Sheryl Sandberg Is No Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan certainly deserves all the post-mortem attention she is receiving on the golden anniversary of the publication of The Feminine Mystique. No woman did more to spur the feminist awakening of the 1960s and 70s. If she were still alive, Friedan, who never tired of being famous, would be reveling in the new surge of acclaim for her book’s passionate, yet erudite, analysis of “the problem that has no name.”

Yet a lot of that praise is based on misconceptions that would have riled the author. The prevailing assessment of Friedan seems to be that she was a typical middle-class white liberal who was primarily concerned, as Gail Collins puts it, with correcting the way that “intelligent, well-educated women were kept out of the mainstream of American professional life.” Indeed, that’s the banner that Sheryl Sandberg, the COO at Facebook, is now claiming to raise in Friedan’s name. Evoking The Feminine Mystique, Sandberg recently launched a new “movement” to win for women in the corporate world the status and earnings they deserve—a project that begins, according to the New York Times, with a “video on how to command more authority at work by changing how they speak and even sit.”

This is not the kind of change Friedan hoped her book would inspire. The movement she had in mind throughout her long career as an activist had little or nothing in common with the lavish self-help scheme that Sandberg now proposes to finance. The Feminine Mystique, Friedan wrote in her memoir, was intended to bring about “monumental social change” that “would be very threatening to those who couldn’t deal with that change, men and women.” Yes, she might tell Sandberg, every professional woman should get the best job she can. But demolishing gender inequality requires a more radical, pro-labor perspective than entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley—of either gender—would be inclined to indulge.

Friedan developed her critique of what is now called sexism as a Marxist journalist during the 1940s and early 1950s. In editorials for the Smith College weekly she advocated a union for housemaids, and she attended a summer course at the Highlander Folk School, where labor organizers went for training. After graduating in 1942, she spent nearly a decade reporting on the problems of working-class women, both black and white, for the Federated Press, a kind of left-wing AP, and for the UE News, the organ of the United Electrical Workers. Friedan wrote slashing critiques of the lack of child care at wartime plants and about women who earned far less pay for the same manufacturing work as men. She “thought of myself as a revolutionary” and considered joining the Communist Party, whose members ran the UE at the national level.

By the mid-1950s, Friedan began having children and switched to writing for such high-circulation magazines as McCall’s and the Ladies’ Home Journal about unhappy suburban women. These articles became the basis for her celebrated best-seller. But she still sprinkled elements of an anti-capitalist analysis into The Feminine Mystique: Big corporations who peddled cosmetics and household cleansers helped keep women in their “underused, nameless yearning, energy-to-get-rid-of” place. She compared the alienation of housewives to the alienation of wage-earners at assembly-line jobs. One will probably not find such structural critiques among Sandberg’s suggestions for self-improvement.

Indeed, Friedan could be so strident in her focus on economic equality that she clashed with feminists who cared as much, if not more, about smashing the taboos and repealing the laws against sexual freedom and identity. In the late 1960s, when younger members of the National Organization for Women, which she co-founded, demanded that the organization make it a priority to champion the rights of lesbians, Friedan stridently denounced the “lavender menace.” She feared the media would brand NOW a cabal of “man-haters” and divert it from its main task of battling against gender discrimination at the workplace, for equal pay, and guaranteed child care. Some feminists never forgave her for this rejection of identity politics.

Sandberg also seems primarily concerned with the economics of gender. But there’s a key difference: Friedan didn’t share a view from the corporate boardroom. Her first political home was the labor movement, and she found her way back to it in the mid-1990s. Then in her seventies, Friedan participated with gusto in campus teach-ins to promote the new, reform-minded leadership of the AFL-CIO. “I have a pretty good historic Geiger counter,” she told a packed audience at Columbia University. “It clicked thirty years ago” when The Feminine Mystique helped create the modern women’s movement. “And that counter is clicking again, because I think we are on the verge of something new: a movement for social justice” that might “transcend the separate interests, the special interests, even the very good interests of identity politics that have been at the cutting edge of democratic progress.” Friedan wasn’t able to realize her vision of justice—such is the fate of American leftists. But it was always a far cry from the individualized notion of justice proffered by Sandberg.

Not least because Friedan may just have been ahead of her time. A growing number of feminists are now arguing that the inequalities of gender are intertwined with the injuries of class. In our era of prolonged austerity, they point out, female wage-earners tend to suffer the most. While the ranks of nurses, homecare workers, and waitresses are increasing, most still earn less than do men in the same industries.

Feminists in New York have also taken up the cause of paid sick leave, which close to a million local workers currently do without, most of them women. This puts activists at odds with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who hopes to become the first female and first openly gay mayor of the city. “Making life fairer for all women,” declared Gloria Steinem, “seems more important than breaking a barrier for one woman.” Forty years ago, during the raging dispute about lesbianism, she and Betty Friedan were on opposite sides. But they would be marching together now.

Would Sheryl Sandberg be out there with them? Perhaps the more important question is whether the marchers would have any use for her.

Cross-posted from the New Republic.



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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.

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