Betty Friedan: ”The Mother of Feminism”

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It was very late at night when a meeting in a U.S. Senate office building ended and only the back doors were open for exiting the building. As I walked toward the outside doors, Betty Friedan, the mother of feminism, approached them at the same time. She is now quite frail and I helped her navigate the long, rough unlighted walkway through a construction area out to the street where she waited to catch a cab. She recognized my name from my nametag and commented that she had read my writing. From her puzzled expression, I could tell that she was trying to pinpoint exactly what she knew about me; she remembered only enough to realize we were on opposite sides of the debate that has dominated her life. She was cautiously polite, as was I and we talked amiably during the 10-15 minutes we waited together on that side street. There was no sign of a cab so I offered to give her a ride home. She gladly accepted the offer, but a cab drove up just before my husband arrived in our car so our little interlude was over. The frail woman that I helped that night was a far cry from the powerhouse of a woman who launched the feminist movement.

Betty Friedan, according to her biographer’s reversal of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous description of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had a first-class mind, but a second-class temperament. There are those who describe her with a paraphrase of the children’s nursery rhyme, “When she was good, she was barely good, and when she was bad, she was horrid.” There was general agreement that she was “rude and nasty, self-serving and imperious.” All those qualities were excused, however, because she was a powerful woman. After all, “power has to be taken” and power has to be “used,” said her biographer. Before Friedan, the biographer asserted, “women celebrated in American history books were footnotes.”

While there is some truth in that observation, of course, the problem is in the writing of history books, not in the accomplishments of women. The problem is in the definition of power, not in women’s lack of power. The problem is a fundamental misunderstanding of the origins of power. Far too many woman, including Betty Friedan and those influenced by her ideas, have crashed their lives on the shoals of faulty reasoning about the source of power and by their grasping attempts to seize power. In the Old Testament, God says clearly that power comes from His spirit, “not by might, nor by power.” In the New Testament, Jesus reiterates that all “power and authority” are from Him.

Friedan, claiming that frustrated and thwarted women were downing tranquilizers “like cough drops,” wrote Feminine Mystique, the 1963 book which launched the so-called women’s movement. She said, “Some people thought I said, ‘Women . . . you have nothing to lose but your men.’ It’s not true. You have nothing to lose but your vacuum cleaners.” Friedan obviously struck a responsive nerve. People were happy to have a secular and sophisticated sounding label for their spiritual hunger and thousands sought to fill their emptiness with feminist manna.

Friedan founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) and was president from its founding in 1966 until 1970. She also co-founded the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) and the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC). During this period, she called herself a “ham,” but others, noting her penchant for grabbing the spotlight, called her a “hog.” From the outset, the organization and the movement were plagued with adolescent-type squabbles among its would-be leaders; among themselves they called them “catfights.” At one point, Friedan called fellow feminists, Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, “female chauvinist boors.” They got back at her by describing Friedan as “an old-style person.” Steinem and Friedan ended up not speaking to each other and have never reconciled. Friedan was always defensive about the spats and press coverage of them. Once on a radio interview, a caller complained that the press focused on the personalities of feminists instead of their ideas. Friedan, to emphasize the point, famously walked out on the interview. Ironically, one of the feminists’ favorite slogans during this period was, “the personal is political.”

Friedan took her crusade to the streets in August 1970 with a nationwide Women’s Strike for Equality. Then, in 1981 she published The Second Stage, a book claiming, ironically, the necessity for men’s involvement for women to achieve equality. Biographer, Judith Hennessee, in her 1999 book, Betty Friedan: Her Life, said that Friedan:

“. . . was a woman of profound contradictions. She was a woman who yearned for a happy marriage and family life, yet urged others to fulfill themselves outside the family. A conventional woman who shook male-female relationships to the core. A reformer who started a revolution. A revolutionary who wanted to be part of the Establishment. An elitist who fought for working women; a class snob who fought for equality; a humanitarian who treated individuals, particularly women, badly. She was a feminist . . . who deferred to [men], and did not even like most women.”

Betty Friedan “never found ‘the boy who would like her best’ [and] she never gave up the search. . . . [but] none of the men lasted very long.” She wrote, “I feel a sense of failure about my marriage . . . I envy people whose marriages have evolved rather than dissolved.” She claims to have a really good “geiger counter” that now tells her that the women’s movement has been reduced to nothing more than a “special interest group.” Now her message has changed, “None of us will be advanced much farther unless we start a new movement.”

All that her “power” produced was a strife-ridden special interest group that she considers so irrelevant that she wants to start, at this late stage of her life, a new movement.

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