Friedan's shot heard round the world
Futurist Alvin Toffler once commented that "The Feminine Mystique," Betty Friedan's 1964 best-seller, "pulled the trigger on history." It sparked a new women's movement that radically changed modern society. But even as a trigger, that movement represented a continuum - one of expanding individual liberty.
Ms. Friedan, once an obscure suburban housewife who died Saturday an American icon, urged women to break free from society's designated identification of them as spouses and mothers. "A woman has got to be able to say, and not feel guilty, 'Who am I, and what do I want out of life?' She mustn't feel selfish and neurotic if she wants goals of her own, outside of husband and children," she said.
Friedan's society- shaping crusades - equal access to the workplace, and equal treatment there; political and legal empowerment; and at a later stage, the embracing of nurturing home and family life - all had precursors in history.
In World War II, "Rosie the Riveter" proved that women were up to the challenge of the workplace. An estimated 18 million women stepped into jobs vacated by men gone to war. Day care couldn't have been more convenient, often located next to the factories where women worked. Yet women's vocational day in the sun faded after the Allied victory.
The patient, determined work begun by suffragists of the 19th century, whose labors finally secured the women's vote in 1920, laid the foundation for Friedan's political and legal activism. In 1966, she cofounded the National Organization for Women - the largest women's organization - to counter lack of federal enforcement of the Civil Rights Act as it applied to gender. She also helped found the abortion rights group that's now called NARAL-Pro Choice America.
Entwined with the suffragists was the women's temperance movement - a protest against the widespread domestic violence wrought by alcohol abuse. Interestingly, after a backlash to her work, Friedan also found herself having to defend the home. The movement made a mistake in putting down the role of housewife and mother. "Our failure was our blind spot about the family," Friedan later wrote.
But can she be blamed for that blind spot? Friedan's earthshaking book, built on a survey done for her 15-year Smith College reunion, showed middle-class, educated women feeling imprisoned in their home lives. They told this freelance writer, who graduated with honors, about a "problem that had no name" - a problem of "feeling incomplete" which they then tried to fix with tranquilizers, redecorating, or more children. Friedan found that women of that time who did not conform to the traditional stereotype were happier.
Although revolutionary for her time, Friedan was a "moderate" feminist, who believed men should be allies, not enemies. Her interest in furthering the freedom to develop as a person carried into her later years when she addressed issues facing seniors. The aged, she observed in 1993, are talked about with the same "patronizing, 'compassionate' denial of their personhood" as were women.
This past weekend, the nation also mourned Coretta Scott King's passing. That's a reminder that the fight for individual liberty is a broad and deep one - with a history, and a future.