We live in interesting times. (1) On Thursday, January 24th, 2013, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, backed by his President Barack Hussein Obama, made the rather unchivalrous announcement that the United States would now be sending women into combat to die for its men and fight their battles for them. (2) This decision was a foolish and short-sighted one, in which the American government displayed ignorance of the lessons of the past and set aside common sense and the good of their country in the pursuit of an unattainable ideal. It was typical, in other words, of the decisions of the Obama administration.
Yet there is a sense in which the decision was remarkably well-timed. The timing was, in the words of Shel Silverstein’s Mary Hume, “almost perfect…but not quite”. It would have been perfect, in a rather twisted and depraved sense, had Obama and Panetta waited to make the announcement on Tuesday, February 19th. For that date marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and the Obama administration’s decision to make cannon fodder out of the women of America represents the ultimate triumph of the ideals and vision set forth in that screed.
Friedan is usually considered to have been the founder of the movement that is known as “the Women’s Liberation Movement”, “Women’s Lib” for short, or alternatively “the second wave of feminism.” It should be noted that there are other contenders for that title. Chronologically, French intellectual, Simone de Beauvoir has a better claim. (3) Her book, Le Deuxième Sexe, which presented an existentialist argument that culture, civilization, and indeed the world, had been shaped and defined by men, to whom women were merely the other, "the second sex", was first published in 1949, fourteen years before Freidan’s. Beauvoir’s book was not as widely read as Friedan’s, being a deep and heavy intellectual tome rather than a mass-consumption manifesto, but it provided the movement with a philosophical foundation that subsequent feminists, including Friedan herself, would built upon.
A case, albeit a much more controversial one, can also be made for the late Helen Gurley Brown. Brown became the editor-in-chief of the Hearst Corporation’s Cosmopolitan in 1965 and promptly gave the magazine a makeover. It became the vehicle for her message to young women, which message, famously summarized in the words “you can have it all”, was essentially the female version of the “Playboy philosophy.” When she took over at Cosmo, Brown had already been proclaiming this message of feminine, self-indulgent hedonism for years, beginning with her book Sex and the Single Girl. This book was neither an academic treatise like Beauvoir’s nor a political manifesto like Friedan’s, just a collection of bad advice regarding lifestyle choices, but it too predated The Feminine Mystique. Its fiftieth anniversary was last year – the year the of its author’s death. What makes the candidacy of Brown for the title of founding feminist so controversial is that, while feminism was certainly in favour of the financial independence and sexual liberty for women which was at the heart of her message, she completely rejected a central tenet of the second wave feminist creed, namely that femininity was a patriarchical social construction invented to support a male power structure and oppress women. Brown taught the exact opposite of this – that femininity was a empowering tool that women could use to achieve their goals and desires. Needless to say she was not very popular in the more radical wing of the movement which at one point staged a protest in her office.
Ultimately, it is Friedan who has the strongest claim to the title of founder of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Beauvoir may have put down the intellectual foundation but it was Friedan who actually organized the movement. Susan Brownmiller, in the prologue to her chronicle of radical feminism, wrote:
A revolution was brewing, but it took a visionary to notice. Betty Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, defining the “problem that has no name.” …A book by itself does not make a movement, as Friedan, an old warrior in progressive causes, knew full well. Demonstrating what we all came to respect as her uncanny prescience, Friedan founded the National Organization for Women in 1966. (4)
The founding of the National Organization for Women was a direct consequence of the passing of the American Civil Rights Act in 1964. Title VII of this Act forbade employers who had fifteen or more employees from discriminating on the grounds of race or sex. When Friedan organized NOW in 1966 it was because it was perceived that the Equal Employment Opportunities Committee was dragging its feet in enforcing the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex and would only do so in response to organized pressure. (5) NOW became the flagship organization of the feminist movement and its agenda developed into a comprehensive program for equality for women.
In writing The Feminine Mystique and founding NOW, Friedan was inspired by an ideal which, stated succinctly, was “the equality of the sexes”. This ideal was the goal Friedan set for the movement she founded and for the rest of her career she would attempt to keep the movement focused upon that goal despite its many temptations to veer off in other directions. This ideal, raises the question, however, of what exactly is meant by the equality of the sexes.
