This week marks the tenth anniversary of Betty Friedan’s death, on 4 February 2006. The New York Times obituary that appeared the following day credited her with igniting “the contemporary women’s movement in 1963 and as a result permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States.” Certainly, her book The Feminine Mystique was incredibly important in kickstarting a mainstream discussion about the position of women in America of the early 1960s. But she was not alone in thinking critically about the changing landscape of gender politics in the US.
The previous year, Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl was published, and dominated the best seller lists nationally and internationally. Gurley Brown became the editor of a newly revamped Cosmopolitan in 1964, and became an icon for the single, career-minded girl of the late 1960s. Friedan sometimes wrote for Cosmo, but for the most part she poured her energy into the National Organization for Women (NOW), and sought policy change primarily in the areas of women’s pay and equality within the workplace. NOW was also at the forefront of battles around women’s rights to control their fertility, and famously disagreed about the ways that lesbians could contribute to the organization. Friedan was a founder member of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now Naral Pro-Choice). The Supreme Court decision on Roe v Wade (1973) seemed to suggest that the tide was turning towards protecting women’s rights to bodily autonomy, and the expectation was that this would feed into further steps towards equality.
Friedan’s later book, The Second Stage (1981) reveals both her optimism that feminism was positively impacting women’s lives, as well as her fears about the power of the anti-feminist backlash. (This last theme was picked up by Susan Faludi in her very influential Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women published in 1991). But two weeks after Friedan died, the legislature of South Dakota approved one of the most far-reaching anti-abortion measures introduced since Roe v Wade (1973). Since then, political campaigns to repeal Roe have escalated, and many states have introduced formal legislative restrictions to dilute women’s rights to access legal terminations, as well as more informal restrictions through the closure of abortion clinics. Restrictions particularly affect poorer women who cannot afford to travel across states or across state lines in order to access legal terminations. On 1 January 2016, Texas House Bill 3994 went into effect, which assumes that all women seeking abortions in the state are minors, until they can prove otherwise. This kind of infantilization of women brings us back to the nineteenth century, when women were treated as non-political actors, minors with no capacity to consent. Betty Friedan would roll in her grave.
Back to the Feminine Mystique. One of the major criticisms of the book is that Friedan writes almost exclusively from the position of middle class white women, whose experiences we assume mirror her own. She did most of the research for the book in the late 1950s, surveying women that she had known during her time at Smith, the liberal arts women’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her focus on middle class women is perhaps surprising, because she began her career working for leftist and workers’ organizations, and writing for their newspapers and magazines. She was certainly not ignorant of the difficulties experiences by working class women for whom the biggest problems were money and food, rather than a ‘problem that has no name.’ Gwen Jordan has written about the environment that Friedan responded to in Peoria here, in the pages of a journal that I co-edited last year. And colleagues and I have written about the reception, legacy and criticisms of the book here. Most of the criticisms of the book grow out of our expectations of it, and are due to the heavy burden of being the ‘first’, of being the kind of groundbreaker that the NYT claims that she was. No one book could possibly address all women’s circumstances, aspirations, experiences of discrimination. Perhaps it was inevitable that the book would not speak to all women. But it certainly spoke to many: the first paperback copy sold 1.4 million copies.
The statement of purpose issued by the National Organization for Women was co-written by Friedan and Pauli Murray. We often think of NOW as representing those white, middle class, aspirational women that figure in The Feminine Mystique. But in reality, the steering committee of NOW was a much broader church. Pauli Murray had been an activist on women’s issues much longer than Friedan had. A graduate of Howard University’s School of Law, she argued for the application of the 14th amendment to issues of gender discrimination. A black, lesbian (she might now call herself genderqueer) activist who battled race and gender discrimination, her contributions have been largely erased from the popular history of second wave feminism. But she was just as important in those early years of NOW as Friedan was; in fact, she may have been even more important. The obituary published by the NYT after her death in July 1985 is much more cursory than that marking Friedan’s death.
Of course, we have allowed second wave feminism to be cast as a white movement. We have allowed the voices of non-white, non-heterosexual women to be erased from the popular memory. It was convenient to do so: an agenda that was organized around legal change on pay and employment equality was easier to digest in political terms. It was much more difficult to handle questions of economic and social inequality based on class, race, sexuality. I gave a paper at a conference last year at Oxford Brookes, and in one of the keynote lectures Prof. Angela McRobbie talked about the ways that feminism — even the latest wave of feminism (fourth?) — is still connected to a set of neo-liberal values. In order to make feminism useful or successful, we need to reverse the backlash, and think anew about the ways that feminism questions the very categories that produce inequality, particularly in terms of class and the wider gap between rich and poor. Can we break that liberal basis of feminism in the 21st century? Is that the new ‘problem that has no name’?
The NYT was correct: Friedan was a groundbreaker. But she did not transform the social fabric of the United States. She helped, but she was one of many, and if we remember Friedan in this way we must also remember Murray and the many others who confronted the triple constraints of class, gender and race. And in the current climate, where the winner of the GOP caucus in Iowa stands for banning abortion and defunding Planned Parenthood, and another high profile candidate openly admits that he would try to repeal marriage equality, then we should be even more vigilant to protect hard won rights, in Europe and the US, against attack from those who wish to return us to a bygone era.