Betty Friedan and the Women?s Movement

Betty Friedan and the Women?s Movement

Cynthia Fuchs Epstein: Betty Friedan and the Women?s Movement

The ?F? word (feminism) has been revived in academic and literary discourse with Stephanie Coontz?s A Strange Stirring, a widely publicized book that considers the intent and impact of Betty Friedan?s iconic The Feminine Mystique. Like other critics, Coontz claims that Friedan?s book should not be credited with starting the women?s movement, suggesting it would have happened anyway. She also faults her for being ?elitist,? focusing on the lives of middle-class women, and neglecting the situations of working-class women and women of color. Because Coontz?s perspective is not uncommon, it is worth reviewing Friedan?s contributions to social change in America.

Coontz, like other writers who do not distance themselves from the term ?feminist? and who (sometimes grudgingly) acknowledge that Friedan did play a role in achieving greater women?s equality, somehow feels that The Feminine Mystique was deficient. It was ?only? an analysis of the despair felt by housewives isolated in domestic roles after the Second World War and ?contained no call for women to band together to improve their legal and political rights.? In interviews with women who read Friedan?s book when it came out in 1963, Coontz heard of how much it ?changed their lives,? how Friedan connected their private distress to a larger social problem. She gives Friedan credit for arguing that this problem needed to be addressed by education, work, and community involvement, and for providing ?the clinching piece of evidence?that they had indeed been the target of a massive and cynical campaign to erase the feminist aspirations of the 1920s and turn women into mindless consumers.? But she faults her for not mentioning marital rape, abortion, sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and issues faced by African-American women.

But to assume that the book should have been a manifesto for the women?s movement is ridiculous and wrongheaded. Its purpose was to shed light on the ?mental health crisis? middle-class women faced because of their entrapment in roles as housewives and mothers, and to expose the rationalizations of these ?functional? roles as necessary for social stability in social science analysis (particularly the work of Talcott Parsons). To fault her for not writing a book that prescribed wide social change is foolish. It raised the consciousness of millions of readers and gave Friedan the visibility required for her to begin building a movement. The notion that she was not pivotally important in creating one of the largest movements ever for social change in the United States, and indeed the world, points to the lack of respect and recognition women leaders face, even on the part of their own constituencies. It also shows ignorance of the context and the history of the movement.

Of course, little of that historical period?the beginning of second-wave feminism?is known. At the meetings in living rooms and classrooms, in church halls and on buses and trains, there were no note-takers or recorders. Newspaper writers and editors hardly acknowledged these meetings, and their reports often poked fun at the early organizers. Yet Friedan did offer an analysis of her role in the creation of the women?s movement in the twentieth anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique, published in 1983. I doubt that Stephanie Coontz?s copy of the book was of that edition (although she claims to have read the book only after beginning research for A Strange Stirring). If it was, she would have had a much better understanding of the sequence of events behind the second wave of the 1960s.

For a Dissent article I wrote in 1999, I interviewed Friedan about her role in the women?s movement. (Friedan was a personal friend.) Then, too, critics of Friedan attacked her for neglecting issues regarding black and working-class women?accusations based on the book Friedan wrote, rather than her activism in the years that followed. Friedan told me, as she had written in 1983, of how Pauli Murray, an African-American lawyer, and Sonia Pressman Fuentes, a lawyer for the newly formed Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, proposed to her the need for a women?s organization?an ?NAACP for Women.? These women and others in government circles were concerned that the mission of the EEOC, the federal agency created to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibits discrimination in employment practices), would never be realized without the expression of public support. They thought that Friedan was ideally situated to spearhead such an organization, given the public profile The Feminine Mystique?a bestseller?had given her. As the sociologist Erving Goffman argued, ?framing? an issue is all-important in making it visible and important to the public. Friedan had done just that in identifying ?the problem that had no name?: the discontent that isolated women felt without opportunities for education and productive work lives. Having identified at least one aspect of the problem?women?s limited participation in the workplace and in civil society more generally?Friedan joined with women in government, academia, and trade unions in an endeavor to put teeth into the Civil Rights Act.

Thus Friedan and these other women created the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. NOW?s ?Statement of Purpose,? written by Friedan and other members of the founding committee, addressed almost all of the issues that critics like Coontz complain that Friedan?s book had ignored. It pointed to discrimination against women working in low-paid factory and service jobs and acknowledged that ?Negro women workers are in the lowest paid service occupations.? It bemoaned women?s low representation in government, in higher education, and the professions. It referred to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (passed one year after Friedan?s book was published) as a vehicle for fighting discrimination and called for a movement modeled after the civil rights movement. (It is instructive to consider how limited in scope the pronouncements of an even more radical group like the Redstockings were at the time. In its 1969 manifesto, the group made no mention of black women, lesbian and gay rights, or abortion, instead arguing more generally about women?s status as ?objects, breeders, domestic servants, and cheap labor? and the problem of ?male supremacy.? It did not identify the particular unjust social practices that the NOW program did.)

