Dr. Robert Brannon, for NOMAS
Just over 50 years ago, in a house beside the Hudson river, a woman in her mid-30’s, Betty Goldstein Friedan, struggled in isolation, against impossible, ancient, even invisible glass-ceiling barriers, to write a book which in turn would ignite a blaze, that would finally change the world. But in the beginning, in this suburban beautiful spot, her path was steep, lonely, and up-hill.
My students and most young people today can barely imagine the sleepy, patriarchal Eisenhower years of the 1950’s. As Friedan remembered: Men headed every institution; “there was no “woman’s vote;” women voted as their husbands did. No pollster of political candidate talked about “women’s issues”; women were not taken that seriously…, did not take themselves seriously. Abortion was a word not printed in newspapers; it was a sleazy crime, that shamed and terrified and often killed women, and whose practitioners could go to jail.” “…Men all over the planet took for granted their right to beat or abuse their wives.”
Friedan had worked as a journalist until, she remembers, being “fired from a newspaper job, for being pregnant.” Now she was struggling uneasily, to live the life of a middle-class American housewife. “I like other women thought there was something wrong with me, because I didn’t have an orgasm waxing the kitchen floor. We didn’t admit it to each other if we felt there should be more in life than peanut butter sandwiches with the kids. “
A turning point came when in 1957 she collected 200 questionnaires from other Smith college classmates. As she read of how her well-educated friends and contemporaries had fared in life since college, wheels began to turn in her mind. She began to think, to read, and to write.
In 1959, she signed a book contract. “I got a baby-sitter three days a week, and took the bus from Rockland County to the City… She had a burning desire to write; but, she was also a suburban wife, with a commuting husband, and three young children, aged nine, five, and one.
Her husband was sure she was wasting her time. He complained to friends that when he came home from work, “that bitch” was writing her book, instead of preparing his dinner. On some nights he did not come home at all.
For five stressful years she thought, and she wrote. She had no secretary, no copy machine, no word processor. She wrote up to a dozen drafts of some sections. Editors said she was “humorless,” “shrill,” and of course, “strident.” Neither husband nor publisher actually expected she would finish. While she was writing, a census taker stopped to ask her occupation. “Housewife”, she answered.
When The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, the response was astonishing. It became an immediate sensation, a Book Of The Month Club selection, a best-seller. It was handed excitedly from woman to woman across the land, re-lighting the fires of American feminism, which burn fiercely to this day. Its social impact on women in America was enormous, visible, undeniable. For decades afterward, women would approach Friedan with nearly identical words: “Thank you!… Your book changed my life…”
When I first read The Feminine Mystique in 1972 to choose portions for a Women’s Studies class, I was amazed by the vast intellectual scope of the book, and astonished by how much I had to learn. The chapter on Sigmund Freud was revolutionary, electrifying. I had a Ph.D. in psychology, but I had never read such a clear, persuasive account of Freud’s own unconscious bias, animosity, and lack of real insight or concern with women.
There was another brilliant chapter which stood social science on its ear, exposing how the dominant paradigm of “functionalism” could never incorporate social change, and was being used to thwart reforms; How even the great Margaret Mead had gradually slipped into Freudian psycho-babble, and glorification of women’s traditional, biological roles.
But it was the chapters which explored the psychological insights from her own Smith college class questionnaires that were the most memorable, surprising, revolutionary: “The Happy Housewife Heroine”, and “The Problem That Has No Name”.
“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered… Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, chauffeured Cub Scouts, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – is this all?”
“I was surprised myself,” she recalls, “at what I was writing, where it was leading. After I finished each chapter, a part of me would wonder Am I crazy? But there was also a feeling of calm, strong, gut-sureness, as the clues fitted together.”
“It seemed such a precarious accident that I ever wrote the book at all – but in another way my whole life had prepared me to write that book. The book came from somewhere deep within me, and all my experience came together in it.” “I and every other woman had been living a lie.
While many of her insights were focused on the psychological, gender-role issues of women’s lives, she was not blind to the deeper dimensions, of patriarchal male power and control of women. She connected women’s struggles with those of African Americans, and of union members. She saw parallels between women’s psychological-plus-physical subordination and the methods of Nazi death camps. She hints in places (somehow escaping editors’ cuts) her suspicion of an enduring patriarchal power structure which systematically suppresses women.
Her book directly sparked the revival of active feminism in America. Within a few years NOW was being formed, and consciousness-raising groups were sprouting everywhere. “I am still awed by the revolution that book helped spark” she later wrote.
Betty Friedan was not a perfect human being, as none of us. Her thoughts were not always clearly on target. Her later comments on GLBT issues caused some pain, and could have used more thoughtful reflection.
