Sunday, February 05, 2006

Betty Freidan: 1921-2006

This weekend has been an emotional weekend for me as I remembered the passing of my mom and then mourned anew when I read that Betty Freidan died of congested heart failure at 85 yesterday. Freidan is best known as the author of The Feminine Mystique (1963) which spelled out, bluntly in print, the disease women were coming down with all over the United States: “The problem that has no name.” Like many diseases, this illness spread quickly, effecting both women and men as they searched for a way to live peacefully together in a world built along gender lines. Yet, this “problem that has no name” affected women directly. Sold “a bill of goods” that told a woman that her life and aspirations should be confined to the walls of her home and duties as a wife and mother, a woman was taught to
“. . . pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents. They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights – the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists fought for. Some women, in their forties and fifties, still remembered painfully giving up those dreams, but most of the younger women no longer thought about them.” (The Feminine Mystique)
Confined to the roles of wife and mother, many women did not find the fulfillment they were promised, as they watched their children and husbands leave the four walls (layered in Yellow Wallpaper?) of so-called bliss behind for life outside in the public arena. Left to clean house and attend to the children, or left alone after the children were old enough to attend school, many women in the late fifties and early sixties started to whisper to one another, wondering what was wrong with them for feeling so damn depressed. “Didn’t they have it all?” These women, not understanding why they were feeling the way they were feeling, fill the doctors offices and laid down on a shrink’s couch, took tranquilizers and had early afternoon cocktails. One doctor, reported Friedan, labeled this condition the “Housewife’s syndrome.” Friedan became the voice for the new feminist movement and was one of the founders and the first president of NOW (National Organization of Women) in 1966—the year of my birth and the year that we lost Margaret Sanger. Loved and feared, Friedan worked to level the playing field for women all over the United States and the world at large—her pivotal book truly changed the lives of many women. I started this tribute by first mentioning my mother who died five years ago this month. In 1966, she was a young mother who, like many others, felt this “problem that had no name,” but was encouraged by the women’s movement, Friedan and others. The Feminine Mystique sat on her shelf--worn, and crinkled at the edges because of constant use and rereading. An avid reader, only a few books had this used and reused feeling. Books that are loved dearly but used totally. At times she would take either Friedan’s book or Joyce’s Portrait of An Artist as a Young Man in with her when she took a bath. This was her quiet time, her time for reflection and planning. When the water would turn cold, she would let some out and newly fill the tub, while she lovingly turned the pages of her book. Such books encouraged her to go back to school, get her GED and finally to earn her Master’s Degree in creative writing. Although Friedan inspired many women, she also outraged others. Many modern women criticize Friedan for her “work within the system” tactic. This approach, many have suggested, confined the women’s movement to those suburban and middle class members of society, while, at the same time, excluded those outside of societal "norms." Thus, counter movements, such as the lesbian rights movement of the late sixties and early seventies, found themselves excluded from the larger women’s movements. Many feminists feared that such radical movements would hurt the greater cause because they lay so far outside the status-quo of society. Although, it must also be recognized that Betty Friedan, in 1977, seconded the resolution for protecting lesbian rights at the National Women’s Conference in Houston. Yet, this criticism placed on Friedan, and the mainstream women’s movement as well, is a valid criticism. It should be of no surprise to learn that ideas of what constitute citizenship and who qualifies as a citizen is often built upon the corresponding idea of who should be excluded. Such projects, although appearing successful, only creates a minimal amount of change as the system that created the inequality is not challenged, but widened to accept a new portion of the population. I tend to agree that the system and not just the symptoms need to be challenged. However, with this said, we should not ignore or lessen the importance of Friedan’s life, works and impact. From the 1970s on, especially during the Regan and Thatcher years, there was launched a counter attack against the women’s movement that we are still feeling today. Friedan, and others like her, realized that this counter movement threatened the few rights earned by the women’s movement and did their best to protect what progress was made. Today, women are again on the defensive. New religious right movements are reasserting and demanding the status-quo patriarchal stance that would keep women confined to the private sphere, while men navigate the public sphere. With the new Supreme Court appointments of Roberts and Alito, women’s rights will, most likely, again be challenged. The debate is not simply about abortion, but about a woman’s right over her body and, therefore, over her selfhood. Once the rights over selfhood is legislated and ruled over, she again becomes property of husband and state—regulated as a child producing machine for state and family. In the aftermath of Friedan’s death, it is important to recognize that her fight, our fight, is not over. A separate, “but equal,” division between members of society is not equality—it is inequality wrapped in a quilt of rhetoric. It is our responsibility, as women, to take up where Friedan left off, to take up where our mothers left off and to lead the next generation. I ask you to fight the system itself and not just offer bandages for the symptoms. This does not mean that we ignore the contributions of Friedan, but that we become inspired and sit in awe of the initiative and bravery offered by her and others. Pick up her badge, place it on your chest and renew the effort. Two other bloggers are also calling for a renewed effort—one a man and one a woman. Please visit Less People Less Idiots and Lingo Slinger.

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