Betty Friedan (1921-2006): Connecting the dots between support for women and creating a more equal society
Betty Friedan died on her birthday, a rare event for a rare person. The linked article from the Washington Post is worth reading because it provides us with some of the information we need to understand why the women in the US who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s led the rallying call, during the 1960s and 1970s, against culturally confining and sometimes outright oppressive treatment of women that began in the late 1940s after World War II.
Betty Friedan's mother was a newspaper editor (think Kate Hepburn or Barbara Stanwyck), and Friedan herself was a high achiever in school. Friedan attended a prestiguous "women's" college (along with another tough and intelligent woman, Barbara Pierce, later Bush). A recent article (couldn't find the link) articulated how, in the 1930s, Hollywood often cast women as tough speaking, tough acting and confident--though with some cultural restraint even we mere men may discern. This was not Hollywood attempting to change culture, but as usual, it was reacting to the culture that had begun to change positively for women in the 1920s, following women being allowed to vote in public elections. Don't think this did not reenforce Betty Friedan's thinking along with millions of other women of that era.
One hears, perhaps, Friedan's mother's voice saying to her young daughter in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s: "Betty, you can do anything a man can do, dammit!" Isn't that the essence of the voice of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" (1963)?
The Sixties women's movement did not begin like the Big Bang or Genesis. The movement was a resurgence of an earlier women's movement from the 1910s and 1920s. The Sixties movement was also a reaction to the late 1940s and 1950s tightening of cultural traditions against women entering the outside work force. Plus, with the advent of "the Pill," women could truly achieve autonomy with regard to sexual activity--meaning, not to be passive and having to submit to a male's decisions in that arena.* As Barbara Ehrenreich made crystal clear in one of the best sociological books I've ever read, "The Hearts of Men" (1983, first edition), the Sixties feminist movement was a reaction to that cultural stricture that began in the 1940s, and was galvanized by the Playboy culture men began to create in the 1950s--where "first wives" were left behind with the children and had to enter the outside work force, where they were devalued further. Anyone who sees feminism as simply women acting selfishly is viewing our society through the wrong end of the telescope and not even bothering to check the microscope.
Betty Friedan was a New Dealer (on the left side of New Deal) at heart, as the article notes she became a labor reporter in the 1940s and later in life, an advocate for senior citizens of both sexes.
Friedan, therefore, did not come to her feminism by seeking a libertine or narcissistic version of autonomy. She wanted equality and autonomy for women in the economic and cultural spheres because human beings deserve respect and dignity--and because we owe duties to each other in society, not merely receipt of rights. Friedan was not anti-male and her slow, sometimes halting support for the so-called "lesbian" wing of feminism in the early 1970s was based on the recognition that some of the leaders at that time espoused a message of hatred of things male. When she found a way to support lesbians in terms of fighting against discrimination, Betty Friedan was there, front and center. This is no different than a white "radical" supporting Martin Luther King, Jr., but not supporting a black nationalist who espouses hatred against whites. And let's also recall that Mother Jones, another "radical" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, supported socialist-labor causes, but believed women's sufferage (voting rights) was a diversion. We need a bit more humility in "rating" people and giving them more benefits of the doubt for the main things such people fought for.
Betty Friedan, if placed in the longer context of American history, which includes labor and women's history (starting with Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and the New Deal of the 1930s), becomes a larger personna than any of the so-called "mainstream media" articles that are being written. She is an important part of a continuing thread of Americans who have sought and seek human dignity for all and a more just and more equal society. She is already missed.
* What makes most of the anti-abortion forces abhorrent to me is that they appear more interested in punishing women for getting pregnant ("Abortion? She should have thought of that before she had sex!") than saving the life of a baby. It is why I cannot support criminalizing abortion and agree slightly more with Katha Pollitt than William Saletan on this (Too bad both got into the argument about "abortion rights" after we reach a societal utopia of equality...since they agree about everything else. Where Pollitt is more cogent, though, is her sensitive insight that society treats preganancy as solely a woman's problem--and an outside marriage pregnancy being a comment on the "morality" of a woman--and the failure to include the man in such a discussion).