The basic meaning of the word equality is sameness, but it is ordinarily a qualified rather than an absolute kind of sameness. When we say that one thing is equal to another we mean that that the two things are in some way the same. If two people go into business together as equal partners this means that their shares in the ownership of their business are equal – they each own fifty percent. When the members of an association of some sort have an equal vote this means that each has one vote, no more, no less, but exactly the same as all the others.
So when someone asserts that the sexes are or ought to be equal, we need to ask in what way the sexes are or ought to be the same.
The sexes are equal in their humanity. Men are neither more nor less human than women and vice versa. Oddly, some people seem to consider the recognition of this fact to be a mark of enlightenment when in reality it is merely a truism. It is no more insightful than saying that men and women belong to the same species. It is, however, a comprehensive observation in that every way in which men and women are equal, i.e., the same, is included in the statement that the sexes are equal in their humanity. For example, men and women are the same in that they both have two eyes, one nose, ten fingers and ten toes. This, and every other area in which men and women are the same, is all wrapped up in the idea of humanity.
If men and women are equally human and therefore equal in all that humanity entails there are also countless ways in which they are different and therefore unequal. Feminism began as the assertion that in some or all of these ways men and women ought to be equal. In the first wave of feminism, the women’s movement of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, the equality that was demanded was conceived of in terms of legal and political rights, such as the right to own property and enter institutions of higher education and the right to vote.
First wave feminism had won these battles decades before Betty Friedan wrote her book. Indeed, when she was forced out of the presidency of NOW in its fourth year in 1970 it was during the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the nineteenth amendment which had given women the right to vote in the United States. These rights had not been revoked in the meantime. Instead, the feminist ideal of equality between the sexes had expanded to include more than equality in legal and political rights.
The equality Friedan’s brand of feminism sought for the sexes, was an equality of roles in society. Historically, traditionally, and universally, societies have had different sets of expectations for men and women, and 1950s America was no exception. The content of these sets of expectations changes from time and time and from society to society. What remain constant is that societies expect women to be the mothers of their next generation and expect men to provide for and protect the women and children – entirely sensible expectations.
In the United States in the 1950s and 1960s, these expectations took the form of the roles of “breadwinner” and “homemaker” for men and women respectively. These are versions of the universal roles of provider/protector and wife/mother that are specific to the kind of industrial manufacturing society the United States had become. It is important that we recognize that these were themselves modern and quite recent adaptations of the universal roles. Friedan got a lot of mileage out of the fact that the breadwinner role took men out of the house and into what she considered to be the real world. This allowed her to romanticize the male role and to complain that these roles were unfair to women. Ironically, before the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, men typically worked at home too as pre-industrial craftsmen and shopkeepers typically lived above their workplaces and shops. The commute to work in a different place from which one lived became the norm when industrialism concentrated production in large urban factories. It is further ironical that when, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, factories began paying “family wages” to breadwinners so that married women could stay home and raise their children it was regarded as a great social achievement, one which many of the first wave feminists, whose heir Friedan regarded herself as being, campaigned for and supported.
Friedan believed that the roles of breadwinner and homemaker – which, it should be pointed out, were the roles assigned to married men and women – assigned all the important tasks in society to men and left women with the trivial. This is a very bizarre way of looking at things. It is hardly rational to dismiss the giving birth to, nurturing, and raising of a society’s next generation, as unimportant and trivial. Yet not only did Friedan consider these things to be of less value to society than the pursuit of an academic, corporate, or government career, she reasoned that society did so as well, because it assigned a monetary value to the work of a professor, manager, or politician but not to motherhood. This reflects a mistake that is all too common in the modern world – the confusion of price with value. (6) When we say that something is priceless we do not mean that it has no value, we mean that its value is so high that it simply cannot be expressed in terms of a dollar amount and that it would be crass to attempt to do so. Motherhood is priceless and any sane society knows this. The attempts of the American society of the 1950s to express this knowledge, however, were interpreted by Friedan as a conspiracy against women.
