Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1862
Contemporary feminism is sometimes said to have begun with the publication in 1963 of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. In that book, Friedan described for American women “the problem that has no name” and brought to popular consciousness the necessity for changes in women’s roles, rights, and responsibilities. Since 1963, Friedan has been among the most visible of women activists. Founder and first president of the National Organization for Women, she also helped to form the National Women’s Political Caucus, and for the last two decades she has lectured and published widely on women’s issues. Friedan’s stature as a feminist and her intimate acquaintance with the movement’s history make her most recent book, The Second Stage, a highly significant and credible one. Friedan’s involvement in the issues she discusses is such that her book cannot be ignored, whether one agrees with its conclusions or not.
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It is no wonder that some of Friedan’s sisters have attacked The Second Stage for its betrayal of feminist solidarity. The book’s thesis is that the women’s movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s has run its course, that feminism is inadequate for the needs of the 1980’s, and that the sex-role revolution has already entered a new phase. Throughout the presentation of this important thesis, the reader cannot help wishing that some energetic editor had given Friedan’s prolix sentences more force and had insisted on footnotes, or at least a bibliography. Friedan divides her argument into two parts, each five chapters long. The first part, called “End of the Beginning,” is by far the more persuasive section. It is here that she discusses the replacement of the feminine mystique with a “feminist mystique,” which she connects with the media-encouraged bra-burning image of such groups as SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) and of such individuals as Mary Daly, Kate Millet, and Shulamith Firestone. Friedan argues that the analogies constructed by these theorists—analogies between class warfare and racial oppression on the one hand, and, on the other, the oppression of women by men—were far too rigid. By insisting so fervently on the classist-racist-sexist analogies, Friedan says, the most radical feminists failed to account for the distinctiveness of female experience.
An equally serious consequence of their rigidity is the antifeminist reaction represented by such individuals as Phyllis Schlafly and by such groups as the Moral Majority. Pointing out that the issues which have most fundamentally divided feminists and antifeminists concern the family, Friedan claims, in her third chapter, that the family must be the “New Feminist Frontier.” In this chapter she explicitly rejects the careerist, antimale, antifamily stance associated with radical feminism and asserts that the full personhood of women must include both work and love:
Personal choices and political strategies of women today are distorted when they deny the reality of both sets of needs: women’s need for power, identity, status and security through her own work or action in society, which the reactionary enemies of feminism deny; and the need for love and identity, status, security and generation through marriage, children, home, the family, which those feminists still locked in their own extreme reaction deny. Both sets of needs are essential to women, and to the evolving human condition.
Friedan recognizes that if women are to become fully human, then men must change as well; in Chapter 4 she discusses “The Quiet Movement of American Men” toward expression of those “soft,” “messy” feelings and needs that have traditionally been reserved for women. The book’s first section closes with a description of the effects of admitting women to the United States Military Academy. One cannot help remembering Virginia Woolf’s exploration, in Three Guineas (1938), of the links between machismo and militarism as one reads Friedan’s account of her visits to West Point, her talks with female and male cadets, and her sessions with army “warriors” and with a new generation of officers who see weaknesses in the John Wayne style of military training and authority.
The five chapters which make up “End of the Beginning” deal with the immediate past. Never forgetting for long the feminist credo that the personal is the political, Friedan supports her analysis with interviews, conversations, and personal experiences, as well as with statistics and psychological and sociological studies. When she turns to the second part of her argument, however, called “The Second Stage,” she writes with less authority. In this second part, Friedan apparently intends to speculate about what is to come, but Chapter 6 concerns the role played by women in the 1980 presidential election and the international women’s meetings in Mexico City and Copenhagen. Friedan then moves rather abruptly to an account of a study conducted in 1979 by researchers at the University of Michigan. Called “Juggling Contradictions: Women’s Ideas About Families,” the study suggests that in their personal lives most women are able to reconcile the ideological conflict between family and equality, between love and work, even though in the political arena that same conflict has led to extreme polarization between those who call themselves feminists and those who claim to be pro-family.
