somewhat less guilty pleasure, while the unreflective "Life So Far" offers readers the chance to witness Friedan explaining -- or more often ignoring -- her more egregious episodes of bad behavior. (When Betty was bad, she was horrid.) And as for Christine Wallace's 1999 biography "Germaine Greer: Untamed Shrew," well, lay in a supply of ice cream, pull up the quilt and get ready for an all-nighter.

What makes these books so juicy, however, is their inclusion of exactly those elements -- conflict and "personalities" -- that feminists wanted (and probably still want) to erase from the movement's public image. Their reasons? The most radical activists (who often refused to talk to male journalists, or any journalists at all) believed that they needed to protect some members from feeling overshadowed by others and to give everyone a chance in the spotlight, but most feminists seemed to feel that a focus on visible spokeswomen gave insufficient credit to the grass roots and in some way trivialized the movement. Men, they retorted, would never be subjected to this kind of attention.

To which one can only reply: huh? Since when does coverage of mainstream politics focus on issues to the exclusion of personalities? The press covers electoral politics -- about as "serious" as politics gets -- as a symbolic battle more than anything else, a bit like a nonviolent version of a World Wrestling Federation match conducted in blue suits and red ties. And that's not just the effect of the mass media; this sort of thing has been going on since the Iliad.

A recent poll of Americans indicated that women voters were evaluating the presidential candidates according to their policy positions, while the men were principally concerned with the issues of "leadership" and "character" (the kind of vague emotional thinking behind the belief that a record of war heroism is excellent preparation for a term in the Senate). In the totemic world of the male political imagination, to zero in on a leader's personality and on the struggles for power within a group is to treat both leader and group as players, that is, like men. It may be irrational, but it isn't patronizing; it's a kind of compliment.

The women's movement's phobia about airing its conflicts was as misplaced as its dislike of stars. Though Steinem has said she scrupulously avoids challenging or rebuking other feminists for fear of offering the media a "catfight," in truth, the women's movement's intercine struggles weren't locker-room tussles over who stole who's boyfriend -- they were about crucial questions concerning the movement's goals and future. Pretending that those arguments weren't happening only served to compromise feminism's reputation for common sense, candor and realism, a reputation now at an all-time low. And it locked the movement's constituency out of the debate.

Lastly, the character and even the personal lives of women's movement leaders are exceptionally relevant to followers and potential followers precisely because (unlike, say, the civil rights movement) feminism called for fundamental and intimate changes in everybody's everyday life. This sort of thing is frigging hard, and people understandably sought examples, demonstrations, proof that it could be done and, ultimately, acknowledgment that the revolution didn't come as easily as the movement's recommendations, ranging from chirpy to furious, suggested it would.

Take, for example, feminism's most famous rivalry, the one between Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Friedan shrugs it off in "Life So Far," but the biographers of both women rightly note that it shook the women's movement to its core. When Steinem eventually "won," becoming feminism's primary spokeswoman, that victory shaped the course of the movement. These two complicated women embodied a fascinating mixture of flaws and strengths, and each clung to some of the traits of traditional femininity while jettisoning others. Both were Jews from the Midwest who attended and adored Smith College, but there the similarities end. Few historians of Second Wave feminism can resist attempting to chart the uncanny symmetry of their differences.

Friedan -- in her later years called, much to her annoyance, "the mother of us all" -- published the enormously successful and influential "The Feminine Mystique" in 1963 and followed it up by co-founding the National Organization for Women (NOW), the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) and the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC), but she was eventually pushed out of the leadership of all three groups. A charismatic public speaker, Friedan had a remarkable talent for stirring people into action; her lecture tours left NOW chapters in their wake like the breadcrumbs scattered behind Hansel and Gretel. But Friedan was also, by her own admission, "a bad-tempered bitch." She is less willing to admit that she also abused and betrayed some of her most loyal followers, expected to be waited on hand and foot, was prone to paranoia and vengefulness, and hated to share the spotlight.

A housewife and mother of three with a freelance writing career on the side when "The Feminist Mystique" came out, Friedan always saw herself as the voice of mainstream feminism. NOW, to her mind, was "not about sex, but about equal opportunity in jobs" and, eventually, passing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Though she always supported abortion rights, she eventually became disgusted with what she saw as NOW's growing "preoccupation with lesbian rights, the disconnect from the majority of women who supported equality ... the overemphasis on racism, poverty and rape, everything and anything but the problems of white and black middle-class women." In short, Friedan's positions were as politically unfashionable in the mid-1970s as they are fashionable now.

