For the longest time when I was a young girl, I thought the name of the book was “The Feminine Mistake.” That’s because at about the same time that Betty Friedan’s landmark book “The Feminine Mystique” was published in 1963, I accompanied my mother to a lecture by a famous Catholic priest, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. I was eleven, and hearing Bishop Sheen “live” was a really big deal. The room was full of good Catholic women raised in the 1930′s, ’40′s and 50′s, and they applauded loudly every time he denounced this idea he called “the feminine mistake.” Being eleven and clueless, I had no idea what he was talking about, so I clapped along with the ladies. My picture proudly standing next to him after that lecture is still part of the family Hall of Fame photo album.
In college, at Trinity, I finally read “The Feminine Mystique” and discovered with some considerable chagrin the real issues that Archbishop Sheen was alluding to so many years earlier. Friedan unmasked “the problem that has no name,” the idea of “desperate housewives” long before we could laugh at that terminology. Friedan’s survey of her Smith College alumnae sisters opened a window into the large abyss of women’s sense of repression, unfulfilled desires for personal growth and professional attainment that was denied to them because of the sexist structures and policies and attitudes of society. Archbishop Sheen had good reason to be worried. Friedan’s book was a flashpoint igniting a new and more vigorous phase of the women’s rights revolution, leading to changes in the law and social attitudes toward women, reaping huge benefits for succeeding generations of women and generating significant new controversies about women’s roles and rights in society.
Friedan died yesterday, another icon of the 20th Century movement for human rights now gone from the stage. The many obituaries recount her leadership accomplishments for women’s rights, equal pay, gender-neutral help wanted ads, equal treatment in employment. But the obituaries also recount some of the dilemmas that Friedan created when she did not go along with all of the later ideas of more radical feminism. She was truly an iconoclast, someone who challenged all conventions including the conventions of the movement she owned for a portion of its long history.
It’s exactly this iconoclastic quality of Friedan’s that still gives me pause so many years later. While I disagree vigorously with the sarcastic dismissal of her work as “the feminine mistake,” yet, from the vantage point of history I now understand more completely the ways in which Friedan and other feminist leaders sometimes devalued the essential importance of those great women who clapped for Fulton Sheen so many years ago — women like my mother who stayed home and raised families and contributed to the advancement of their children and communities in myriad unheralded ways. It is a great dilemma — applauding her leadership in securing the hard-won rights that make women’s professional advancement possible, while also realizing that the either-or rigidity of some feminist positions simply misses the point about human freedom and fulfillment. Women at work can be just as much “desperate professionals” as the desperate, depressed women at home whom Friedan described in her book. The point is not that one lifestyle is good and the other bad, but rather, all people (male and female) should have freedom and equal opportunity to construct lives that are fulfilling.
The Friedan Dilemma is also present for the millions of people who believe deeply in women’s rights and feminism, but who also believe equally strongly that abortion is a grave moral problem. Friedan founded several women’s rights organizations that have become single-issue “choice” advocates. Their refusal to acknowledge the moral problem at the heart of the “choice” rhetoric clouds Friedan’s legacy and diminishes the impact of the feminist movement with regard to other extremely important issues in the ongoing quest for women’s equality.
Revolutions require passion, not nuance, and revolutionaries are often figures of conflict and controversy. So it was with Betty Friedan. She re-ignited the women’s revolution begun in previous centuries by women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. She gave new voice to women’s drive for equality, a drive that even religious women such as Trinity’s Founders Sr. Julia McGroarty, SND and Sr. Mary Euphrasia Taylor, SND carried forward in 1897 in founding a college devoted to women’s education and advancement. We are part of “the movement” and we know that the revolution in women’s rights and human rights continues.
Now, new generations of women are redefining the meaning of feminism, freedom and fulfillment for a new century. For today’s young women, the notion of help wanted ads appearing in “male” and “female” columns is as bizarre as the idea that women should not attend college because they might go insane with too much study (a reason specifically cited in the 19th century to block the formation of women’s colleges). The young women I speak to at Trinity and elsewhere today are ambitious, visionary about their futures, and balanced in a healthy way about their hopes to raise good families while also achieving whatever is possible professionally. They largely eschew the rigidity of earlier feminist positions, rejecting the idea that in order to be a good feminist “you must” adhere to certain political positions — that rigidity, in and of itself, is a form of repression.
Today’s young women claim the right to hold a broad range of political beliefs, while also sharing one clear vision: that people must be accorded freedom to live, work and enjoy life without discrimination, fear or oppression. In their passionate commitment to social justice for all people, they honor the work and achievements of the courageous women who came before them. Betty Friedan is one of the leaders from another era who made it possible for today’s young women to have such bold, fresh vision. She would be proud to know them.
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