The Friedan Mystique

Published February 10, 2006, issue of February 10, 2006.
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No greater tribute can be conferred on a revolutionary than the privilege of living to see one’s revolutionary ideas taken for granted as commonplace truisms. Betty Friedan, who died on her 85th birthday February 4, had that privilege. Like few other figures in recent history, she introduced a transformative concept that changed the way we looked at ourselves and each other, and then she watched and participated as society reshaped itself around her ideas.

In 1963, when Friedan published her manifesto, “The Feminine Mystique,” America was still adjusting to the postwar baby boom and the larger shifts accompanying it. Americans by the millions had moved to the suburbs and joined the middle class, with its implied promise of endless possibility. Friedan had been part of that shift; born to Russian Jewish immigrants in southern Illinois, she had gone to college, then married and built her life around her family and children. Her book, begun as a survey of her college graduating class, opens with a description of what life had become for women of her generation: “As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?’”

Millions of women recognized themselves in Friedan’s book, and a movement arose. In the decades that followed, women demanded more. In response, American and Western society were forced to grant them more — more jobs, more equality, more choices and, above all, more freedom to seek personal fulfillment in whatever path they chose.

Forty years later, much remains to be done. Women still earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn doing the same work. A glass ceiling still exists in business, government and elsewhere. Women can now be found in the Senate, the Supreme Court and the corporate boardroom, but such advances too often remain individual achievements, singular and even newsworthy each time. We still await the day when the fact of women’s equality will be, like the idea of it, a commonplace.

Over the years, Friedan’s vision has raised almost as many questions as it answered. Some younger feminists claim, in the name of freedom and choice, the option of staying home and raising children, to the dismay of Friedan’s most passionate disciples. On the other hand, some feminists have pushed the revolution beyond free choice to challenge the structure of family and gender roles, something that famously dismayed Friedan herself. And Friedan had come to understand, as too many feminists still do not, the essential link between gender inequality and economic injustice. To be fair to women, a society must be fair.

The jury is still out on the struggles for the soul of feminism. Yet the struggles only highlight the larger victory: Virtually all sides now acknowledge the basic feminist doctrine — women’s rights, women’s choices — as an irreducible given. That, more than anything, is the legacy of a revolutionary.

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