If Friedan was the pragmatist, Gloria Steinem was an ideologue, a coiner of such slogans as "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle" -- the kind of glib "female chauvinism" that made Friedan apoplectic. But in an upset of all the stereotypes about pragmatists and ideologues, Friedan was impossible, bossy, bombastic, intolerant -- she pissed people off -- while Steinem was the consummate peacemaker, capable of pulling together the anarchic NWPC, whose first organizing conference included women ranging from former sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer to white-glove ladies like Liz Carpenter, Lady Bird Johnson's former press secretary. Hennessee, Friedan's biographer, writes that "the caucus had the impossible task of trying to unify all these disparate interests virtually overnight -- a job tailor-made for Gloria's talents."

A glamorous sphinx (a college friend once dragged her by the leg down a hallway, shouting "Why don't you ever get angry? Get angry!"), Steinem survived a grim youth caring alone for her mad mother in a rat-infested hovel in Toledo, to become one of Manhattan's "Beautiful People," hobnobbing with literary, intellectual and sports celebrities. A stylish benefit she threw for Cesar Chavez's United Farmworkers in Southampton was the quintessence of what Tom Wolfe dubbed "Radical Chic," but her political commitments were always sincere and generous, particularly after she converted to feminism at an abortion speak-out in 1969. Furthermore, in her dealings with others she was unfailingly kind, patient and humble, the mirror opposite of Friedan. She never had children and, despite dating a series of prominent men, strenuously avoided marriage.

Ronnie Feit, who coordinated that first NWPC conference, deftly defined the two women's political skills for Steinem's biographer, Sydney Ladensohn Stern: "Betty had a clearer sense of political groundedness. She cares about issues and is a big thinker. I didn't think of Gloria in the same league. She's a good consensus builder, but was defending an ideologically narrower viewpoint -- political correctness -- and she seemed insecure about how much she was willing to stand up and say what she really stood for ... she was a careful operator. Betty was a sloppy operator. She had raw energy and showed her flaws. Gloria was much more image-conscious."

Because Steinem never had much of an internal political lodestar beyond an instinctive sympathy for anyone she saw as victimized, she tended to reflect the ideas of the urban intelligentsia who surrounded her, which in the 1970s leaned pretty far left. In their view, Friedan's achievements could be minimized as (in the words of an NWPC statement) "reporting the then little-known dilemma of the well-educated white middle-class housewife," because she hadn't devoted herself to championing oppressed minorities or devising elaborate critiques of patriarchy. However, middle-class white women were and always have been feminism's core political base, a fact Friedan never forgot. Whatever the worthiness of Steinem's causes (it varied), in the end her leadership contributed to making the movement seem irrelevant to that base.

In a cascading series of ironies, Steinem's classically feminine personal style led her to adopt some of the movement's most radical ideas. Single and childless, she was the quintessential independent "career woman," but with the enviable style and boyfriend options of Jacqueline Onassis. Her "smashing looks" both thrilled and deeply confused the media. Hennessee and others relate a telling anecdote: "In 1972, Kingman Brewster, then president of Yale, told an audience of graduate women that he could accept the part of the movement represented by Gloria -- the part that included men," but not the supposedly man-hating philosophy of Friedan. He had, of course, completely transposed the two women's positions.

Meanwhile, Friedan's jealousy and frustration diverted her energy. She got shamefully involved in an attempt by some of the movement's early radicals to insinuate that Steinem was a CIA agent. And while she recognized that the integration of work and family had become the primary concern of her constituency, her 1981 book addressing that anxiety, "The Second Stage," was too muddily conceived and reactive to rally them. Some of the decisions both women faced were true quandaries. Friedan was politically shrewd in trying to keep the issue of lesbian rights off the feminist agenda, while Steinem was morally right to stand up for them.

