Although now 71, and widely acknowledged as a founder of the modern women’s movement, Betty Friedan doesn’t quite make it as an Elder Stateswomen revisiting past achievements. Among other things, she won’t sit still. Commuting between academic posts at NYU and USC, where she is a professor attached to no fewer than three departments, she remains embattled against demons of male chauvinism and other manifestations of oppression.
Ever since the publication, in 1963, of her instantly successful “The Feminine Mystique,” urging women to question their assigned social roles, Friedan has upped the ante. Beginning with the founding of the National Organization for Women, in 1966, she has been associated with every campaign of the women’s movement. But she is also controversial within feminist ranks. A decade ago, her book “The Second Stage” raised eyebrows over what critics charged was an attempt to prematurely claim victory. Her defense, not untypically, was that she, like most women, was merely moving on.
Friedan is an ardent feminist who respects traditional family values--with the caution that they be non-exploitative. Her temporary apartment in a Marina del Rey high-rise is filled with pictures of her three children and seven grandchildren. “This one is a doctor married to a doctor,” she can’t resist saying. Divorced 20 years ago and never remarried, she says “The women’s movement and my own conscience gave me this strength to leave what was a destructive situation.” She adds that women’s liberation gives rise to prospects for a healthier family life. “One of the things that should come out of the women’s movement is a sense of liberating and enriching ways of working out career and family life, and diverse ways of rearing our children and figuring out how to have a home and haven.”
In any case, for Friedan, there is always the future, always the next battle. “I’m working on this new book which is nearly done,” she said. Her enthusiasm is infectious. “It’s called “The Fountain of Age,” and it excites me a lot. I think that is going to be the next big revolution--breaking through the mystique that sees old age only as the decline from youth. Instead, we’ll have an older generation that sings new songs, celebrates wisdom and isn’t seeking the fountain of youth.” Go Betty.
Question: What do you make of the recent spate of articles suggesting that women are alienated from the women’s movement?
Answer: It bemuses me. All year there have been these cover stories that the women’s movement is dead and about the death of feminism and the post-feminist generation of young women who don’t identify with feminism--and then we have the biggest march ever of women in Washington. More people than had ever marched for anything--not only more women, but more people.
Q: So why all the articles about a women’s movement in disarray?
A: I think the problem is that the media and even, to some degree, leaders of women’s organizations are thinking of the women’s movement as it looked 15 years ago. They don’t understand that the women’s movement is an absolute part of society now. It is in the consciousness, it is taken for granted. It is part of the way women look at themselves, and women are looked at.
Q: That accepted?
A: There are some die-hard male chauvinist pigs and there are some Neanderthal women who are threatened by equality--but the great majority, polls say 65% to 75% of women of America, of all ages, absolutely identify with the complete agenda of the women’s movement: equal opportunity for jobs, education, professional training, the right to control your own body--your own reproductive process, freedom of choice, child care--the whole agenda.
Q: And feminism?
A: You say they don’t like to call themselves feminist or they have a question mark about their own feminism . . . that is a reflection of the backlash. That is a reflection of the dozen years of Reagan and Bush, that tried to make feminism a dirty word, liberalism a dirty word, women’s rights, civil rights, welfare, social programs, the whole agenda of social change and progress . . . . Don’t forget the whole original Reagan campaign was a backlash against women’s rights--ERA (the Equal Rights Amendment), the issue of abortion raised over and over again. It created a stereotype forcing the women’s movement and their organizations to march in place everywhere, to fight, over and over again, to save the most elementary right of a person--the right to control your own body, your own reproductive process. Bush now is preventing poor women from getting abortions, but the hysteria is both symbol and substance of women’s independence and women’s autonomy.
Q: Abortion is a hotter issue than ever.
A: The hysteria over abortion has also managed to prevent birth-control research. So we are decades behind other countries in birth-control research. By now, abortion should be obsolete. And I--and probably a lot of other feminists--wish it were obsolete, because abortion, in itself, is not a value--it is simply the right to chose, which is an essential value. But the Reagan-Bush team came to power using hysteria over abortion to deflect attention from economic exploitation and trying to make feminism a dirty word.
Q: But there is something now about the leading feminist groups being out of step.
A: The movement itself must take on the necessity of a paradigm shift. The women’s movement is so large in society now that no one organization--not even the organizations that were cutting edge 15, 10 or five years ago--can speak for the totality of the women’s movement today. It is so diverse, it crosses so many lines of generation and style.
But the leaders of some of the organizations that I helped start are still the ones organizing the very necessary marches to save the rights we thought we had won 15 years ago--like legal abortion. But maybe because they had to keep defending the rights they thought they had won, it seems to me they haven’t been able to encompass the change we brought about.
Q: Which is?