This is what her book was all about. In the first chapter, Friedan described what she called “the problem that has no name”, a sense of dissatisfaction and despair among American women in general, and suburban housewives in particular, that manifested itself in therapy sessions and tranquilizers. The source of this problem, Friedan identified as the image “created by the women’s magazines, by advertisements, television, movies, novels, columns and books by experts on marriage and the family, child psychology, and by the popularizers of sociology and psychoanalysis” of the happy housewife, satisfied with a life of domesticity. (7) The reality failed to live up to the image producing the dissatisfaction. According to Friedan this image – the feminine mystique alluded to in the book’s title - was deliberately created in the late 40’s after the end of the Second World War. During the war, women had taken jobs in the factories to keep them running while the men were overseas fighting. Then the men returned and needed the jobs, and so the image of the happy housewife was created to sell young women on the idea of marrying, returning to the home, and having babies. The image failed to deliver what it promised, however, because women, having experienced the self-fulfilment that came from having a career outside of the home could no longer find that satisfaction in the home. Worse, in Friedan’s eyes, because the image of feminine fulfilment in the role of wife and mother was that which the generation of feminists prior to the war had fought against, the feminine mystique was persuading the ‘40’s and ‘50’s generation of women to give up the opportunities which the earlier generation had won for them. The solution, she argued, was for housewives to escape the “comfortable concentration camp” (8) of the suburban home and pursue careers in the outside world.
Probably the best thing that can be said about Betty Friedan is that when compared to most of the other leaders of Women’s Lib she comes across as having been relatively moderate and sane. She believed that the path to equality between the sexes lay in professional careers and every other cause she supported was, to her, a means to the end of women obtaining and pursuing these careers. She believed this end required the cooperation of men and women and saw the sexual warfare rhetoric of the more radical wing of her movement, in which men were depicted as an enemy class of oppressors, as being a hindrance rather than a help to her cause. She also resisted the attempts of younger, more radical feminist leaders, to make their various pet projects into the main objectives of the movement.
She was not very successful in keeping the movement from becoming radicalized. Apart from Friedan herself, it is the radicals who stand out in any account of second wave feminism. They were a rather eccentric and colourful bunch. There was Kate Millett, whose Columbia University doctoral dissertation was a work of highly politicized literary criticism, which through the process of eisegesis uncovered arguments for feminism’s most radical theories in works of classic literature like the Orestia, condemned the sexism in the writings of D. H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer and Henry Miller, lionized the writings of French male prostitute Jean Genet, and attacked marriage and the family as institutions devised by a patriarchal society to oppress women. It was published under the title Sexual Politics in 1970 and became a bible of sorts to the radical feminists. Then there was Gloria Steinem, the ex-Playboy bunny, turned CIA operative, turned anti-war radical, who founded the magazine Ms.- neither Miss nor Mrs., the distinction being declared sexist by feminist fiat – which became famous for printing “I had an abortion” declarations and for advising women to throw off the patriarchal shackles of femininity, such as bras and shaving. On the truly extreme end of things was Valerie Solanis, who is remembered today as the woman who wrote a pornographic play, gave it to Andy Warhol to consider producing, then, when he misplaced it, shot him, thereby creating the public dilemma of whether to imprison her for an attempt at murder or reward her for her valiant if unsuccessful attempt at putting a stop to the production of soup can paintings and other kitsch and schlock. She was also the author of an amusingly bilious little tract entitled The SCUM Manifesto which looked forward to the day when technology would enable women to reproduce non-sexually and eliminate the male entirely.
