Jul 1, 1977
The Second American Revolution May Be Here
“The women’s movement is a world-wide grass-roots movement, based on values that are unconsciously Libertarian.”
Is this an adequate summing up of the women’s movement? Since the mid-1960s, new organizations and publications have been formed around “women’s issues,” and even when they are claimed by Marxists, they seem to be hitting a nerve in a wider public. There is something being articulated by feminists that quite a number of American women seem ready to hear.
Take the publication of the magazine Ms., for instance. A group of women writers and editors managed to get backing for a sample preview issue of a new national magazine in 1972, at a time when many national magazines were folding. They ordered a printing of 300,000, which they hoped to sell over a period of eight weeks. It sold out in eight days. And they got more than 20,000 letters from all over the country, although they had been told by the editor of a more traditional women’s magazine that “four thousand letters of any kind,” to a magazine with a circulation in the millions, was an exceptional response.
This response was not to a call for class warfare. It was, rather, to the attitude expressed in the following statement, in Ms.’second issue:
“If your asked us our philosophy for ourselves and for the magazine, each of us would give an individual answer. But we agree on one thing. We want a world in which no one is born into a subordinate role because of visible difference, whether that difference is of race or of sex. That’s an assumption we make personally and editorially, with all the social changes it implies. After that, we cherish our differences. We want Ms. to be a forum for many views. Most of all, we are joyfully discovering ourselves, and a world set free from old patterns, old thoughts. We hope Ms. will help you—and us—to explore this new world.”
Which description of the women’s movement is the real one? Betty Friedan’s new book, It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement, has some provocative insights into this very question.
Her first book, The Feminine Mystique, had struck me when I read it as a book I should have been able to write. On page after page, my reaction was, “But I know this—why didn’t I put it together?” It was a book that I had needed; and according to the sales, so had hundreds of thousands of other American women. Betty Friedan, who had given up the study of psychology to become a suburban housewife and mother, had discovered that, in the words psychologist Nathaniel Branden has used, “Women are not excused from being human.” That is, that women as well as men cannot function without a sense of self, a sense of purpose, a sense of productivity.
Then she went on to help found several women’s organizations, and was too busy to publish another book between 1963 and 1976. Advance reviews of It Changed My Life indicated that it was a book made up of bits and pieces—an interview here, a speech there, excerpts from a column. But out of these bits and pieces emerges a memoir of life within the women’s movement which shows that this movement is a grassroots, genuine reaching out for something positive, and also shows why it is perceived by many people as a small, elite corps of women with disturbing, destructive ideals.
Betty Friedan has always shared the contemporary liberal’s view of the appropriateness of solving social problems by government action. She tells us that she considered herself a “radical” before her marriage. “If you were a radical in 1949, you were concerned about the Negroes, and the working class, and World War III, and the Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthy and loyalty oaths, and Communist splits and schisms, Russia, China and the U.N…. But in 1949 I was suddenly not that interested in political meetings.”
Instead, she devoted herself to marriage and motherhood and found herself in the grip of that cultural glorification of woman’s service to others which she was later to call the feminine mystique. This mystique, in Friedan’s words, “defines woman solely in terms of her three-dimensional sexual relationship to man: wife, mother, homemaker—passively dependent, her own role restriced to timeless, changeless love and service of husband and children.” Although in the early speeches and articles reprinted in It Changed My Life Friedan stresses the point that women are responsible for their own destinies (1964: “It is not laws, nor great obstacles, nor the heels of men that are grinding women down in America today.”), one can follow with sympathy and understanding her account of how she became a devotee of concerted political action for women.
After the stunning success of The Feminine Mystique catapulted its author to fame and fortune, she was invited to the White House by Lyndon Johnson and was courted as an advisor by the liberal establishment she expected to admire. She met the men who were supposed to be running government programs for the benefit of women. And she found that they had only contempt for women. She found that a ban on sex discrimination had been added to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a joke, and that Martha Griffiths “had managed to persuade the Johnson administration to keep that joke in the Civil Rights Act, or she would force the men to be counted on the floor in ‘a vote against women.’ ” She found a “female underground” in Washington vainly trying to get job training for women included in the poverty program. “Sargent Shriver said to me: ‘Why should I try to train a woman, who would rather be my wife and the mother of my children, to use a computer?’ ” Only a nationally organized pressure group for women would get the law against sex discrimination enforced, she was told by the female underground.
