A phone interview with Betty Friedan, March 19, 1997

After the mystique is gone: A phone interview with Betty Friedan, March 19, 1997

Harris, Jennifer Chapin

After the Mystique is Gone: A Phone Interview with Betty Friedan, March 19, 1997

We owe a great deal to Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, the book which caused so many Americans to question the 1950s idealization of the “Leave it to Beaver” family. Without her work, most American girls would probably still grow up thinking they could only become housewives. By participating in founding such political organizations as the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), she pioneered the way for other major feminist victories in this half of the twentieth century.

Yet her brand of feminism is not universally accepted. In the July/August 1995 issue of Ms., Rita Mae Brown published an article entitled “Reflections of a Lavender Menace: Remember when the movement tried to keep lesbians in the closet?” There, Brown wrote, “The second wave of the women’s movement…shivered in mortal terror of lesbians. I told the truth about myself at one of the early National Organization for Women (NOW) meetings in 1967, which meant that women in Pucci dresses tore their hemlines squeezing one another to get out the door. A short time thereafter Betty Friedan helped coin the term `Lavender Menace,’ although I don’t know if she wants to take credit for it. And a short time after that, I was unceremoniously shown the door.” Indeed, when I listened to a lecture she gave in April at my school, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, I got the impression that Friedan prioritizes public opinion as a means of gaining ground for feminism. Many of my feminist professors at school, however, played down any possible negativity about Friedan.

In the end, after reading Friedan’s work, listening to her lecture, interviewing her, and speaking to other feminist scholars about her, I have a mixed image — both positive and negative — of her in my mind. I do not know how accurate or fair my idea of Friedan is, so I offer readers the transcript of my interview so that they can decide for themselves.

oob: How would you say feminism has changed since the publication of The Feminine Mystique?

BF: When I wrote The Feminine Mystique, which was published in 1963, the whole previous century’s battle for women’s rights that began in 1848 with Seneca Falls, the first declaration of women’s rights (it’s about to be 150 years since then) had all been buried from the national consciousness and personal consciousness. We were in the era when there was only one image of woman: woman defined only in sexual relation to men — men’s wife, mother, housewife, sex object, server of physical needs to husband, children, home. This was absolutely so prevailing that each woman thought there was something wrong with her, she was a freak, she was alone if, no matter how much she had wanted to marry that guy and get that house and appliances and all the things that were supposed to be woman’s dream in the era of the idealization of the suburb after World War II, and no matter how much she had wanted the husband and two, three children, which were supposed to be the limit of women’s fulfillment, if she had the feeling that something was missing, she needed to be or do something else, that the world was passing her by, she thought something was wrong with her. I called it the problem that has no name and The Feminine Mystique, the book, my book and others that followed it, broke through that obsolete definition of women that was limiting their vision of their own possibilities and necessities to move in society as a whole in the 80 year life span that is now American women’s. The personhood of women — that’s what it was all about, and we had to break though that feminine mystique, to say women are people, no more, no less, to demand our human and American birthright, equal opportunity to participate in the mainstream of society and our own voice in the major decisions of society, and we did that.

Feminism had become a dirty word in that era of the feminine mystique. The movement for women’s equality has been a very life-affirming, life-opening [one] and it has transformed the lives and the aspirations of women in this last quarter century. The Women’s Movement for equality is what it’s all about and was about as far as I’m concerned. It was also about going beyond the male model to put the value also on women’s experience and not man as the measure of all things, but it’s also a different kind of man.

Women are moving in society. Now women are half the labor force, and the great majority of women are working outside the home for most of the years of their lives. They are in every profession. It’s gone from 4% or less than that in law school and medical school to 40%. Women are not just cooking the church supper anymore, but they are preaching the sermons. They are defining the rubrics in every profession on the basis of women’s experience and not just men’s. That’s been an enormous creative thing for our society as a whole. Once we broke the feminine mystique and the male definitions and began to take seriously our own experience, there was new thinking in every field as far as modern feminism is concerned.