Friedan organized activists and social scientists to open opportunities in training and employment for women in spheres previously regarded suitable only for men. One of NOW?s first acts was to participate in hearings called by the EEOC to define what exactly constituted discriminatory acts against women, and what the ?natural? propensities of women were. These were the days when newspaper listings identified jobs as suitable for either men or women, and when girls and boys were placed on separate educational tracks. Only men qualified for the very best jobs?those in the classic professions and in business. White and black women were placed in different job pools, as were workers from different ethnic groups. For example, AT&T, the largest employer of workers in the United States outside of government, hired white working-class girls who had been educated in Catholic schools as telephone operators, their brothers as installers and repairmen, and black men as janitors and custodians. Such treatment was typical across America. Women and blacks were essentially slotted into dead-end jobs.

The issues of discrimination that NOW and the EEOC addressed were important to women of all social classes, but in fact their major activities focused on working-class women. NOW supported EEOC in its suit against AT&T. It also joined in a suit by flight attendants who faced discrimination on the basis of their marital status, age, and weight.

Friedan also strove to attract women of color to NOW. NOW?s first vice president was Aileen Clarke Hernandez, an African-American woman who became the organization?s president when Friedan left the position in 1971. The New York chapter of NOW, also formed in 1966, counted two African-American women among its founders: Florynce Kennedy, a lawyer, and Shirley Chisholm, who Friedan supported later in her effort to run for president of the United States.

Friedan?s perspective was ecumenical. The New York Times?s account of the national strike for women?s equality, organized by Friedan on August 16, 1970 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of U.S. women?s suffrage, noted that she led ?tens of thousands of women of all ages, occupations and viewpoints? in the march down New York City?s Fifth Avenue. The Washington Post reported that the thousands of marchers in the capital were made up of ?weather women, black women, and League of Women Voters members, women of the peace movement, Black Panthers and religious orders.?

Friedan also had a hand in the development of many other organizations devoted to women?s equality, within the academy and outside it. Professional associations that had either omitted women from their ranks entirely or relegated them to the refreshments committees started to campaign for better jobs and promotions and equal pay. During this tumultuous time, Friedan worked untiringly for the Equal Rights Amendment, travelling on many occasions to Washington, D.C. to corner a Senator or Congressperson to persuade them to support it. She supported women candidates for political office with articles and fundraising parties in her home.

In subsequent years, Friedan used the academy as a base, teaching in many departments of sociology and public affairs. Among them were Queens College of the City University of New York, Yale University, George Mason University, and the University of Southern California, where she was an important part of a center for the study of sex and gender. She participated in one of the first Ford Foundation-supported centers on women in society, the Center for Sex Roles and Social Change at Columbia University (where I was a co-director), and led a large conference on ?Women in the Eighties? at the Center that included delegates from labor organizations such as ?Nine-to-Five? and the United Auto Workers. Among her last activities was directing another program funded by the Ford Foundation and developed with Cornell University?s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Washington, D.C., bringing together academic researchers, the media, and public policy leaders to work on women?s employment, child care policy, and minority issues.

Friedan was ecumenical in her private life as well. Noting the racial boundaries in the social life of the vacation communities on Long Island?s East End, Friedan and Robert Hirschfield, a professor of political science at the City University of New York, organized ?the Sag Harbor Initiative??a conference bringing together intellectuals and public figures to informally discuss issues common to the black and white communities of the town where she spent her summers. The initiative produced a number of friendships across the color line.

Friedan was always on the go. Friends and family marveled at her energy. She lectured widely in the United States and abroad, meeting with government leaders and women?s movement activists, often spearheading and lending support to new women?s organizations in the countries she visited. She argued for women?s rights with leading women figures who later were responsible for implementing rights legislation in various spheres of women?s lives (even if, unfortunately, in some cases the rights won were short-lived). These individuals, among others, included Indira Gandhi, during her time as prime minister of India; Jehan Sadat, while she was first lady of Egypt; and Ashraf Pahlavi, the sister of the Shah of Iran.

Activists in the women?s movement were often torn about which protest activities and groups to support. In the middle to late sixties, not only the civil rights movement but also the anti-nuclear and student movements were important to progressives?and gay rights were beginning to appear on the agenda. It is true that Friedan was a bit tone deaf on gay rights when arguing that NOW should focus on problems encountered in the workday, not understanding the costs of homophobia in employment. One might note, however, that other activists, including those in the civil rights movement, also failed to address multiple issues, including women?s rights. Yet the heroes and founders of the civil rights movement did not encounter the kind of criticisms that Friedan did.

It is both curious and terrible that Friedan?s incredible achievements have not been recognized as those of other social movement leaders have been. Her funeral, five years ago, was attended mainly by family and friends, without representatives of large organizations and societies. No yearly tributes are heralded on her birthday, and students of social movements do not study her work and its impact. Perhaps it is no surprise. There seems to be less agreement about what constitutes women?s rights than about the rights of individuals who belong to more distinct groups, such as African Americans and certain ethnic minorities. Today, when many of the gains achieved by Friedan and other activists in the women?s movement are being challenged, it would be wonderful if another leader with focus and zeal to match Friedan?s would arise to carry on her work.