osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

Where Are the Heirs of Betty Friedan?

Two recent op eds in the NYT prompt me to write something I've wanted to write for a long time -- my thoughts on modern feminism. As a white married male devoted to the traditional practice of a patriarchal religion, this is definitely an "outsiders" critique. So take it for what it's worth.

In the Monday 10/16 NYT, Bob Herbert argues that the recent shootings of high school girls in Colorado and elementary school girls in Pennsylvania should spark national outrage and debate on violence against women. After all, would not the singling out of any other class for such an act of violence -- racial minorities or Jews, for example -- spark such national outrage or debate? (Sadly, btw, my answer to Bob Herbert was -- "no, not really." Targeted acts of hatred based on race or ethnicity are going on all the time and nobody really gives a damn unless it is some celebrity or politician or someone else with "star power" caught up in the mix.)

On the same op ed page, Allison Glock observes in "Halloween in Heels" that costumes designed for adult women have now become all about being sexy. Gone from stores are any costumes that do not emphasize legs, breasts, and sex. There are no male equivalents. In fact there seem to be few male costumes for adults at all.

Which prompts me to ask I question I have wanted to write about for some time: Where Are the Heirs of Betty Friedan? By these I do not mean her disciples -- I can find plenty of those. Nor do I mean her critics, detractors, or reinventors. I mean her heirs.

Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique," published in 1963, achieved central importance because it provided a radical new perspective on reality -- one which spoke to a generation. It explained to women and men unhappy in their social roles that they were neither isolated or crazy. To the contrary, the social framework in which they were mired locked both men and women in a vicious cycle that ensured that women never reached their full potential as human beings -- to the detriment of us all. What was necessary was to recognize this social conditioning for what it was and refuse to accommodate it any longer. Every individual had within herself or himself to power to chose, and the power to join with like minded individuals to change the world thereby.

It is important to remember the world as it existed in 1963. As a legal matter, women enjoyed legal status in many states little better than legal minors. Legal barriers in some states made the concept of spousal abuse a legal impossibility. The social conditioning of the 1950s celebrated the cult of domesticity and its "separate but equal" spheres in which (white middle class) men and women each had their appointed place. Attendance at the most prestigious institutions of higher learning was barred for women. Career choices, for those (white middle class) women who chose to work were sharply delineated, often low status and low pay. Further, sexual mores -- which had enjoyed some liberation in the 1920s-40s -- regressed to Victorian hypocrisy in which "nice girls" were morally superior to boys because, unlike boys, they could control themselves. Yes, mothers might sigh that their sons would cavort with "bad girls," but boys will be boys and not to be blamed for the failure of their biology. As a consequence, their daughters often found themselves at the mercy of ruthless men, then asked by their mothers what they had done to "invite" such unwanted interest.

In such a world, Friedan's insights were understandably earthshaking. They provided a significant ideological base and catalyst for a generation of women to organize to radically change the legal, economic and social structure. And, for a lengthy period of time, this movement enjoyed considerable success. Legal barriers to women's full participation in society were struck down, and replaced with legal prohibitions on discrimination. Access to higher education was encouraged. Women increasingly saw themselves as socially and economically independent, free to make choices based on their own desires, ambitions, and sense of responsibility.

But while Friedan had many disciples, and subsequent critics and revisionists, she has not left behind any heirs to the tradition of radical framework reassessment. The "Women's Movement" remains, to all intents and purposes, mired in its traditional framework and traditional leadership structure. As a consequence, it has grown increasingly out of touch with its purported constituency and ineffective as a political movement.

Friedan herself cautioned against exactly such a result. In her 1981 book "Second Stage," Friedan warned that the Women's Movement was in danger of falling victim to factionalization and the pursuit of ideological purity. To remain relevant, Feminism needed to reinvent itself as a movement dedicated to what we would now call "social justice" or "social equity." But this has not happened. To the contrary, by and large, the same generation of women who formed the movement in the late 1960s through the 1970s, or their hand-picked ideological descendants, remain the keepers of the movement. The language of feminism -- so powerful in the earlier days of the movement -- have become cliches or, worse, marketing slogans. The ideology of feminism has ossified to the point of almost self-parody. Worse, new ideological offshoots are often regarded with suspicion by the established guardians of the movement.

The result is a movement that should enjoy broad support failing dramatically. It fails so dramatically that many of its supposed beneficiaries disavow association with it. How many times must we hear someone explain they are "not a feminist, but -- " when defending some obvious principle of equality. "Feminist" has become increasingly toxic as a label. Yet the movement's response is to rejoice in this toxicity as a sign that it knows has maintained ideological purity by the enemies it keeps.