A: It seems to me today (that) we have passed the point of wallowing in the victim’s state. Anita Hill showed us that Anita Hill was no passive victim. The absolute eye-opening effect when Anita Hill blew the whistle, and then those charges were going to be swept under the rug, and then the absolute firestorm of women across this nation sending their telegrams to Congress. They forced them to hold the hearings--and you are still seeing the aftershock of that. The recent election where that invincible senator, Alan Dixon (of Illinois), was defeated in the primaries after 20 years by a relatively unknown, young black women with very little money--that is going to be repeated across this nation as women run today. There is a power here. We are not passive victims anymore. I would imagine that 80 senators are shivering.
Q: There is an anti-male tone now to some groups. Some women feel that some key women’s organizations are not only anti-family but anti-heterosexual.
A: Look, I don’t want to lend myself to the polarization of women against women. Let’s keep our eyes on the reality of the economic crisis in this country and the increased rage and frustration that it is causing, and then the attempt from many directions to deflect it into scapegoat mechanisms. And women against women is part of that. And I am sick of them trying to polarize me against the lesbian.
We broke through the feminine mystique and women who were wives, mothers and housewives began to find themselves as people. That didn’t mean they stopped, or had to stop, being mothers, wives or even liking their homes. My favorite form of therapy is rearranging the furniture. I love fashion. I fixed up about four different homes in my time. I don’t stop these things because I’m a feminist. I’m not always on the barricade.
Q: Are such choices forced?
A: Feminism or the family? Carried to excess maybe. I have insisted that women cannot be defined solely in those terms. But for a great many women--not all, because we are only beginning to realize and affirm the diversity of women themselves--choosing motherhood makes motherhood itself a liberating choice. But diversity, sexual choice, I mean, all these things have to be affirmed. Don’t polarize us against other feminists who are maybe more austere, or chose to seek their partners among other women. Diversity has got to be a part of modern feminism, and I think that my feminism is stronger because its an inclusive thing. I won’t be backed into a corner that polarizes me against other women. And I wished they wouldn’t be either . . . .
Q: One persistent criticism of the women’s movement is that it had a middle-class and upper-class bias. Even in this march, participation of black women, women of color, was low. And right now, there is this attack on welfare women.
A: I think that the real danger of the welfare mother being used as a “Willy Horton,” is great in the ’92 election. This is a nation in which the very rich have been getting much much richer in last 12 years, and yet we are the only industrial nation in the world without national policies of parental leave and child care. Year after year, Bush vetoes parental leave, and it is pitiful what we manage to do in the way of child care.
Why isn’t there more outrage about that? I found, in this instance, it is the male blind spot--both in terms of politicians and the media that questions. In my “Women, Men and Media” project--that I do both at the USC and at NYU--we clocked questions asked in Bush’s press conference--there were more questions about his own health than about AIDS, and there weren’t any about child care. I’m awfully happy that women now blow the whistle at sexual harassment and at rape. But I don’t think these are the major problems in this society.
Q: But sexual propriety has become very much an issue in this campaign.
A: The sexual red herring. You have to be aware of the sexual diversion--if you will, the sexual circus. The main issue is not what Clinton or any candidate, not even Bush, has done in bed with another consenting adult.
But I think that hypocrisy is another thing. If you’re being falsely pious and hypocritical, then I think that is a tell-tale revelation of an untrustworthy character.
Q: Could a politician say, “Yes, I’ve had this long-term affair and my wife knows about it. It is consenting adults, and it’s no one’s business”? Could he survive?
A: In fact, I think that we are in a time of evolution of our ideas. For instance, I’m against suppression of pornography. If you suppress guns--yes; if you want to suppress poverty--yes. These are the obscenities, the real brutalization of people. I am almost more outraged by ads for blue jeans or cars that sort of blatantly depict women not only as sex objects, but women that look younger than the age of consent, looking like they’ve just been raped or asking to be raped--utterly passive sex objects. I’m almost more outraged by those than by outright hard or soft pornography . . . .
I would like it to be stopped. But I am absolutely opposed to censorship using sexual excuse--like the National Endowment of the Arts raised against certain kinds of art. Even feminists are joining in, in some instances, if they think this art degrades women. We have to be careful. It is so easy to use sexual stuff with all those emotions involved in a puritanical society, like ours has been.
To use our aversion to pornography, you divert us from what could be a real danger to the basic constitutional freedoms of speech, freedom of dissent, freedom of expression, freedom of purchase. That is just as basic, or more basic, for women than men. Let’s not be diverted by the sexual red herrings. This kind of private life sexual scandal the media is titillating us with. I’d still vote for Ted Kennedy if I were in Massachusetts. We need him in the Senate.
Q: What will future gender roles look like?
A: Having expressed the rage against the laws and conditions that oppressed them--maybe even excess anger in the beginning was directed at men they came in contact with, because it had been pent up too long--women now come from a new position of easier, more comfortable self-affirmation and empowerment. Women are given to tolerance and are more able to love. I hope it happens also to men. Remember in the ‘60s, when we all used to say, “Make love not war.” Wasn’t a bad slogan.