Her belief that homemaking was a trap, for any intelligent woman, had led her, some felt, to an under-valuing of self-directed, family-centered work, for those women who may chose and desire this. Later feminists would point out that the unique liability of the homemaker occupation was that is was unpaid, and therefore unvalued; and “Wages For Housework!” were proposed by Federici and others.
Betty Friedan wrote about women, and to women, but she was far from unsympathetic to men. She could enjoy a chuckle at their expense, as when she once spoke of a “strange dearth of vital men”, continuing: “The men seem so dull, and gray now. They’re dreary, they’re flat, they complain; they’re tired.” But she showed insight into men’s male-role issues, as when she noted of Dustin Hoffman in the movie Tootsie: “The sensitivity he acquires, sharing women’s experience, makes him a much better, stronger, more tender man.” And she once offered a seminar on “Masculinism, at Harvard”, which made Harvard officials so nervous that it was quickly closed entirely to the public, and also to the press.
Friedan envisioned a future in which women and men functioned together as equal partners. “I think women’s most basic issues now converge with men’s” she wrote. And then: “It’s the men who have to break through, to a new way of thinking about themselves and society.”
The Anti-Sexist Men’s Movement, and NOMAS, the national organization which embodies that movement, represent men’s response to Betty Friedan’s far-sighted invitation. NOMAS is a 30 year-old organization of feminist men and women, with a broad and progressive agenda, and a central commitment to the continuing struggle of women for full equality (www.Nomas.org). NOMAS honors Betty Friedan as a foremother of the great struggle we are all still engaged in.
When the National Council of NOMAS learned a few months ago that a fine bronze memorial to Betty Friedan was still lacking the need funds to be erected, approximately $1,500, despite years of effort by Phyllis Frank and many others, the Council immediately voted to donate whatever was needed to complete this important work.
Among her many discoveries Betty Friedan re-discovered herstory, the almost forgotten First Wave of American feminism. “I still remember how surprised I was, taking the bus in from my suburban dream house in Rockland County to the NY Library, to uncover the women’s history that had been buried… and to realize that Wallstonecraft, Stanton,, Anthony, Stone, Gillman… had taken that passionate journey before me.”
And she could have named many others who were vital links in that long chain toward women’s equality: Lucretia Mott of Nantucket; the rebellious Rabbi’s daughter, Ernestine Rose; the Grimke sisters, who hated both slavery and sexism; Matilda Joslyn Gage; Sojourner Truth; Fredrick Douglass; and in Rockland county a great suffragist, Caroline Lexo Babcock.
The struggle jumped across the ocean, to be infused with the fierce radicalism of the Pankhursts, mother and daughter; then back again to America, with new, non-violent Quaker tactics, led now by charismatic Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who with picketing and street-theater, outwitted Woodrow Wilson, and led women’s final victory to gain suffrage in 1920. And she could have traced the chain even into the 1950’s, when Eleanor Roosevelt almost single-handedly injected feminist language and values into the United Nations, at its founding.
And Betty Friedan – whose own name must be added to that Honor Roll – wondered aloud: “Will our memory be buried, in another generation, as theirs was?”
We stand today, as feminist women and feminist men, to proclaim to the world, that Betty Friedan will never be forgotten. For, in addition to writing one of the most important single books in all of history, she joined with other women in 1965 to found a new organization, which is itself a major historic force, that will carry her vision of full equality into the future: The National Organization For Women. NOW is today the largest feminist organization in the world.
Muriel Fox was with Friedan at NOW’s beginning, and Mary Eastwood , and Pauli Murray, and Carl Degler. And the chain of dedicated NOW leaders, following Betty’s footsteps, extends from the past to the present and into the future: Ellie Smeal, Molly Yard, Patricia Ireland, Kim Gandy, Terry O’Neill. And here in our greater NY area, we are fortunate to be led by such inspirational feminist leaders as Jane Manning, Phyllis Frank, and Sonia Ossario.
“It is frightening,” Friedan wrote, “when you’re starting on a new road that no one has been on before. You don’t know how far it’s going to take you, until you look back and realize how far, how very far, you’ve gone.”
Let us all look back proudly into our past, and forward into an uncertain future, and never forgetting the great woman, whose memorial we unveil today, upon whose broad and strong mental shoulders we all stand.
All quotations and facts cited above are found in:
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. (1963) (1997). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Friedan, Betty. “Twenty Years After”. Written in 1983, in 1997 TFM.
Friedan, Betty. “Metamorphosis: Two Generations Later.” Written in 1997, in TFM.
Horowitz, Daniel. Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique. (1998) Amherst, MA: U. of Massachusetts Press.