But most deadly, the movement continues to decline in numbers and support among its constituents. Traditional feminists may rail against an ungrateful or ignorant younger generation that fails to understand either the struggle to reach this point or the persistence of the threat to female equality. But such complaints do not bring leaders of the movement any closer to understanding or effectiveness. Yes, feminism is about the right to make decisions, these leaders say, but why do so many young women have to make the wrong decisions?

But while the ideological framework of the women's movement remains trapped in 1963, the universe has changed dramatically. This proposition is usually rejected by the faithful with a recitation of the many ills that yet remain. And in this denial that the legal, social, and economic framework has dramatically changed -- in an apparent underlying fear that acknowledging change would somehow undermine the need for continued struggle -- lies the answer to the decline on the movement. If not reversed, the refusal to embrace the reality of change and redefine the fundamental vocabulary and framework of the movement can ultimately lead only to continued decline and defeat.

In 2006, de jure (that is to say, legal) discrimination has been eliminated. The forms of de facto discrimination have altered and grown more subtle. The language of empowerment and equality is absorbed by mass culture, digested by Madison Avenue, and embarrassed by party opponents. Over 60% of women work, 52% of college graduates are women. Women have at last achieved the seniority and credentials to occupy an ever increasing percentage of seats at the power tables of business, government and academia. To take positions and employ rhetoric as if none of this has happened or has relevance because inequities remain, to continue to employ the same language and modes of analysis as if it were still 1966 and not 2006, is to invite disaster.

How can those who care to address the more sophisticated barriers to social equity when the rhetoric and analytic framework remains mired in an earlier era?

Consider the Halloween costume Op Ed I referenced at the beginning of this piece. Traditional feminist analysis starts with the objectification of women and how such corporate practices continue to promote an agenda that caters to male sexual fantasies. Maybe, but this doesn't get at why it is happening at all. It is, after all, women who buy these costumes. To imagine the sophisticated corporate sales campaigns that culminate in such a shift as a male conspiracy -- with no concomitant corporate strategy to separate men from their money -- is to remain hopelessly ineffective. Not only does such analysis ring false to the women willingly buying these costumes, but it misdirects any effort to get at the root causes of the problem.

Because profit-making firms don't give a damn about social values, accept to the extent they can manipulate them to sell products and gain efficiencies of scale for mass production. By this I do not mean to suggest that any incidental negative social consequences are somehow O.K. because "the market has decided." But to suggest that the companies that put these out there are doing so because some faceless collection of white male board members is trying to enslave women as sex toys is equally ridiculous.

To the contrary, the economic forces that drive Hollywood and Madison Avenue have responded enthusiastically to traditional feminism by repackaging it and selling it back -- with "enhancements" to get you to buy more products. You want positive strong role models for young girls? Behold Dora the explorer, Wild Thornberries, and -- for the older set -- Kim Possible. You want strong heroines on par with any action hero? We give you Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Aeon Fluxx, and a host of other women who "own their own sexuality" and routinely punch out evil sexist men.

Not that Hollywood dropped the "cheese cake" line of titillation -- that sells too. But it can be tweaked and adjusted and remarketed to make it palatable. Why not persuade women that dressing as a "sexy devil" or "sexy kitty" or whatever is a form of empowerment? It works to get 15 year old girls to buy midriff revealing outfits by the truckload. "Sexy devil" is just a natural form of line extension. And if enough people get offended, Madison Avenue come up with a new line of costumes to sell that embraces that "empowerment" too.

A failure by the Women's Movement (or any movement, for that matter) to reexamine its fundamental framework and vocabulary so that it once again serves the ideals of the movement would not start with a conclusion as to why there has been such a fundamental shift in the way products are marketed to women (and men) over the years. It would do as Friedan did -- try to go beyond surfaces and impacts and look instead to underlying causes. A movement that wants real changes cannot simply lament reality, or re-employ the usual explanations and villains. A movement that cares about making a difference in reality needs to figure out why things are as they are, and what are the pressure points and strategies that will move reality to "things as we want them to be."

That's hard work. But that is what Betty Friedan did, and why the movement she created had so much success for so long. There is, in my opinion at least, a desperate need for a true heir to Betty Friedan. A woman who will break the old framework and ideologies and provide a new framework and vocabulary for those who feel ill served by the current reality. Until that happens, all the New York Times op eds in the world will be worth no more than the paper they are printed on.

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