So Betty Friedan became the spark that organized the institutions that we think of as the women’s movement in America today. She got together a group of women who formed NOW (the National Organization for Women) in 1966, drafting its statement of purpose and becoming its first president, calling on “American government and industry” to support women in their objectives and to establish “a nationwide network of child-centers … and national programs to provide retraining.” It is not absolutely clear whether she was calling for government financing of child-care or not in this first speech, but American industry certainly did not respond, and her 1967 President’s report called unequivocally for the principle that “child-care facilities must be established by federal law on the same basis as parks, libraries and public schools.”
She is threatening the forces of the “left” no less than the forces of the “right.”
After the founding of NOW, Betty Friedan went on to write the statements of principles or to deliver opening addresses for other women’s organizations, and all these statements are included in It Changed My Life. She was at the 1969 meeting in Chicago that organized N.A.R.A.L. (the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws) where she insisted that the charter be preambled with: “Asserting the right of a woman to control her own body and reproductive process as her inalienable, human, civil right, not to be denied or abridged by the state, or any man,” because, she explains, the originally proposed charter contained “not one single mention of the right of the woman to decide and choose in her own childbearing. It was all about the right of the doctor to perform an abortion without going to jail.”
It was Betty Friedan who proposed the march down Fifth Avenue in New York City on the fiftieth anniversary of Woman Suffrage, and who in 1971 and 1972 helped organize the National Women’s Political Caucus to put pressure on both Democrats and Republicans to pay attention to women’s issues and to the role of women in political parties.
And she went abroad. She spoke to overflowing audiences of women in countries where The Feminine Mystique had appeared: England, Brazil, Italy. Everywhere she went, hundreds were expected and thousands came. In Turin, she wrote, “The intensity with which they are listening, despite the continual interruptions for translations, is hungry, scary, as if something here is getting ready to burst.” She was granted an audience with the Pope, of a length that is usually given only to heads of state, even though she made sure that the Vatican was completely informed of her position as an ERA advocate and a supporter of a woman’s right to determine her own childbearing. She went to the World Population Conference in Bucharest, and the following year saw several thousand women at the Tribune of Nongovernmental Organizations in Mexico City agree on a world plan of action for International Women’s Year, only to have the official U.N. representatives then sabotage it by linking it to a resolution for the abolition of Zionism.
If anyone personifies the American women’s movement to women everywhere, surely it is Betty Friedan. It is particularly interesting, then, to see what she sees as important about this movement.
Friedan stressed from the start that, politically, there were two paramount issues which were both the most important and the most controversial for women. These were “equality,” in the sense of the abolition of legal discrimination against women and of so-called protective legislation, and the right of a woman to control her own childbearing by using birth-control and, if necessary, abortion. “In actuality, the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion,” she writes, “were and are the two gut issues of the women’s movement essential to real security—and equality and human dignity—for all women, whether they work outside or inside the home.” She argued NOW into taking a stand for the repeal of all abortion laws in its second year, and into supporting the ERA even though this meant that it lost the free mailing privileges previously granted it at the headquarters of the United Auto Workers of America.
And abroad, she found that her advocacy of legal equality and the right to abortion provoked opposition from an odd coalition of enemies. At the World Population Conference in Bucharest in 1974, she wrote, “I saw a curious alliance of the Vatican, the Communists and the Third World Nations (Latin America and Arabs especially) oppose woman’s right to control her own body and equality for women as ‘irrelevant’.”
Between the lines of It Changed My Life is the picture of Friedan delivering her message to a huge international audience of women hungry to hear it, and gradually coming to grips with the fact that in so doing, she is threatening the forces of the “Left” no less than the forces of the “Right.” Her awareness of the importance of this is scattered throughout the book, but is not hard for the reader to piece together.
From the beginning Betty Friedan saw that she was calling for some sort of revolution, but she knew it was not a Marxist one. In a speech on the fiftieth anniversary of Woman Suffrage, she said, “What we do here will transform society, though it may not be exactly what Karl Marx or anyone else meant by revolutionary.” And in a column for McCall’s, she wrote, “There are no blueprints for our revolution, not from Karl Marx or any of the other ideologues of exploited classes, for the relationship of woman to man is not the same as that of worker to boss, of oppressed to oppressor, of black to white. We can only find our blueprint from our own unique experience.” Later, on a speaking tour in Italy, she realizes, ‘The revolution I am talking about is not revolution, Italian style. In Italy, revolution still means ‘communism,’ and the Italian Communist Party, the biggest in Europe, is taking almost the same reactionary line about divorce and abortion as the Catholic Right-wing parties.”