This perpetually intriguing rivalry unfolded against an hyperactive and colorful social backdrop in which anything could happen. Radical groups formed and in a few months began fissioning into factions that savagely denounced each other. Jill Johnston "rebutted" a Norman Mailer assertion at a public debate by making out with two other women onstage at New York's Town Hall. Susan Brownmiller led a nine-hour sit-in in the offices of Ladies Home Journal during which Shulamith Firestone had to be restrained from throwing the editor-in-chief out a window. Pat Buckley sprang from the audience at a Ti-Grace Atkinson lecture and belted the speaker for bad-mouthing the Catholic Church.

Atkinson herself was a veritable cottage industry of political high jinks. Handpicked by Friedan, who thought her elegant looks and breeding would help make the movement respectable, Atkinson, as president of New York NOW, horrified her sponsor by first coming out in support of the violently insane Valerie Solanas (the woman who shot Andy Warhol) and her one-woman Society for Cutting Up Men (S.C.U.M.), then calling for the abolition of the nuclear family, urging feminists to forgo sex with men. Finally, she had a passionate affair with a Mafia don whom she took to calling "Sister Joseph Columbo" at rallies called to protest violence against women.

All of this would be a bit depressing if the women's movement hadn't also accomplished a great deal: everything from de-sex-segregating the want ads (few people seem to remember that they used to be divided between "Help Wanted, Men" -- the good jobs -- and "Help Wanted, Women") and laying the groundwork for the legalization of abortion to the invention of domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers. Ladies, if you've got a credit card or a mortgage in your own name, you almost certainly have feminism to thank for it. And though women, including married mothers, had for economic reasons begun moving into the workforce even before Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique" (Rosen points out that "by 1955 more women worked in the labor force than had during World War II"), NOW helped them get better jobs by forcing the government to enforce the sex-discrimination prohibitions in the 1964 Civil Rights Bill.

What happened afterwards -- feminism's descent into the sinkholes of essentialism (the notion that women are inherently morally superior to men), victimology and doctrinaire self-righteousness -- has its roots, actual and symbolic, in the personalities and feuds of the '60s and '70s. Gloria Steinem was a role model who supposedly short-circuited the can't-get-a-man stereotypes about "women's libbers," but her life had nothing in common with that of the average American woman, rich, poor or middle-class. Friedan's populist instincts and vision were mostly sound, but she had a tragic, Lear-like inability to handle her own power, so she lost much of it.

In "Life So Far," Friedan doesn't show any sign of recognizing that weakness. But at 79, she's still writing frankly about her own life in ways that many will find refreshing. Remember that when she conceived of "The Feminine Mystique," it was a widely held conventional belief that any woman not content to limit her life to the domestic sphere was emotionally maladjusted. Part of Friedan's genius is her stubborn, unfeminine assertion of her own truth in the face of truisms -- even when they're feminist truisms. Writing today of her sometimes violent 22-year marriage to Carl Friedan, she admits to being caught up in a destructive dynamic in which "I taunted him into finally beating me up" as a way of venting marital pressures. While some battering relationships are simple tyrannies, the reality is that others, like the Freidans' marriage, are more complex dances in which each party willfully torments the other. (Her husband, incensed by the new memoir, insists that he never "gratuitously hit anyone," which, to the extent that it refutes "Life So Far," does so only obliquely.)

Likewise, Freidan is honest about her worries that her fame and success hampered her marriage and made it hard for her to form another lasting romantic relationship. The more conventional feminist position would be to deny those fears, or to toss off the old "fish without a bicycle" line, or to castigate men for their failure of nerve -- all of which tend to make similar women feel guilty for being weak enough to suffer from such anxieties to begin with.

It's also a cruel betrayal because the conundrum of how women can reconcile the tremendous changes in their social role with their perfectly human desires for love and family is perhaps feminism's biggest challenge. It's certainly a problem that merits more than facile slogans. At the very least, a forthright acknowledgment of the situation is a good start, and good starts are a Friedan speciality.

It was only natural that the women who flocked to the resurgence of feminism in the '60s should be flamboyant and ambitious -- in fact it's remarkable, reading "The Sisterhood," to discover how many of them once dreamed of becoming actresses. These were all the girls who couldn't fit into the demure role ordained for women in the '50s, people who wanted to run things, to be the center of attention, often at any cost. There ought to be room in the world for women like that, though there don't seem to be many included in the ranks of feminism anymore. Perhaps that's because of the more cautious and centrist tenor of our times or perhaps it's because feminism eventually developed its own form of rigid good-girlism, but a little personality wouldn't hurt right now.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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