Feminism after Friedan

More than 40 years ago, she launched a movement by denouncing stifling, stay-at-home motherhood. Today, are women who choose to stay home betraying feminism?

Published February 6, 2006 11:47PM (EST)

Betty Friedan's death at 85, after a life in which she launched modern feminism, four books and three children, can't be lamented as a tragedy, given the random, untimely and unnecessary deaths that we harden ourselves to daily. But it hit me anyway, because it came as I was thinking about how to jump into the stirring but vexing debate over what Brandeis University professor Linda Hirshman derides as "choice feminism": the notion that anything a woman chooses, whether it's jumping off the career track to have babies or forgoing motherhood altogether to pursue public achievement, should be OK with feminists, as long as it's her "choice" (an extension, of course, of the language that carried the day on abortion).

Instead, Hirshman argues, feminism should rebuke the affluent, educated women who are increasingly (in what numbers is disputed) abandoning careers for family life. She even cites Friedan as an example of how radical the feminist movement once was on these questions, a radicalism she thinks the movement should return to. She notes that in her movement-inspiring 1963 book "The Feminine Mystique," Friedan went so far as to compare housework to animal life: "Vacuuming the living room floor -- with or without makeup -- is not work that takes enough thought or energy to challenge any woman's full capacity," Friedan wrote. "Down through the ages man has known that he was set apart from other animals by his mind's power to have an idea, a vision, and shape the future to it ... when he discovers and creates and shapes a future different from his past, he is a man, a human being."

Unfortunately, Hirshman lamented in her must-read American Prospect piece, "Homeward Bound," after Friedan's bold rejection of animal labor for women, "liberal feminists abandoned the judgmental starting point of the movement in favor of offering women 'choices.'" Feminism has to get back to "judging," Hirshman insists, and it should judge the choice to stay home as flat-out wrong. As Hirshman writes: "To paraphrase, as Mark Twain said, 'A man who chooses not to read is just as ignorant as a man who cannot read.'"

I can't speak for Friedan and, sadly, she can't speak for herself anymore, but using her to bolster an attack on "choice feminism" misreads her life work. Yes, she was down on vacuuming, and all forms of floor washing apparently; she once screamed at an audience that no woman "gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor!" (She was a screamer.) But while her stunning indictment of the suffocating expectations of post-World War II family life called upon women to liberate themselves from vacuuming and reenter the world of achievement and ideas, she always envisioned a world, and a feminist movement, that allowed women to combine career, home and family.

The fact that 43 years after "The Feminine Mystique" we're still fighting over what women want more, careers or babies, and even nuttier, what they should want, is evidence that the mystique Friedan diagnosed was powerful and crazy-making and we still need vigilance to combat it. (And yes, Hirshman's work, like Friedan's, is about affluent, educated, mostly white women who have a choice about whether to stay home or work; we can't forget that.) Hirshman is a provocative successor to Friedan in that she accurately and angrily identifies the unequal division of labor inside the home, the realm of children and family, as being the enduring barrier to women's equality. "The glass ceiling begins at home," she says, and she's right.

But the answer isn't a feminism that labels women enemies of the movement if they choose to stay home with their kids when they can. Let's use Friedan's passing to remind us that, problematic though it may be, we have no choice but to commit ourselves to "choice feminism."

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I was only 5 when Friedan famously diagnosed "the problem that had no name," but on some level I knew it was my problem too. I was born to one of the frustrated career women Friedan wrote about, who filled her days drilling me with flashcards, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and brooding. I'm sure I owe my relative career success to having been a trained seal as a young child, reading on demand at age 2 for the mailman, the neighbors, proud aunts and uncles and irritated but indulgent older cousins. But I also saw what it was like to have a depressed, frustrated mother who lived through her kids (and then resented them), and I vowed very early to be a feminist, but even more important, not to be like my mother.

Then I found myself in my early 30s with a baby I loved to distraction, a career I treasured almost as much (yes, almost), and a marriage falling apart due to my volcanic anger at being unable to manage both gracefully, and all my feminist certainties dissolved for a while. I was jealous of my childless writer friends, male and female, traveling the globe on assignment when I only did stories I could do from my basement office; I was also angry at feminism, quite honestly, feeling it had left me alone to manage these dilemmas, that it was far more interested in defending my right not to have children than in building a world that would let me have them without giving up my ambition or my sanity.