The basic theory behind radical feminism was an adaptation of the teachings of Karl Marx. In Marxist theory, history is driven by a series of conflicts between classes. A class that has property oppresses a class that does not have property and must therefore labour for the class of haves in order to survive. As the have not classes overthrow the have classes becoming themselves the new have classes in the process history advances towards the propertyless, classless, state of communism. In radical feminist theory, the sexes are regarded as being classes in the Marxist sense of the word. Men, in radical feminist theory, are a class of oppressors who have all the power, and women are the class of oppressed who do not have power. Crimes committed by specific men against specific women, such as rape or wife beating, are made out by radical feminist theory to be instruments of oppression which all men benefit from and therefore share in the guilt of, whether they have participated in these crimes or not. Susan Brownmiller, for example, made this argument about rape in Against Our Wills and Andrea Dworkin, who had made a name for herself as one of the main leaders, along with Catherine McKinnon, of one of the more reasonable radical feminist causes, i.e., the anti-pornography movement, (9) took it to the next degree, arguing in her book Intercourse that the uneven distribution of power between men and women, truly consensual heterosexual intercourse was impossible. By the time Dworkin’s book came out in 1987, several radical feminists had already taken that line of warped reasoning to its ultimate extreme by arguing that the Sapphic variety was the only legitimate love for women. Meanwhile, Shulamith Firestone, in her 1970 treatise The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, argued that biology itself was a tool of the patriarchy and that pregnancy was “barbaric.” The human species would just have to find another way to reproduce and in her Marxist and feminist vision, the revolution would produce a world of artificial, technological reproduction, in which the government would raise the children, and all restrictions on sexual intercourse, now completely non-procreative, would be lifted. Note the eerie resemblance between Firestone’s depiction of her vision for the future and the dystopia described in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. If Firestone’s idea of using technology to make reproduction independent of sexual intercourse in the future seems like the craziest feminist idea ever, it was topped by Elizabeth Gould Davis in her 1971 book The First Sex. In this book, which recycled the idea earlier promoted by Friedrich Engels and J. J. Bachofen that before recorded history there was a golden age of matriarchy, in which women governed a peaceful, just, harmonious society that was overthrown thousands of years ago by men who created the patriarchal societies the world has seen ever since. Davis claimed that at first this society consisted solely of women, who were capable of reproducing on their own without a man. (10)
This kind of feminism is prevalent in academia, particularly in the Women’s Studies departments and liberal college and university administrations, but is for the most part not taken very seriously – except as a serious nuisance – elsewhere. In her 1995 Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women, Christina Hoff Sommers labelled the radical kind of feminism “gender feminism” and distinguished it from what she called “equity feminism”. Whereas equity feminists sought social, political and legal equality between men and women, gender feminists sought special privileges for women on the basis of past and present victimization. Gender feminists are loathe to acknowledge that feminism has won its battles because that would jeopardize the perpetual victimhood from which their claim to their privileged positions in academia is derived. Meanwhile their influence in academia has been pernicious due to their re-writing of history to reflect their perspectives, their assault upon Western culture as a product of patriarchy, and their attempt to eliminate “gender bias” from every subject in the curricula.
Betty Friedan was definitely not a gender feminist in the way Sommers defined the term. She saw the radicals of her day, who thought in terms of a class struggle between women and men, as extremists and attempted to marginalize their views and minimize their influence within the movement. It is easy to lose sight, when reading what she had to say about these extremists in her memoirs, or in her third book The Second Stage, of just how radical her own views were.
The historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, who was the founder and director of the Institute for Women’s Studies at Emory University, in an article about feminism published a year before her death in 2007 wrote:
To be blunt, feminism ranks as the most radical and potentially corrosive movement of our time—one that, not unlike a virulent computer virus, is steadily erasing all of our accumulated thoughts and knowledge. (11)
Fox-Genovese noted that feminism had been a radical movement from the beginning and, after an account of the success of the feminist movement following its revival in the 1960’s, noted:
But if feminists are loathe to acknowledge the magnitude of their success, they are even more loathe to acknowledge the havoc they have caused in American society and, increasingly, throughout the world. Their campaign for women’s sexual liberation has mushroomed into a full-scale assault on the sanctity of human life, a discrediting of marriage as a covenanted heterosexual institution, a scandalous repudiation of children as the proper objects of adult attention and sacrifice, and a repudiation of the ideals of military heroism and service. (12)
All of this could have been written about Betty Friedan personally. Although she rejected the anti-male, anti-family, anti-marriage, and anti-motherhood attitudes and rhetoric of her radical colleagues as extremism, the causes she supported were anti-family, anti-marriage, and anti-motherhood in their effects. She supported the liberalization of divorce laws which had the effect of reducing marriage from a sacred covenant to something more like a business partnership. (13) As someone who insisted that women had a right to birth control and abortion, (14) she was clearly a warrior in the “full-scale assault on the sanctity of human life”. When, in her memoirs, she describes her interview with Simone de Beauvoir in Paris, and records her astonishment at being told that “There are enough people on earth” in response to her question “Well, then, how would you suggest that we perpetuate the human race”, (15) it was the logical conclusion of her own position that she had encountered, and failed to recognize.
