It’s long been interesting to me that many writers talk about feminism as having failed, or as no longer mattering, or as having a tarnished legacy, just because some of its promises of full equality for women haven’t been fulfilled.
This dismissal is curious: After all, the Civil Rights movement didn’t entirely succeed, either. Yet it is rare that the media conflates the many advances of the Civil Rights movement with the lingering effects of racism. Why, then, do we blame feminism for the continuing sexism of society?
I’d like to see us write about second-wave feminist heroism with the same brave words that we use when writing about the Civil Rights Movement — words like “courageous” and “inspirational.” And that’s why I was particularly glad to see the many thoughtful articles around the 50th anniversary of the publishing of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.
That landmark book about unhappy housewives, published February 19, 1963, helped spark the feminist movement and start a continuing national conversation about what women’s responsibilities should be and what they are capable of accomplishing.
The anniversary has so far been noted by news outlets ranging from USA Today to the Huffington Post and from opinion columns from The New York Times’s liberal Gail Collins, who wrote the foreword to the new anniversary edition of the book, to The Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker (who says The Feminine Mystique was overrated and she herself didn’t need Betty Friedan’s feminism to succeed).
Many articles note the standard criticisms of the book, and that is warranted. Ashley Fetters points out in The Atlantic that there are core problems with The Feminine Mystique, among them racism, homophobia, and classism. Friedan never addressed in this work (she did later) how poverty made women’s lives much worse. And she called homosexuality “a sinister source of cultural contamination” that feminism would rectify. (She reversed this later, too.) Another concern is whether Friedan made all that much of a difference. One of the themes of a video debate hosted at The New York Times and moderated by Collins is: Girls — even well-off, middle-class girls — feel lied to. They’ve been told that they are equal, but then they begin to see that’s not the case. In other words, Friedan’s work may not have become the agent for social change that she — and so many others — had hoped for.
However, most of what I’ve seen is celebratory (as well as deeply thoughtful), which is a nice change from the usual coverage of feminism. USA Today calls the book “timelessly revolutionary.” The Daily Beast notes its “astonishing scope.” Emily Bazelon and Noreen Malone engage in a charming, four-part debate about the book’s legacy at Slate. “For many of us, who could never have hacked it in the world she helped blow up, and who made our lives in her remade image, the response from the heart has to be THANK YOU,” Bazelon writes. Yet Malone worries whether things are all that much better now, if urban hipsters are regressing to canning vegetables and knitting scarves because the tanking economy has led to a kind of nostalgia.
Don’t kid yourself, says Gail Collins. Life for women in 1963 was grim for women. She writes:
In 1963, most women weren’t able to get credit without a male co-signer. In some states they couldn’t sit on juries; in others, their husbands had control not only of their property but also of their earnings. Although Friedan obsesses about women getting jobs, she does not mention that newspapers were allowed to divide their help-wanted ads into categories for men and women, or that it was perfectly legal for an employer to announce that certain jobs were for men only. Even the federal government did it.
Collins says that The Feminine Mystique was so transformative at the time because it was so specific — it wasn’t about every woman, or every group of women, but the particular kind of rage that came from being a well-educated, middle-class woman who was “regarded as little more than a set of reproductive organs in heels.”
It was a cry of anguish from a particular group of women that had the education and the means to then go out and change their own situations — and the country.
This history is important when we write about women’s issues like the Violence Against Women Act, or the raping of women by male athletes, or whether women can have both children and a career. Sure, feminism wasn’t, and isn’t, perfect. Of course, women are still only one-fifth of the Senate and make up less than 5 percent of CEOs at S&P 500 companies. Yes, we still have a long way to go.
But without heroes like Betty Friedan and books like The Feminine Mystique, the situation would have been much, much worse. We are right to celebrate her and her book, and we should be careful about always making feminism seem irrelevant, or into a scapegoat for social problems. We owe feminism. A lot.