Feminism and `The Heidi Chronicles': Betty Freidan and Gloria Steinem Reflect

IN the opening weeks of its Broadway run, such feminists as Gloria Steinem, Nora Ephron, Meryl Streep, and Betty Friedan booked seats for Wendy Wasserstein's ``The Heidi Chronicles.'' Critical response from the feminist community, however, has been mixed. Some have deplored the play's accusation that the feminist movement has failed; others have found hard to take the play's ``bailout'' ending, in which a 40-year-old Heidi adopts a baby and becomes a single mother. We set out to ask two of the feminist movement's most influential women where feminism has come to rest on the issue of Wendy Wasserstein's ``The Heidi Chronicles.''

According to Gloria Steinem, who spoke with us from her Times Square office at Ms. magazine, ``There is no essential controversy among feminists. What controvery there is is cooked up by the media to divide women from one another.

``The very raising of the question is an effort to divide and separate. Individual women have discussed with each other their responses [to the controversial ending], but of course there's public support for the play. This is clearly a step forward.

``To have a play on Broadway about the change that a woman goes through in her life; to be in a situation where hundreds of thousands of people have sat completely absorbed in the life choices of a particular woman ... this is a revolution in itself.''

But Betty Friedan feels differently. Reached by phone at the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge, Friedan put it this way: ``I'm proud of Wendy Wasserstein. She's a very good playwright, and I'm happy she won the Pulitzer Prize, but I was disturbed by the play. In depicting Heidi as troubled over career and family, Wendy Wasserstein inadvertently fed a media hype, a new feminine mystique about the either/or choices in a woman's life. Either/or is a false and a no-win choice that comes of a new anti-feminist traditionalism. These articles about women putting down their briefcases and putting on aprons are detours. They take us away from the real agenda which should be for us to stop being the only nation in the advanced world, besides South Africa, without a national policy of child care and parental leave.''

According to Friedan, ``Without child care and parental leave policies there is a danger of either/or.''

Similarly, according to Steinem, ``The issue of whether or not to have a baby isn't a woman's issue. It's a human issue. Women are asking about whether or not to have babies; until men ask that question, we can't get anywhere.''

Do women feel led astray by the movement, left out on a line, hanging between family and career? According to Steinem, no.

``Wendy Wasserstein is not saying that women are led astray by the movement. It takes a long while to overthrow 5,000 years. The question is not, is it perfect now, but is it better than it used to be?''

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