I really don't remember how I wound up reading "The Feminine Mystique" in the middle of all that angst; I wound up writing about it for Vogue on its 30th anniversary in 1993. Whatever the reason I picked it up, I found wisdom in the book that I needed at the time. I was right about my mother. Friedan's depiction of depressed housewives who traded jobs for vacuum cleaners was eerily familiar; it was like she'd been taking notes in our kitchen when I was growing up. I learned I was born in the very year, 1958, that Friedan judged the apex of the mystique's intellectual power, at least as measured by women's magazines: Where they'd once run Walter Lippmann and William Faulkner, and published stories about career women and current events, in 1958 Friedan found not one article about women who did anything but marry and raise children. (That same year my mother typed a crisp letter to her boss at General Motors, asking for a "maternity leave" to have me; I have the letter, but no indication whether she ever got a reply. I just know she never went back to work.)

In fact, "The Feminine Mystique" had been inspired by Friedan's attempts to write an article about her own Smith College class (of 1942), 15 years after graduation. Her goal was poignant: to prove that higher education hadn't made these women maladjusted or ruined them for home and family. But after she did her surveys she found that in fact, many of her classmates were unhappy, and the best adjusted women of the bunch had managed to have careers. Remarkably, although she had been writing regularly for McCall's and Redbook, she failed to find a home for her disturbing story in any woman's magazine, and went on to turn it into "The Feminine Mystique." Although its immediate impact was dulled by a strike at the New York Times that denied her a review and the ultimate Times review called it "superficial," the book sold 3 million copies. In Friedan's obituary the Times said it "permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States and countries around the world," and it's easily one of the most influential books of the 20th century.

But along with a haunting depiction of desperately unhappy housewives, I saw something else in Friedan's work: that feminism had been founded by the petrified daughters of frustrated women, who ran screaming out of their unhappy homes determined never to be trapped behind a vacuum cleaner. Gloria Steinem's mother gave up her job because of self-diagnosed tachycardia, suffered a nervous breakdown, and often home-schooled the future feminist leader, who ultimately would have to become her sick mother's caregiver and who would later tell an interviewer she just didn't "feel that connected to family." Even Friedan's mother, Miriam, who, like Steinem's mother, predated the official heyday of the "mystique" (bolstered if not wholly created, according to the lefty Friedan, by publishing and advertising execs to sell products as well as defend the patriarchy), was an unhappy hypercritical homemaker who ultimately thrived when her husband got sick and she had to take a role in running his jewelry store herself.

The fact that so many early feminists remained childless, and most leaders committed themselves to questions of public life and left aside issues of relationship and family, seemed at least partly a result of so many having grown up as the daughters of unhappy stay-at-home mothers, who never wanted to go home again. And there I was at home, at least part-time, not knowing what to do next, feeling betrayed by feminism -- I wanted to be home, I wanted to be working, and nothing in my reading or discussions with other women had prepared me for the pull in both directions.

And yet Friedan wasn't one of those feminists who remained silent on combining work and family. As a co-founder of the National Organization for Women in 1966 ("for" women, not "of" women, because she was committed to cooperation with men), she demanded paid maternity leave and tax breaks for child care along with abortion rights in the organization's early charter. But as the movement grew, her concern about the needs of men, children and family made her a polarizing figure; as more young, radical women joined NOW, she wound up on its right wing. I'm not old enough to judge the battles of the day with firsthand knowledge or memory, but certainly she was wrong about some things (she called lesbianism "a lavender menace" and thought if feminism embraced gay rights all feminists would be labeled lesbians), right about others (she threatened to sue when New York NOW president Ti-Grace Atkinson took up the cause of Valerie Solanis, deranged founder of SCUM, the "Society to Cut Up Men," who shot Andy Warhol after accusing him of exploiting her in 1968). Friedan knew that feminism would be judged by its most extreme manifestations, and marginalized by the media, but with hindsight we know that even good behavior couldn't stop that. No doubt some of the battles she fought over the movement's image were at best futile, at worst destructive, to herself and to feminism.

