Betty Friedan's legacy

Hillary Clinton, Erica Jong, Camille Paglia and others remember the founder of the modern women's movement.


Compiled by Sarah Goldstein
February 7, 2006 3:50AM (UTC)

Hillary Rodham Clinton is a Democratic senator from New York.

I am saddened by the passing of Betty Friedan, one of America's most notable voices. Through a life of social activism and powerful writing, she opened doors and minds, breaking down barriers for women and enlarging opportunities for women and men for generations to come. We are all the beneficiaries of her vision.

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Erica Jong is a writer whose 20th book, "Seducing the Demon," will appear in March.

With the publication of her first book, "The Feminine Mystique," Betty Friedan single-handedly revived the feminist movement in the United States. She diagnosed "the problem that has no name," the vague malaise that women of my mother's generation felt about their lives. Some of their mothers were suffragists who grew up in a time of ferment about women's rights, but after World War II my mother and her contemporaries went back into the home and had babies as if their lives depended on it. Our typical American historical amnesia erased the memory of the fight for the vote.

Betty ignited the second wave of feminism in the '70s with her 1963 book -- which roiled the waters for at least a decade. I was in college when it was published, but was fully aware of the controversy it stirred up. That controversy led directly to Gloria Steinem, Ms. magazine and the feminism of the '70s, which liberated women writers and activists both. That focus on women's lives made it possible for me to publish my first books of poetry, "Fruits & Vegetables" and "Half-Lives," and my first novel, "Fear of Flying."

Betty was not an easy person. When you appeared on a panel with her, it was almost impossible to get a word in. On television, too, she could drown out even her most ardent supporters -- not to mention her opponents. But that contrarian character was probably necessary for her to accomplish all she did. In her second book, "The Second Stage, " which I reviewed, she predicted many things we now take for granted: passionate male parenting, two-career couples, a more equitable distribution of labor in the home. It's true that we do not yet have equal pay, nor equal healthcare, nor a fair domestic division of labor, but we are so much farther along than we were in 1970. Many of the young women who refuse to call themselves feminists don't even know who their benefactors were. Sadly, some of them don't know who Betty was. She was the woman who made their lives today possible. And she was in many ways prophetic. Her last book, "The Fountain of Age," was about the delights and disasters of growing older -- something all the baby boomers are now doing at the rate of 77 million a year. She predicted the need for group homes, group cooking, all the things we are just now discovering so as not to burden our children. In her 70s, Betty shared a home in the Hamptons with a number of other adults. I visited her there once. She understood that we would have to band together to get through the vicissitudes of old age. She was always thinking about how to solve life's problems and her impact is still felt today.

Judith Butler is the Maxine Elliot professor in the departments of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Her most recent book, "Giving an Account of Oneself," was published by Fordham University Press last year.

Betty Friedan's vocal presence and written work helped to inaugurate what we call second-wave feminism, and without her insistence on equality and emancipation for women, the movement would not have been the same. Although subsequent criticisms have situated her in the mainstream or faulted her from seeing the world from a white, Jewish and middle-class perspective, it is important to remember that she made adamantly public the broader goals of equality and emancipation (meaning both the freedom of self-determination and collective agency) that would include all women. Her voice carries through the generations, and across class, not only marking a historic turning point in that century for the feminist movement, but awakening its readers time and again to political and social justice.

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Camille Paglia is a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is the author, most recently, of "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems."

Betty Friedan rightly deserves full credit for jump-starting the political activism of American feminism, which had been dormant since women had won the right to vote in 1920. Simone de Beauvoir provided the intellectual blueprint; Friedan launched a movement.

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But Friedan's analysis in "The Feminine Mystique" of the frustration and malaise of wives and mothers was unjustifiably broadened (by herself and others) from a description of post-World War II bourgeois conformism to a general indictment of sexual relations. Despite her caveats, Friedan was just as responsible as the radical feminists whom she criticized for the toxic strain of male-bashing that has alienated so many potential converts to feminism.

It is a careless historical error to attribute to Friedan the spectacular new self-confidence and energy of 1960s women, the baby boomers who rebeled against the older generation to which she belonged. Friedan rode with that zeitgeist; she did not create it. (I am simply one example: As a teenager in 1963, I had never heard of Friedan when Newsweek published my letter invoking Amelia Earhart and demanding "equal opportunity for American women.")

The National Organization for Women, which Friedan co-founded and from which she was eventually ousted, would limit its own effectiveness by becoming a virtual arm of the Democratic Party. Feminism, which should have universal appeal, became hostage to backroom partisanship and litmus-test issues.

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As a registered Democrat, I would argue that the current marginalization of feminism is partly due to the political parochialism that Friedan helped spawn. Conservative women -- who are now some of the most dynamic, articulate and pugnacious public figures in the U.S. -- should long ago have been welcomed into feminism. But despite their liberal stance, too many feminists on and off campus neither encourage nor tolerate dissent.

