Betty Friedan:
issues without gender

A report by Tom Knapp,
March 1993

All issues are women's issues. All women's issues are men's issues. The barriers which once separated the feminist movement and the male hierarchy are falling.

Betty Friedan, a founder of the women's movement in the 1960s, said the battle no longer belongs in the bedroom. "We must get to the roots of the problem," she said. "I am tired of marching to take back the night."

Friedan, whose book The Feminine Mystique is credited with starting the modern women's movement 30 years ago, delivered a highly charged, highly political talk at Millersville (Pa.) University, where Friedan's energetic and rambling speech followed a ribbon-cutting ceremony opening the MU Women's Center.

Key issues facing women today include child care, health care, gun control and the economy, Friedan said. "If we cannot solve some of these problems, women's rights will not survive," she said. "One good child care center in a community is worth 10, 100 marches and slogans."

Friedan said the women's movement is at a "critical time." Although she congratulated Millersville on its progress, she said, "I hope you won't waste a lot of time meandering in the rhetoric of 20 years ago. In the last few years, it seems to me that the women's movement has undergone a transformation, sort of a paradigm shift that we're not all quite aware of yet. We can stop wallowing in the victim stage."

That's not to say oppression against women does not exist, she stressed. Women still do not have the right to make choices about their bodies, she said, citing as an example the recent murder of an abortion clinic doctor and the recent rash of violence against women and abortion clinics across the country. But the backward movement of the Reagan/Bush years seems to be at an end, she said. Friedan lauded President Clinton's commitment to social equity and family care as a step in the right direction "so we do not have to spend year after year after year marching for rights we thought we had won 20 years ago."

The new empowerment of women became highly visible in the political arena of 1992. Although Friedan is ecstatic about the number of women elected to the U.S. House and Senate, she bristles at the popular label "Year of the Woman."

"We don't like that phrase," she said. "That makes it sound like something that's going to go away, some little fad. Next year will be the Year of the Squirrel."

She also spoke about the early days of 20th century feminism. A 100-year battle for women's rights ended in the 1920s, she said, when women were given the right to vote. With that victory in hand, the majority of women returned to their homes and the daily concerns of pressing their husbands shirts, diapering the baby and keeping the sink sparkling white. "The image of the happy suburban housewife was everywhere," Friedan said. "The blinders had to come off to become aware of our own existence."

The return of women's issues to the political front in the 1960s carried its own problems, she said, some as basic as "Who's going to make dinner if we went off to Washington?"

The Commission on the Status of Women, created during the Kennedy administration, was floundering under President Johnson, Friedan said. Women were getting pats on the head and were sent home to the kitchens with little to show for their efforts. "Nobody wanted to rock the boat and everyone was very ladylike," she said of the early participants in the movement.

Full of humor and reminiscences, she rattled off the names, places and significant dates of the early days of the National Organization for Women, a group founded and named by Friedan as an "NAACP for women."

"We take for granted now the way things are," she said. It took 12 years of the Reagan/Bush era to ignite the fires again and make women angry with the establishment. "It was, 'Women, go home again,'" she said. Then came the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings and the testimony of Anita Hill. "The nation saw an all-male judiciary committee disgracing the United States government," Friedan said. "All the women across this country were saying, 'They just don't get it.'"

Although that led to vast political change in November 1992, Friedan said the battle is no longer women vs. men. "We don't need more empty rhetoric of sexual warfare," she said. "This is not a bedroom war and it will not be solved in the bedroom."

She said she doesn't know where women will be in the 21st century. "We can't be arrogant," Friedan said. "We move incrementally. But all that incremental movement has made a big change."

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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