In the first chapter of her infamous book she bemoaned the fact that after the war women were marrying younger and having more babies than before the war. This and her refusal to see in the 1950s image of the happy housewife anything other than an attempt to deprive women of their hard won rights and consign them to a lower status in society displayed a truly astonishing degree of sexual solipsism. She seemed completely oblivious to the fact that a country might possibly have a legitimate interest in a natalism policy, especially when it just came out of a war in which it lost thousands of lives and to the fact that while a career can be deferred until later in life, a woman’s optimal child-bearing years are in her twenties and if she puts off having children to pursue a career she may find the option of having children has vanished into thin air.
Clearly then, it was not just gender feminists who were responsible for the havoc that Fox-Genovese indicted feminism for causing.
From the time of Plato and Aristotle on, justice has been regarded in Western societies as the good towards which political society is organized. In the Modern era, the various forms of thought that are called progressive, of which feminism is one, have tended to conceive of justice in terms of equality. This is a great flaw in progressive thought because equality is not the same thing as justice. To treat two people equally means to treat them the same. To treat two people justly, means to do right by each of them, to give each of them the treatment which we owe them. If we owe each of the two people exactly the same treatment, then it is just to treat them equally. If, however, that which we owe the one is different from that which we owe the other, it would be unjust to one or the other or possibly even both to treat the two equally.
As we have noted, the two sexes are equal in their humanity and therefore in all that humanity entails. Justice dictates that what we as a society owe towards members of the human race, we owe to men and women equally. This, however, is not the whole picture.
Men and women are equally human but they are also different from each other by nature, and in ways that are not trivial or peripheral. Men impregnate women and sire children. Women conceive, bear, and give birth to children, and their bodies are designed by God and nature, to nurture those children in the period immediately after birth. Justice demands that these differences, as well as our common humanity, be taken into consideration, in determining what is due to men and woman, as groups and as individuals, within society. Justice, therefore, cannot be reduced to a simplistic equality.
It is nature which has assigned the role of mother to women, a role that is essential to the survival of any human society and of the species itself, and a role which cannot be reassigned. In doing so, nature has not treated the sexes equally. It has placed a much larger burden upon women than it has upon men. Men’s absolutely necessary contribution to the propagation of the race ends at conception. Women, however, must then bear the growing child in their bodies for nine months, give birth to the child in a painful process, nurse the child while it is an infant and raise the child until it is old enough to fend for itself. Society’s insistence that men take responsibility for the women they impregnate and the children they sire, that they partner with the mothers of their children in raising those children, and that they assume the role of provider and protector for mother and child is society’s way of dealing justly with both men and women. This is something for which women ought to have been grateful, not a grounds for accusations of unfairness and oppression.
Women today can often be heard bemoaning the lack of chivalry among today’s males. By chivalry they mean the courtesies which good parents, until very recently, tried to teach their sons to bestow upon the fairer sex – tipping your hat, standing when she enters the room, holding the door for her, etc. This sort of thing tended to go the way of the dodo bird around the time of the triumph of feminism. Perhaps the inherent contradiction between the demand to be treated equal and the expectation of special courtesy has something to do with that.
