The Desperate Housewife

She adored her children and grandchildren. She valued marriage and family. She was extremely critical of the feminist movement. She didn’t like the phrase “women’s liberation” because being set free from everything didn’t seem right to her. So who is it? Some might guess Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative who has led the country’s “pro-family” movement for the last 30 years. But it’s not. It’s Betty Friedan — the woman who sparked the modern women’s movement when she wrote “The Feminine Mystique,” the woman who founded the National Organization of Women, the woman who organized a march for women’s equality in New York City that was 50,000 strong. If all the bullet points describing Friedan don’t seem to fit together, that’s understandable. Often the picture we have of people is far too one-dimensional, unable to accommodate disparate aspects of a person. We fall victim to media creations and then to our own biases. I certainly did. I thought I knew a lot about Friedan, the original “desperate housewife,” but for a long time I didn’t know she had become disenchanted with the very movement she had created. As early as 1970, she believed feminists’ priorities were becoming distorted. She warned them not to be dismissive of domestic life: “Don’t get into the bra-burning, anti-man, politics-of-orgasm school,” she said. That characterization of feminism, she believed, would soon turn into caricature and open the way for conservatives to occupy the political center on things she and many like-minded feminists cared deeply about — family, home and love. Indeed, that’s just what happened. In “The Second Stage,” a book Friedan wrote in 1981, 20 years after the women’s movement began, she tried once again to steer the fight for rights in a new direction, one that included the needs of men and children as well as women. “There are real and powerful emotional and economic stakes in that battle to which feminists have been strangely blind, to our personal and political peril,” she said. “Our failure was our blind spot about the family.” Radical feminist Susan Brownmiller, author of the incendiary book “Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape,” was one of many who felt Friedan had betrayed the movement. Brownmiller called Friedan’s concerns “hopelessly bourgeois.” To the day she died this past February, Friedan elegantly bore the anger of her critics and continued to push for the family as the new feminist frontier. She had a lot of women — including me — cheering her on. Friedan’s vision is a great way to begin to right the wrongs created by that unfortunate “blind spot.”
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