Busting the Masculine Mystique
Betty Friedan was undoubtedly the world’s best known feminist activist and author. Her earliest book, “The Feminine Mystique” (1963) gave birth to the modern women’s movement. Her last book, “The Fountain of Age,” looks at what it means to grow old in a youth-obsessed culture.
She was interviewed by NPQ editor Nathan Gardels for the “Summing Up the Century” series of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate in 1998 at her apartment in Washington D.C.
NPQ | Over 30 years ago now, the publication of The Feminine Mystique gave birth to the movement for women’s equality. The advance of women in the last half of the 20th century is without doubt the deepest social transformation of our time.
In your view, what have been the key successes of the women’s movement? What have been its failures, shortcomings and diversions?
Betty Friedan | More than anything else, The Feminine Mystique brought about a paradigm shift in consciousness.
In the United States there had been more than a 100-year battle to win the vote for women. But, then the movement for equality seemed to abort. Womens’ energies got diverted into issues like temperance—how to deal with drunken husbands—and other social work causes.
Women fighting for themselves as equal persons in society—not just as a man’s wife, mother, sex object, daughter, housewife—remerged with the publication of my book in 1963.
Once you broke through the feminine mystique by slamming the door, as Nora did in Henrick Ibsen’s A Doll House, and saying, “I am above all else a person, just as you are,” could you see the barriers that stood in women’s way.
Remember, also, this was the early 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement and the beginning of the anti-Vietnam war movement. There was a feeling in the air that one could take action to change the conditions of society, to liberate those who we oppressed.
Now, nearly 40 years later, the women’s movement has succeeded, at least in the advanced countries, beyond my wildest dreams. The change is awesome.
Women today are getting an equal number of professional degrees. In 1997, there is only a 26-cent differential in pay between women and men in mid-level jobs. Though the “glass ceiling” remains at the highest executive levels, it is only a matter of time before women break through.
Women, who used to vote just like their husbands did, have become a potent force politically. In the United States, it was women who elected Bill Clinton as president. The “gender gap” in his election and reelection was around 20 percent.
Our daughters’ and granddaughters’ generation just can’t imagine a time when women weren’t taken seriously, when the political and social agenda was not defined by women’s as well as men’s. So, at the end of the 20th century in the advanced western countries, women are in a state of very-near equality with men. This is a marvelous transformation from the days when I wrote The Feminist Mystique. The success of the women’s movement has certainly been the most life-affirming experience of the 20th century.
NPQ | What about failures and diversions of the women’s movement?
Friedan | I don’t see failures. Diversions, yes.
The biggest diversion was the extremist personal sexual politics that drew a literal analogy between the oppression of women and race or class oppression. That deteriorated into marginal politics that said “down with men, down with marriage, down with motherhood.” The perception this extremist politics created that the women’s movement was just a bunch of lesbians did not help our cause. The media hyped this extremism, but, since the early 1980s, thankfully, it has faded.
My view then, as now, is that one’s sexual preference is a private matter. The whole point of writing a book like The Feminine Mystique was to break through the definition of women solely in terms of their sexual relationship to men, as mother, housewife and servant.
It would have been a big mistake to re-mystify women once again as sexual beings only and not as free persons in society.
NPQ | What about the latter backlash of the mid-1980s that blamed growing divorce rates and a breakdown of the family on women who “abandoned” the home for work and, in the conservative critique, asserted their rights over their obligations to their husbands and children?
The phrase that summed up this critique was “women can’t have it all,” meaning they can’t have both kids and careers without doing damage to the family.
Friedan | That is an absolutely stupid phrase. What it really means is that men can have it all, but women can’t. Men can have love, sex, children and jobs, but women can’t.
In fact, the women’s movement has made it possible for both parents to have more. Men also used to carry sole burden of income. That stress made them fragile emotionally and vulnerable physically. They died too young, on the average about eight years younger than women.
Now women carry half the burden. So maybe men won’t die so much younger.
NPQ | Let us put the question another way: Can parents have it all without damaging their kids? If, together, both parents are working 80 hours a week to keep up the mortgage payments while the kids are shunted off to child care, is that a good thing?
Friedan | Flexible time at work. A shorter workweek. Better, more affordable child care. Whatever criticism of childcare there may be, the fact is that without childcare there can be no equality for women.
In short, we need to put the value of quality of life over material greed and status that seems to dictate all social relations today.
Those wellsprings of common good, of the idea of a life that balances family and work, need to be encouraged. The women’s movement, as a force for life, ought to concern itself with these issues.
NPQ | Alva Myrdal, the late Swedish sociologist, once made the point that women could have it all, but in succession. Since women lived longer than men, they could have motherhood first, then a career. Of course, a women’s opportunity in such a society would then depend on the absence of age discrimination.
Is there anything in this idea from your point of view?
Friedan | As a society, we haven’t yet come to terms with the extended life spans made possible by creature comforts, nutrition and medical advances of modern times.
Women’s average life expectancy today is 80 years. For men it is 72, and will be longer as they are released from stressful burdens of being the sole income provider.
People living into their 80s today are very vital, with few signs of deterioration. Hence, the whole notion that people ought to retire from active life at age 65 or less is entirely obsolete.
Increasingly, as Alva Myrdal foresaw, people are talking more and more of “my next career” or my “third career.”
If you start again in your late 60s or so you don’t have to prove yourself. You don’t have to support a family anymore or put kids through college. So, you tend to do what interests you, not what you have to do. You revive dreams. I know a retired banker who became a nurse. I know people who have taken up composing at 70.
The longer horizon of life also affects your choices earlier in life. It relieves the fear of having only one chance to make it, and that opens up life to more adventures and choices than was ever possible before in human history.
NPQ | If the women’s movement has reached most of its goals, what is next on the agenda?
Friedan | Busting the masculine mystique. The unfinished business of the women’s movement is changing the role of man. Equality will not have been achieved until the family is seen as much a man’s concern as a women’s.
So far, family needs and family issues have been defined as woman’s domain. The next frontier is to make it to the man’s as well. Children ought to be seen as the equal responsibility of men and women.
NPQ | How, then, do you see the recent efforts at placing the man, once again, front and center in the family? In the last two years, we’ve seen two big marches in Washington—Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March and, more recently the Promise Keepers. Both were about men reaffirming their responsibilities to families.
Friedan | It is almost ironic this movement should be interpreted as a backlash against women. In reality, there has to be a response by men to the fact that in over 50 percent of families women are earning half the family income. That means men must assume their share of responsibility.
As women are now entitled to equal opportunity in the workplace, men should be considered equally responsible for the family.