On the basis of the Michigan study, Friedan concludes that the antagonism between these two factions is false: “There are not two kinds of women in America,” she says; “that ideological split is continually being resolved in real life by juggling and rationalizing of new necessities in traditional terms, and old necessities in feminist terms. . . .” This is important news indeed, but it seems badly placed in the future-oriented second section of Friedan’s argument. In Chapter 7, Friedan describes two leadership styles, Alpha and Beta. Alpha leadership is analytical, rational, quantitative, abstract, direct, and aggressive; it is, in other words, stereotypically “masculine.” Beta-style leadership is, by contrast, stereotypically “feminine”; it is affirming, receptive, generative, integrative, intuitive, relational, qualitative. Friedan predicts that Beta-style leadership will be more highly valued in the future than it has been in the past and observes that “evolution itself . . . seems to be moving in what might be called a ’feminine’ direction.” She then says that in the future both women and men will seek not only flexible work hours but also flexible definitions of career “success” so that both parents can be more fully involved in the processes and responsibilities of child care. A necessary corollary to such changes would be changes in the physical structures in which people live. Drawing heavily on Dolores Hayden’s The Grand Domestic Revolution—A History of Feminist Design for American Homes, Neighborhoods and Cities (1981), Friedan discusses such practical arrangements of physical space as community kitchens, dining rooms, and nurseries, combined, on the Swedish model, with private living and sleeping areas.
The concluding chapter of the section and the book warns that extreme polarization of sex roles breeds an obsession with sex as “dirty” and contributes to social violence. In this part of her discussion, Friedan lapses annoyingly into the abstract jargon of psychological-metaphysical speculation. The final chapter also reiterates an earlier warning that discussions of sexual preference are best confined to the private sphere, a view that has, understandably, not endeared Friedan to those feminists who have politicized their lesbianism. These warnings are as close to practical advice as Friedan comes in her effort to shape a “human politics” that will go beyond “sexual politics.”
Of course, it is never as easy to predict the future as it is to understand the mistakes of the past. Friedan is at her best when she argues that the most serious weaknesses of contemporary feminism have been its failure to articulate its clear claim to issues involving the family, and its failure to raise those issues in ways that would draw broad support. Friedan suggests, for example, that it makes better political sense to advocate the “choice to have children” than to call for “free abortion on demand.” She is also persuasive when she argues that for women and men simply to reverse confining roles is an inadequate solution to the problem of sexual inequality. Another inadequate solution which Friedan deals with in painfully convincing detail is that undertaken by the “superwoman” who feels she must meet two standards of perfection: the standard set by the perfect housewife-mother who does not work outside the home, and the standard set by the successful male professional who has a wife to take care of the details of home and family. Friedan points to psychological studies which reveal that women in their twenties and thirties report a high incidence of stress; the conflicts and choices faced by such women, to whom Friedan frequently refers as “our daughters,” are presented with all the urgency that characterizes these conflicts in real life. Rejecting both role reversal and feminine machismo, Friedan clearly sees that true sexual equality depends on fundamental changes in social and economic institutions.
Her optimism about the likelihood of these changes actually occurring in the Second Stage seems to arise from the fact that she herself has so thoroughly experienced the First Stage. Friedan generalizes too hastily from her own experience, putting the matter in familiar dialectical terms: Americans have lived through thesis (the feminine mystique) and antithesis (feminism); now they are ready for a synthesis forged from the polarized opposites of love and work, a polarization that rigid sex-role stereotyping has forced on women and men alike. Certainly Friedan’s own efforts to contribute to the forging of such a synthesis are admirable, but what of those women who have yet to come to an understanding of their shared history as women and who have yet to experience legitimate anger about male dominance? Friedan would probably dismiss such feelings as “an acting out of rage that [doesn’t] really change anything,” but she cannot dismiss the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, the wage gap between women and men, or the conservatism of a federal administration in which few women hold high positions and which has made clear that it will not enforce affirmative action guidelines. Neither can she dismiss the fact that few corporations offer the sort of flexibility in maternity and paternity leaves and in career planning that would allow the Second Stage to become a reality for families.
Because Friedan does not take sufficiently into account all these and other indications that for many Americans the First Stage has scarcely begun, one has difficulty sharing her optimism about the Second Stage, as much as one might like to do so. Perhaps in twenty years it will be possible to view The Second Stage as a prophetic book with the importance now assigned to The Feminine Mystique. In the meantime, those who support the sex-role revolution would do well to cultivate a strong feminist awareness, while at the same time working toward the sort of synthesis proposed by Friedan. After all, just as extremism makes moderation possible, and just as a perspective on the past is essential to the meaningful living of the present and to intelligent planning for the future, so antithesis and synthesis may well have to exist side by side until that glorious day when women and men can claim true equality and full humanity.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 51
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