WASHINGTON – Betty Friedan, whose manifesto “The Feminine Mystique” became a best seller in the 1960s and laid the groundwork for the modern feminist movement, died Saturday, her birthday. She was 85.
Friedan died at her home of congestive heart failure, according to a cousin, Emily Bazelon.
Friedan’s assertion in her 1963 best seller that having a husband and babies was not everything and that women should aspire to separate identities as individuals, was highly unusual, if not revolutionary, just after the baby and suburban booms of the Eisenhower era.
The feminine mystique, she said, was a phony bill of goods society sold to women that left them unfulfilled, suffering from “the problem that has no name” and seeking a solution in tranquilizers and psychoanalysis.
“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,” Friedan said.
“That book changed women’s lives,” Kim Gandy, “It opened women’s minds to the idea that there actually might be something more. And for the women who secretly harbored such unpopular thoughts, it told them that there were other women out there like them who thought there might be something more to life.”
In the racial, political and sexual conflicts of the 1960s and ’70s, Friedan’s was one of the most commanding voices and recognizable presences in the women’s movement.
As the first president of NOW in 1966, she staked out positions that seemed extreme at the time on such issues as abortion, sex-neutral help-wanted ads, equal pay, promotion opportunities and maternity leave.
But at the same time, Friedan insisted that the women’s movement had to remain in the American mainstream, that men had to be accepted as allies and that the family should not be rejected.
“Don’t get into the bra-burning, anti-man, politics-of-orgasm school,” Friedan told a college audience in 1970.
To more radical and lesbian feminists, Friedan was “hopelessly bourgeois,” Susan Brownmiller wrote at the time.
Friedan, deeply opposed to “equating feminism with lesbianism,” conceded later that she had been “very square” and uncomfortable about homosexuality.
“I wrote a whole book objecting to the definition of women only in sexual relation to men. I would not exchange that for a definition of women only in sexual relation to women,” she said.
Nonetheless she was a seconder for a resolution on protecting lesbian rights at the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977.
“For a great many women, choosing motherhood makes motherhood itself a liberating choice,” she told an interviewer two decades later. But she added that this should not be a reason for conflict with “other feminists who are maybe more austere, or choose to seek their partners among other women.”
By then in her 70s, Friedan had moved on to the issue of how society views and treats its elderly.
A true blue blooded Liberal in the right sense of the term. Her writings have managed to influence generations of women the world over. What is remarkable is the fact that her birth in 1921, an era which now appears to be an aeon, was hardly a deterrent to her progressive thinking. Could she be rightly termed’A product of her times’? To my mind she was much ahead of the times. It is easier for us today to freely express our views on issues like lesbianism or ‘free sex’..On second thoughts ..is it?? A case in point, Khushboo (actress from South) and the severe censure on her utterances in relation to pre-marital sex. That is material for another blog.
The question that often perplexes me is therefore one of summation. Does the bottom line assert then that our being a few notches higher in terms of ‘independent thinking’, we are better off than our mothers and grandmothers? Has economic independence erased the woes that we as women have faced for centuries? Or has it in its wake created a newer spate of problems, the least (?) of which would be ‘ego’ issues with the men in our lives and the most rampant being ‘sexual harassment’ at the work place. Would our daughters be adept at handling the complexity of ‘an awakening’ in its adolescence, if not nascence, and coming to grips with managing home, hearth, career, men, children, vanity and its trappings, and the ensuing stress to be ‘performers and achievers’? Women mostly wish to excel and succeed , despite odds, to avoid being targetted as ‘women who cannot cope ‘ with their ambition and the resultant sense of failure. One womans gain is a step forward for all woman hood. May it be Betty Friedman or our very own Kiran Bedi.
In India, as in the world over, the incidence of divorces have gone up alarmingly, and surprisingly in the lower income group, pre dominantly. The reason as can be deduced simply is the new found ‘money power’ these women enjoy, as opposed to their mothers. They now refuse to be hapless victims at the mercy of drunk, abusive husbands and have consequently made their choice of refusing to ‘accept ‘ a situation they can easily alter. So what is emerging is a bolder, stronger, confident, assertive woman, but the men , sadly have not been oriented to cope with this new woman, so different from their women at home. They have yet to come to terms with the denotation of ‘equality’ in all its hues and shades.A male ‘Betty Friedan’ for our confused “superior sex” needed urgently.
On a serious note, the onus is on us mothers to educate our sons to cope, accept/enjoy the women in their new avatars without feeling affronted at their audacity in preferring to be themselves, and not conform to a stereotype. He has to be made to realise that this is not directed at him but is an aftermath of generations of ‘door-mat’ ancestors, who lived their life in unseen but heavily bound shackles of hypocritical traditions and double standards, meant primarily to perpetuate the dominance of their male counterparts in believing that they were truly the ‘superior sex’. Revolution is seldom sporadic. In this case it was more like the lava smouldering unseen in the vast sea of consciousness which has erupted slowly but surely across all borders and transgressing all boundaries of caste, race, nationality, or religion.
Imo, balance is the key issue here. As george sand puts it “What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine“. Having said that , it would help if women simultaneously protect their instincts as nurturers and epitomes of selfless love, while men redefine ‘manliness’ as one who gives unconditionally, setting aside the urge for domination and expectation of subservience ‘in return’.
Love,between a man and a woman is a celebration of life. For the revelry to last however, equality has to be the basis and respect the key ingredient.