Monday, February 06, 2006

Betty Friedan, RIP

Sophie Bassouls/Corbis Sygma

Betty Friedan died on Saturday at the age of eighty-five. She is best known for her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. It gave her a place among the launchers of the so-called Second Wave of feminism.

Friedan was not an uncomplicated person. This New York Times obituary sums my views on her fairly well. In contrast, this BBC obituary gives the readers no real substance and fails to explain why Friedan matters. I suspect that it was written by a British anti-feminist.

What was the significance of Friedan's work in the feminist movement? I regard her as a name-giver, one of those who sees something we all see but goes one step further and defines the phenomenom, organizes it and tells us what it is called. Because so many women identified with what she described the relief from having it named and explained was enormous. No longer did individual women feel all alone, vaguely disgruntled, worried about their mental health or their perfection as a loving wife; instead, it was possible to discuss this condition and that was the first stage of doing something about it.

Name-giving is powerful, because a name given at the right time can energize a movement that barely existed until that point, and this is what Friedan's book did, though only for straight, educated, middle- and upper-class women. But it was a start, and the start turned into something more when other name-givers joined Friedan in the effort.

Friedan's power is reflected in the animosity she still provokes among the anti-feminists and wingnuts. But she was not wholly loved in the feminist movement, either, mostly because of her blind spots. But we all have our blind spots and to demand perfection before someone is respected means that we will never respect the achievements of anyone. And Betty Friedan certainly achieved a lot in one lifetime.

Thanks to her and other feminists working hard and courageously (for it does take courage to attack the society) in the 1960's and 1970's we no longer see "Help Wanted" ads segregated by sex and we no longer automatically expect that a newly married woman will quit her job. Thanks to them we also have other names for phenomena that long existed unnamed and under the radar: "domestic violence", "marital rape", "sexual harassment". Once names are given the phenomena can be truly seen, analyzed, debated and corrected.

Thank you for the names you taught us, Betty Friedan.