Copyright The Economist
Betty Friedan, campaigner for women’s rights,
ONCE upon a time, behind the door of almost every ranch house on almost every suburban street in America, a beautiful creature could be found. She wore a housecoat, sheer stockings and a turban that kept her hairstyle neat when she was dusting. Rubber gloves preserved her flawless hands as she washed the dishes after breakfast. Her husband’s homecoming was welcomed every day with new recipes from the Ladies’ Home Journal and, after lights out, complaisant sex.
She had never been to college or, if she had, put her intelligence aside. Her life was to ferry children in the station wagon, make peanut-butter sandwiches, choose new drapes, do the laundry, arrange flowers. At eleven in the morning she would open her enormous refrigerator, cut a slice of pastel-frosted cake and wash down, with coffee, the pills that kept her smiling.
For almost a decade, in the 1950s, Betty Friedan’s life was much like this. In her rambling house in Grandview-on-the-Hudson, New York, she brought up three children, cooked meals for her theatre-producer husband and “messed about” with home decoration. Obviously, she did not work in the proper sense of the word. She was a wife and mother and, as a woman, was happy to be nothing else.
One glance at Mrs Friedan, though, suggested that matters were more complicated. Short, stocky, with an enormous nose and hooded eyes, she was far from the sweet Bambi creature promoted in womens’ magazines. Argument-wise, she could give as good as she got, complete with smashing crockery and the whole gamut of screams. She had majored in psychology and won a research fellowship at Berkeley, though she gave it up when her boyfriend felt overshadowed. At college she had gone, dressed in twinset and pearls, to a squalid New York office to try to join the Communist Party. For years she had been a left-wing journalist, writing about race and sex discrimination for union news-sheets, and she had fearlessly gone on working after marriage until, on her second pregnancy, she had been fired in favour of a man.
In Grandview-on-the-Hudson, her radicalism buried, Mrs Friedan asked: “Is this all?” Despite her education she was doing no better than her mother, whose misery had filled their nice house in Peoria with temper and recrimination. Her father, once a button-hawker, had risen to own a jeweller’s shop; her mother’s creativity began and ended at the front yard. Most women, Mrs Friedan believed, felt the same. In 1957 she surveyed 200 classmates from Smith College, now housewives, most desperate; but when she catalogued their despair in an article, no women’s magazine would publish it. Mrs Friedan determined to write a book, and in 1963 threw a firebomb into American society whose effects are still reverberating.
“The Feminine Mystique” was rambling and badly written, but it identified precisely why women were miserable. Oddly enough, since Mrs Friedan had been a keen Freudian at college, much of the problem lay with Freud, whose theories were now so popular. He had thought of women as inferiors, racked with penis envy, whose only route to fulfilment lay through men. Garbage, cried Mrs Friedan. Women needed simply to be treated as equals and freed to become themselves.
Grateful letters poured in from women readers. Critics, mostly but not merely male, spluttered that she was a danger to the state and a proof of the folly of sending girls to college. But women now had the political wind behind them. Mrs Friedan got busy, co-founding in 1966 the National Organisation for Women (NOW) campaigning for equal pay, maternity leave, abortion choice and decent child care, fighting for the still unpassed Equal Rights Amendment and, in 1970, celebrating 50 years of women’s suffrage by leading the Women’s Strike for Equality, some 50,000 souls, through New York City.
Much was achieved, especially on abortion law, but it was not plain sailing. Mrs Friedan’s sharp tongue made enemies everywhere. She rapidly fell out with the daft fringe of the women’s movement, the bra-burners and ball-breakers and militant lesbians (the Lavender Menace, as she called them), who wanted all-out war. The impatient disliked her incrementalist approach; the class-conscious condemned her for rooting the “woman problem” in the pampered white suburbs, rather than in ghettos and factories.
Part of the difficulty was that she loathed political correctness, gender politics and the gender studies that came to clutter the curricula of American universities. She also approved of marriage and refused to hate men. Though she claimed her own husband abused her, giving her black eyes which she hid under make-up (in 1969, she divorced him), she insisted that men were victims of women’s frustrations as much as women were. This was less a sexual problem than an economic one. It would be solved with equal work, worth and incomes.
When Mrs Friedan died, that Utopia was still distant. But at least she had made sure that post-war America’s Ideal Woman was buried at some suburban crossroads, her hair still unmussed, and with a stake through her perfectly calibrated heart.
Copyright The Economist