She sealed her exile for a time by writing "The Second Stage" in 1981, diagnosing and attacking a new "feminist mystique," one that "denied that core of women's personhood that is fulfilled through love, nurture, home." But if that language was over the top, some of her "Second Stage" insights were useful, particularly the notion that women's liberation required attention to the "separate" realm of women that feminism abandoned, the concerns of child care, maternity leave and how to combine work and family. Still, she was attacked by many left-wing and even mainstream feminists; Susan Faludi categorized her as part of the "Backlash" unraveling feminism in her bestselling 1991 book.

And now here we are, 25 years after "The Second Stage," on the occasion of Friedan's death, still divided over whether feminism should be about helping women integrate work and family, or helping them see that obsessing about such issues is a distraction that consigns them permanently to second-sex status.

Since, when it comes to feminism, the personal remains so political, let me place myself again personally: Thirteen years after I read "The Feminine Mystique," with a job I love and a teenager instead of a toddler, I can say I came through my daughter's childhood with my feminism and my career (though not my marriage) intact. With the comfort of distance (and the distraction of work) I've mostly been a conscientious objector to the mommy wars that I know still rage on. I've been as bothered as Linda Hirshman by the so-called Opt-Out Revolution, though I've argued it's a tiny subset of privileged white women. Hirshman now presents evidence it's more than that, and yet I find it hard to agree with her prescription: "judging" such women harshly, and labeling their choices somehow antifeminist. Given the combination of love and responsibility most women feel when they become mothers, scolding them for choosing to take time off a demanding career track to care for their children, if they have the option, seems like a ticket to even greater irrelevance and marginalization for feminism.

That said, there's a lot about Hirshman I agree with, and so would Betty Friedan. Despite the angry rhetoric about the need to "judge" privileged women who stay home with their kids, in the end "Homeward Bound" mostly prescribes educating them, and in fact I mostly agree with her curriculum: We should be honest and give young women who have choices good advice about how to make them. She summarizes them this way: "Prepare yourself to qualify for good work, treat work seriously, and don't put yourself in a position of unequal resources when you marry."

I'd add a fourth rule: Remember that the time when your children are young is comparatively short. That's the paradox of motherhood, and it can lead to two very different conclusions: Either quit your job and stay home with those chubby infants because tempus fugit, or stay at the office and leave child rearing to a nanny because, well, tempus fugit. But most women who have the choice are perfectly capable of holding both ideas in their head at the same time, and doing something that combines both insights. Where Hirshman worries not just about women opting out but those choosing part-time work too (I think she lumps that under not treating work seriously), I'm more sanguine about what it may take to get through those early years. When I'm asked to give advice, it's this: If you have the choice, keep a job with flexible hours when your kids are small, but don't make dramatic decisions in those early years, based on either mother love or exhaustion, that will permanently limit your career.

But Friedan had another insight that's relevant to Hirshman's work, and all of ours, as we muddle through. In diagnosing the "feminine mystique," she reserved a share of blame for educated, affluent, stay-at-home mothers themselves. "Even after most ... barriers are down, it is still easier for a woman to seek the sanctuary of the home. It is easier to live through her husband and children than to make a road of her own ... It is frightening to grow up finally and be free of passive dependence." When I read those words in 1993 I found them bracing, I felt that her message was also to me. I had to "grow up" and stop thinking feminism and motherhood and combining work and family would somehow be easy. I had to stop whining, and find my own way. I did, but it was lonely. I don't think it's so lonely anymore. The silence of the '80s and early '90s on these issues has been replaced with loud debate, and women are far better off for it.

To try to silence it again, to simply say that staying home, even working part-time, is antifeminist, is a step back, not forward. For all sorts of psychological and economic reasons, the lure of domesticity, which almost ensures a kind of dependence on a partner, remains strong to many women. Sometimes I think it's that women want more than many men -- absorbing careers, but time for their families, too. There's a socially transformative impulse in their wanting more that we can't afford to ignore. Ignoring that pull is wrong; judging all women who succumb to it as not feminist is wrong; answering it with "Look at the divorce rate, don't give up your career," is at best unpersuasive to someone whose marriage seems fine. We cant afford a "which side are you on?" approach to these questions in 2006. It's just a new kind of mystique, when what we need is compassion and clarity.

By Joan Walsh

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