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Obituary: Betty Friedan (1921-2006)

Betty Friedan, who died last month, was a key figure in the modern women’s movement. Her book, The Feminine Mystique, published in the United States in 1963, galvanised women into action and shook up the picture of the ideal family that dominated US life in the post-war boom of the 1950s and 1960s.

Friedan came from a radical background and was involved in the 1940s in writing for union and left wing publications. Her early sympathies were with the US labour movement and the fight of Afro-Americans for civil rights. She was influenced by the Communist Party. She wrote about the issues facing working women in the unions and at home.

It was after a period of being a homemaker in the 1950s that she turned to the research that resulted in The Feminine Mystique. In this book Friedan wrote about the experience of housewives generally, rather than working class women specifically. She described the experience of suburban women, trapped in lives bounded by home and family.

This “mystique” encouraged women to marry younger, have more babies and leave the workforce. They helped preserve the status quo, preserving the ideal American family, and acting as consumers for booming businesses. But, in reality, women were frustrated and dissatisfied, not knowing how to deal with “the problem that has no name”.

Some of Friedan’s statistics were wrong or misleading. Although the immediate post-war period had seen a shakeout of women from the workforce, the rising birth rate was short-lived and women started returning to work. Nevertheless, Friedan had identified an important truth, that North American women were being trapped in the home or in low paid and low status work.

Paradoxically, it was the increased participation at work, together with changes to domestic labour and birth control that meant Friedan’s call to arms found such a response. The Feminine Mystique became a best seller and, despite its errors, deserves its reputation as a seminal work. It spoke to women’s lived experience – not only to middle class women, but to working class women, too. It gave women arguments against the reactionary ideology of the post-war years, calling on women to break out of the stultifying existence in the home.

Friedan was propelled to the head of the emerging women’s movement. In 1966, she and some labour and civil rights activists formed the National Organisation of Women (NOW) and took up the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment, aiming to outlaw discrimination at work, in the family, and in financial matters.

By 1969, Friedan had taken up the fight for abortion rights. The next year, Friedan launched the New York based “women’s strike” for equality, which involved half a million women.

Friedan came in for a number of criticisms, as the women’s liberation movement grew, and then fragmented. Radical feminists criticised her attitude to sexual politics and gender issues. Certainly, Friedan was open to criticism on her early attitudes to homosexuality – The Feminine Mystique is infused with old-fashioned

prejudices, which veer towards homophobia, although she later shifted her attitudes.

Other critics have accused her of hiding her Communist sympathies, fearful of witch-hunt, and unwilling to court unpopularity. This is hardly fair given that Friedan showed considerable courage in her campaigning, especially over the issue of abortion.

Friedan’s politics did, however, carry the imprint of the Communist Party and their sympathisers. Friedan sought to reform the family and society. While she did see that women’s oppression was rooted in social relations as a whole, not just in sexual relations, she stopped short of a thoroughgoing Marxist analysis. Her strategy ended up tying campaigners to the limits of bourgeois reform. Instead of returning to her earlier radical, working class roots, she moved further to the right.

But Friedan’s 1963 call to arms still resonates with working women today, forced to rely upon expensive or poor quality child care, or staying at home with young children, encouraged to worship empty celebrity lifestyles, while images of women’s bodies are used more than ever to sell products:

“Who knows what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves? Who knows what women’s intelligence will contribute when it can be nourished without denying love? Who knows of the possibilities of love when men and women share not only their children, home and garden, not only the fulfilment of their biological roles, but the responsibilities and passions of the work that creates the human future? It has barely begun, the search of women for themselves. But the time is at hand when the voices of the feminine mystique can no longer drown out the inner voice that is driving women on to become complete.”

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