From the beginning Betty Friedan saw that she was calling for some sort of revolution, but she knew it was not a Marxist one.
But if the women’s revolution is not a Marxist revolution, what kind of revolution is it? Friedan hoped that the existentialism of Simone de Beauvoir, which had influenced her in her youth, would have some answers, particularly after de Beauvoir publicly identified herself as a feminist. Friedan went to interview her, feeling that “someone must know the right answer, someone must know for sure that all the women who had thrown away those old misleading maps were heading the right direction, someone must see more clearly than I where the new road ends.”
But she didn’t find answers that she could accept from the woman whose work had started her on her own road to feminism. “I recognized the authoritarian overtones of the supposedly Maoist party line I’d heard from sophomoric, self-styled radical feminists in America.”
Friedan had already tried, once in NOW and once in the National Women’s Political Caucus, to bring together broad-based groups of women who would be willing to transcend political differences, but found to her dismay that “the radicals seemed to take over.” Both political groups ultimately were taken over by radical Left-oriented leaders, who pushed her out. She had expected that the forces she identified as Right-wing would oppose the women’s movement, as the ERA moved toward ratification, and was not surprised that “reactionary political and economic forces became more open in their flagrant opposition to the women’s movement for equality. For we were mobilizing to political independence that great mass of women which had always been manipulated by dictator, demagogue, priest and profiteer. But what I didn’t then understand was the degree to which our own political mobilization of women was threatening to forces on the Left.”
Betty Friedan really intended women to think for themselves, not to be maneuvered as a bloc. She intended the women’s movement to be a movement toward personal happiness and individual fulfillment, for both men and women. Over and over, she stresses that man is not the enemy, that what she sees is a sex-role revolution. She was one of the people who introduced the term “sex-object” into our vocabulary as a derogatory term, but she does not use it, as some other activists do, to denigrate sexual love. “I protest,” she writes, “that passionate sexual love cannot be experienced if it is divorced from what we really are ourselves. Those obsolete masculine and feminine mystiques—the masks we’ve been wearing which didn’t let us be or know ourselves—made it almost impossible to know each other.” For her, the opposite of “sex-object” is “the new image of woman: as person, as heroine.”
It is not until her dismaying encounter with the realities of international power politics at the International Women’s Year Conference in Mexico City that Friedan finally puts together her heroic view of women’s liberation with her growing awareness of what Marxism means in action. The “global speakout” at which women really talk to each other unofficially is not reported in the world press. The U.N. sabotages the plan of women to set up a World Tribunal for Women. She sees that it is primarily the Third World and Communist countries that are responsible for the disruption, and is told by a woman from the World YWCA, “The real explanation is so far-out you won’t believe it. It was because you really got the women united, including the Third World women. And then you began talking about a World Tribunal of Women. That did it. You see, the Communists are planning this huge world conference of women in Berlin. They want to get the women’s movement under control, so that’s why they set up International Women’s Year.”
She intended the women’s movement to be a movement toward personal happiness and individual fulfillment, for both men and women.
Friedan sums it up: “From discussion with political scientists, I see that the women’s movement and feminism are threatening to Communists because (1) they cut across class lines and go against a strict class analysis of history and revolution; (2) they put too much emphasis on the individual and self-fulfillment, on a woman’s right to control her own body and her own destiny, on the factthat she is not just a sexual or economic instrument; (3) if women began to understand the concept of ‘personal as political’ in Communist lands, and arose from their tired passivity, it would shake more than women’s lives; (4) sexual liberation itself is threatening; the permutations of women’s passivity and rage into everybody’s sexual alienation are as basic to acceptance of communist oppression as of capitalist exploitation; (5) the women’s movement is a real mass movement for revolutionary social change, and it is spreading world-wide. And it didn’t come from and can’t be controlled by the Communists.”
Did she ever discover what kind of revolution she was advocating? I think she did, in Mexico City, where she kept being attacked by questions about links between the women’s movement and the CIA. “One had to keep repeating,” she writes, “I and feminists generally are certainly not agents of American imperialism…. But the fact is, I am an American, and in Mexico City, I realized that acutely. I’ve understood before that shame at your country’s evils comes from commitment to its values. But in Mexico I suddenly had the insight that the women’s movement itself was based on the values of American democracy—the belief in individual dignity and freedom, equality and self-fulfillment, and self-determination, as well as the freedom to dissent and organize.”