All of this was just the outward dressing of chivalry though. The term chivalry, derived from the French word for knight, originally referred to the orders of knights who served the Church and the kings of medieval Christendom. By the late Middle Ages it had come to refer to the code of honour and conduct the knights were sworn to live by and uphold. It was this later sense of the term that was gradually weakened by modernism until it became little more than a kind of etiquette
While the disappearance of manners and courtesy is something to lament, far more tragic is the loss of the sense that it is men’s responsibility to take up arms, if the need arises, and go to war to fight to protect country and home, women and children. This was the true spirit of chivalry. It was incompatible, alas, with Betty Friedan’s vision of equality between the sexes, and so Barack Obama decided it had to die.
(1) “May you live in interesting times” is said to be an ancient Chinese curse.
(3) In addition to being a leading feminist, Beauvoir was famous as a novelist and for her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre. Paul Johnson says that the men who examined her and Sartre for their philosophy degrees “thought her the better philosopher” and on his own authority declares her to be a finer writer than Sartre, saying that “her autobiographical works, though equally unreliable as to facts, are more interesting than his, and her major novel, Les Mandarins…is far better than any of Sartre’s.” Paul Johnson, Intellectuals, (London: Phoenix Press, 1988, 2000), p. 235. More relevant to the topic of our discussion here, he writes “Yet this brilliant and strong-minded woman became Sartre’s slave from almost their first meeting and remained such for all her adult life until he died. She served him as mistress, surrogate wife, cook and manager, female bodyguard and nurse, without at any time acquiring legal or financial status in his life…In the annals of literature, there are few worse cases of a man exploiting a woman…De Beauvoir, in fact, was the progenitor of the feminist movement and ought, by rights, to be its patron saint. But in her own life she betrayed everything it stood for.” (pp. 235-236).
(4) Susan Brownmiller, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution (New York: The Dial Press, 1999), p. 3. The bold in the block quote indicates italics in original.
(5) Betty Friedan, Life So Far: A Memoir (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000), pp. 164-179
(6) The classic example of this mistake is that of Oscar Wilde’s cynic who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.
(7) Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963, 2001), p. 80.
(8) What Leo Strauss called “reduction ad Hitlerum” is a tactic Friedan employs throughout the book. In the twelfth chapter of the book, entitled “Progressive Dehumanization: The Comfortable Concentration Camp”, Friedan literally compared being a housewife to being the inmate of a Nazi concentration camp for several pages (422-425 in the 2001 edition).
(9) I say that it is one of the more reasonable radical feminist causes because, as is obvious to everyone who is not a classical liberal, pornography does in fact exploit women.
(10) While there have been and are matrilineal societies – in which lineage is traced through the mother’s line rather than the father’s - there is no evidence that any sort of matriarchical society – a society in which women or mothers are the ruling class - ever existed. This has been demonstrated both by anti-feminist Steven Goldberg, retired Professor of Sociology at City College of New York, in The Invitability of Patriarchy (New York: William Morrow & Company, 1973), expanded into Why Men Rule: A Theory of Male Dominance (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1993) and feminist Cynthia Eller, Professor of Women’s and Religious Studies at Montclair State University in The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why An Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).
(11) Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, “Feminism”, in Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffey O. Nelson, eds., American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2006), p. 306.
(12) Ibid., p. 307.
(13) See Life So Far, pp. 298-300, Although to be fair, she is quoted as having said “I think we made a mistake with no-fault divorce.” Bryce J. Christensen, Divided We Fall: Family Discord and the Fracturing of America (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2006 ) p. 47.
(14) In her memoirs she describes herself as having been “the obvious expert to consult…when by Smith sisters got in trouble and actually needed an abortion” (p. 66) and recounts her own leadership in the feminist fight to legalize abortion. Women’s supposed right to an abortion was one of the planks of the Bill of Rights NOW adopted under her leadership at their 1967 convention for use in the 1968 elections. In 1969 she was one of the founders of the “pro-choice” organization NARAL. Indeed, Friedan tells how at the conference where NARAL was organized, she “shot down the possibility of merely reforming the laws instead of repealing them altogether, a compromise that was circulating” because reform “meant that someone other than the woman would still have control over her body and that was totally unacceptable” (p. 214)
(15) Life So Far, p. 282.