Friedan would belatedly defend the cultural centrality of the family. But she certainly never showed the slightest understanding of or respect for the wing of feminism to which I belong -- that pro-sex line rooted in the 1960s that runs from Betty Dodson and Annie Sprinkle to Candida Royalle and Tracy Quan. But who cares? Thanks to Madonna's incandescent fusion of art and porn in the '80s, pro-sex feminism rose with a vengeance in the '90s, booted out the crazy puritans, and now rules the roost.

Kate Michelman was president of NARAL Pro-Choice America for nearly 20 years. Her book "With Liberty and Justice for All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose" was published last month by Hudson Street Press.

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Betty Friedan not only was among the nation's foremost advocates for women's equality but was part of the pantheon of the world's great feminists fighting against oppression, and discrimination, and for the equality of women. Feminism, as a concept, as a philosophy, as a movement, if you will, was impacted in a long-lasting and fundamental way by Betty Friedan. And today women enjoy more rights and freedoms as a result of her willingness, courage and insight that fostered a women's movement. Women are taking advantage of what was won by preceding generations, all prompted by Betty Friedan.

She was criticized for not staying with her early goals but I think she recognized, as the society changed and women's opportunities grew, that there were new challenges as a result of these opportunities, such as the balance of work and family. She never became an anachronism. She saw the impact of women's rights and the new economic pressure on women. She recognized that today's young women aren't free of the binding ties of inequalities, and she responded to the new realities of women's lives, to the new culture trends that we're now seeing as a result of a society that doesn't support women.

We can't overstate her impact both early on in the 1960s as the catalyst that inspired the women's movement and her impact later on as she continued challenging us to greater sensitivities.

Linda Hirshman is a professor of philosophy and women's studies at Brandeis University.

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I am perhaps the person in America most saddened by Betty Friedan's death. For two years I have been working on a book, "Nothing but Your Chains," about how women are making a mistake to quit their good jobs and become stay-at-home moms and housekeepers to their alpha male husbands. The book was to be dedicated to Betty Friedan. I had a complete fantasy of her reading it and knowing that everything she stood for was true and lasting and that the backlash years were coming to an end. If the feminist movement had remained faithful to Friedan, instead of diluting its message to meaningless talk of "choice," it would have stayed focused on the central problem of how to attain justice in the reproductive family and all the work still before us would be behind us. There would be no opt-out revolution. Now, in her memory, I invoke the utilitarian notion of immortality -- that people live on in the ideas they plant in the memory of others who live on.

Rebecca Walker is the co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation, the only national philanthropic organization for women aged 15-30. She is the author of "Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self."

I have a tremendous amount of respect for what Betty Friedan was able to accomplish. Against all manner of criticism and attack, she insisted on evolving as a human being rather than be stunted by the dogma of the movement she helped create. She acted on her beliefs, reflected on the results of those actions, and then had the courage to reevaluate and reframe her view. She made several blunders, most famously the homophobic "lavender menace" comment (which she later recanted), and her initial white, suburban demographic was surely limited. But neither of these dimished her overall contribution to the project of societal transformation. In terms of the present and future of feminism, it is my view that if the leadership of the organizations she founded, NOW and NARAL, had incorporated rather than rejected the concerns she raised about their direction, their position might be different from what it is today.

Daniel Horowitz is the director of the American Studies Program at Smith College. He is the author of "Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique: The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism."

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Betty Friedan led an extraordinary life, with "The Feminine Mystique" and the founding of NOW marking her contribution to the revival of American feminism. Yet most of the obituaries slid easily over some of the most remarkable aspects of her life. It was as an undergraduate at Smith College, and through her participation from 1943 to 1952 in the radical reaches of the labor movement, that she first encountered the storied heritage of feminism.

In February 1941, on Friedan's 20th birthday, in a lecture at Smith on women in Nazi Germany, Friedan recorded what Dorothy Douglas had to say about the condition of women under German fascism. Douglas mentioned what she called the "feminist movement." In contrast, she talked about the "traditionalism" of the National Socialists' attitude to religion, women, children and family. Nazis insisted, she noted Douglas as saying, on placing children at the center of family lives. They celebrated motherhood. They opposed women working outside the house in professional positions, but not as farmers and manual laborers. They minimized the intellectual capacity of women, emphasizing instead the importance of their feelings. These ideas of an antifascist professor found echoes more than two decades later in "The Feminine Mystique."

"Men, there's a revolution cooking in your own kitchen," remarked Betty Goldstein in November 1943, 20 years before when, as Betty Friedan, she wrote in a similar vein in "The Feminine Mystique." It is the revolution "of the forgotten female," she continued, "who is finally waking up to the fact that she can produce other things besides babies."

Though the New York Times obituary mentions Friedan's work for Federated Press and U.E. News from 1943 to 1952, it fails to make clear that Friedan's work for the labor press was a formative experience, one that provided her with the ideas about women and discrimination on which she would later draw. Indeed, the paper notes, "'The Feminine Mystique' began as a survey Ms. Friedan conducted in 1957 for the 15th reunion of her graduating class at Smith." That is surely one place where some inspiration for her transformative book originated. However, other sources for her feminism and her book came from her education at Smith College and her work in the labor movement.

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Compiled by Sarah Goldstein

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