There is a political philosophy explicitly based on these American values—on the thesis that the basic political unit is the individual, whose natural rights, as articulated in the works of John Locke and others, may not properly he curtailed by any government. This philosophy is Libertarianism, and its values are indeed individualism, freedom of thought and action, equality before the law, and “the pursuit of happiness” (self-fulfillment and self-determination). I personally think that Betty Friedan is right in identifying them as the values of the women’s revolution, which she calls “the second American revolution;” even though (since Libertarians would hold that the role of government which can be deduced from these values is that it get out of the way) I think she is wrong in thinking that they can be achieved through government programs.
But she is right in her analysis of why a revolution was needed in the first place.
In a 1964 article, one of the first included in It Changed My Life, Friedan quotes a letter from a reader of The Feminine Mystiquewho had gone (some years after graduation) to the alumnae vocational agency of her college, for job advice: “I asked what vocational opportunities were possible for a reasonably intelligent, energetic woman, holder of an AB degree. I was ready and willing to pursue further study or training, and I wanted some information about possibilities. I shall never forget the advice I received from the woman in charge of the agency, and I quote: ‘Go back to your kitchen and stay there and make jam!’ ”
A few years later, Friedan said in a speech, “Woman’s life has been confined by dailyness—cooking the dinner that gets eaten, and must be cooked again, sweeping the floor that must be swept every day—and transcended only by the biological birth of our children. It has never been completely human.”
The two fastest-growing sociopolitical movements in the United States today, libertarianism and feminism, agree on the importance of “our one and only life.”
Some years after that, in 1971, in an article published in Modern Age entitled “Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism and the Division of Labor,” the Libertarian scholar Murray Rothbard elaborated (I believe coincidentally) on why “dailyness” should have this effect. He said, “No one can fully develop his powers in any direction without engaging in specialization. The primitive tribesman or peasant, bound to an endless round of different tasks in order to maintain himself, could have no time or resources available to pursue any particular interest to the full. He had no room to specialize, to develop whatever field he was best at or in which he was interested… . Without the opportunity to specialize in whatever he can do best, no person can develop his powers to the full; no man, then, could be fully human.”
It is a revolution in consciousness, not government, that Betty Friedan sees in the process of coming; a sex-role revolution, in which women as well as men can become fully human. And she sees that American institutions, even the economic system that she criticizes, are ultimately receptive to such a revolution. “Sure, sex discrimination was profitable—still is for some companies. But for the economy as a whole - yes, even under rotten old capitalism which may or may not have the power to regenerate itself - equality between the sexes, participation of women, with all the rewards thereof, is becoming one of the main sources of new energy.”
The women’s movement is a world-wide grass-roots movement, based on values that are unconsciously Libertarian. There seem to be strong forces trying to negate it by co-opting it: by international Communist action abroad, and (in Friedan’s opinion) by preaching a Marxist-based rhetoric of sex warfare at home. “All who read and understand these words, share responsibility with me not to let this happen,” she writes.
She is not alone in this opinion. Vivian Gornick, in the article “Feminist Writers: Hanging Ourselves on a Party Line?” (Ms., July 1975) writes that to adopt doctrinaire touchstones of any sort “undermines what are, for me at least, the extraordinary and exciting underpinnings of feminism: namely the desire and growing ability to see things as they are; to examine experience entirely in its own terms; to truly explore the country of self-determination. After all, did we not become feminists to think for ourselves?
“… To have an agenda of this sort in the mind is, again by my lights, to have missed the point entirely of the feminist struggle; which, God help us, is surely not to turn us into card-carrying ideologues, but rather to help us develop in ourselves the ability to think and feel clearly in order that each of us may better control this, our one and only life.”
Perhaps the two fastest-growing sociopolitical movements in the United States today, Libertarianism and feminism, agree on the importance of “our one and only life.” Both movements assert the value of the individual and the necessity of reexamining the assumptions of our culture. And members of both are thinking in new categories, stressing independence of thought, stretching their minds to encompass new ideas that are not what they have been taught. Libertarians are working for a world of civil liberties and economic freedom, basing these goals on a commitment to the importance of individual rights. Feminists are working for the legal and social self-realization of women, a goal that they see as requiring a commitment to the value of living for oneself and not for others.
The two goals are mutually compatible. They may even imply each other. Both spring from a passion for individual freedom and self-responsibility whose time seems to have come, and which may indeed be the second American revolution.
Joan Kennedy Taylor was the editor of Persuasion magazine from 1964 to 1968, and was co-author with Lee Shulman of WHEN TO SEE A PSYCHOLOGIST. She is a member of the Association of Libertarian Feminists.