As far as I’m concerned, it is the Women’s Movement for equality. It is not women against men. There were perversions of modern feminism. Women had suppressed anger (when you’re completely dependent you can’t express anger) that they had a right to feel if they were put down as they were. [For example,] there was the invisible woman in the office, even if she ran it practically as a secretary. Nurses had to stand up when the doctors came into the hospital. The girls didn’t aspire to be doctors. Women were put down even on the pedestal at home. There could well be anger, and there was anger, but the men were also victims of the obsolete narrow sex roles. Men are dying eight years younger than women in America. It wasn’t women against men as far as I’m concerned. Women had to break through the male definitions; women had to demand and get equality. We are now in the next stage [of] what seems to me to be redefining all of our essential values and rubrics of every field on the basis of women’s experience as well as men’s. Men are becoming a different kind of men. The next big breakthough has to be men, because they shouldn’t be dying so young. They have to break through the obsolete machismo definition of masculinity.

Feminism…there are many different voices in feminism. There was, it seems to me, a perversion of feminism for a while that seemed to define it as “down with men, down with marriage, down with motherhood.” You know, down with everything women had ever done to attract men, the brutes. Down with everything men had ever done in history, the male chauvinist pigs, the patriarchs, the brutes. There was a germ of truth in it, but basically it expressed the anger. But it was, it seems to me, ideologically and politically and actually fallacious. There wouldn’t have been the life-opening, life-changing effect of the women’s movement if that had been really its main message. The thrust was, for me, equal participation in society. And then that changes everything, including marriage, including children, motherhood. The other one of the two very important things the Women’s Movement has done has been the movement for equality in every field and the movement of women into making the decisions and defining the terms, not just men, and the whole question of choice — those have been very important things.

oob: How should modern feminists deal with backlash from “angry white men?”

BF: Well, I don’t see that much backlash. I think that if this economy falls, then you will see backlash. Women are easily scapegoated for men’s frustration. If there is increased violence against women, and I’m not sure there is, it may be that women are not accepting what they’ve passively had to accept and be victims of before. They didn’t have a word for sex discrimination a few years ago, much less sexual harassment, so it may be just that women are not accepting what use to be considered man’s right. It’s no longer [a] man’s right to beat [his] wife, not only in the United States, but as a result of Beijing and the whole Women’s Movement worldwide, even in UN documents it’s no longer a man’s right to beat his wife. But if there is increased violence against women in the US now, I think it’s because frustrations of men are being taken out on women. It is men, and college educated white men that have suffered nearly a 20% drop in income in the last six or seven years, not the upper two or ten percent of the very rich, but 80% have incomes that have stagnated or declined. The downsizing has hit mainly men and men can no longer count on that steady progression in [a] life-long career or profession, a job that used to define men’s masculinity. I think that they may be taking this out on women, and women have often been the scapegoat of men’s frustration in times of economic uncertainty.

oob: How do you see feminist family values as different from “traditional family values” when the Republicans talk about them?

BF: Well, I teach a course and run a symposium series at Mount Vernon [College], where I’m teaching now, on rethinking family values. The values of nurturing and responsibility and commitment and shared life…and affirmation and respect for each person’s unique identity, are the family values, it seems to me, that are alive and well in many diverse forms of family today. When the right wing, religious right, reactionary Republican element goes on and on about the lack of “family values,” they’re using that term as a sort of a hype for their opposition to women’s autonomy, to women’s choice, to abortion, to divorce, to women’s control over their own sexuality, to women’s demand for equality. I would also use the term “family values,” but I mean the mutual responsibility for nurturing, for caring, for shared life and commitment. I think you can find these today in many different forms. Very few Americans are living that traditional form of family. So that traditional form of family — mom as the housewife and papa the breadwinner and the two children who never seem to go beyond five or six [years old] — that is a dying form. Most people don’t [live] in that [way] in America now, although they may have for some years of their lives, or they may have had their childhood in such a form. But the two paycheck family, the single parent family, the his, hers, and theirs family — there are all these forms of family. The value is the mutual responsibility, commitment, the sharing, the nurturing.

oob: Where do you think feminism will go or should go in the future?

BF: Well, I think feminism has opened life for women and therefore for children and men in this country. It has been enormously transformative. We are just beginning to see the creative aspects of it. The addition of as many as two women to a state legislature changes the agenda, not just in the direction of life, of the values of life, of priorities for life, whether it’s the well or the sick, or the young, the old, children, the poor, the environment — these are the values that women would give priority to, not just the abstractions like balancing the budget. We’re just beginning to see that in every field, as women come in and define the terms and not just men. But you’re also beginning to see a new kind of man who also is getting that sensitivity to life as he carries the baby in the backpack.

Photo (Betty Friedan)

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Oct 1997

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