What Betty Friedan Saw Coming

The biggest threat today, for women and men, is the unrelenting demand of the workplace

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Betty Friedan, a founding member of NOW (the National Organization of Women) and author of The Feminine Mystique, in 1970.

When Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique — the now classic book that turns 50 next week and is generally credited with launching the modern women’s movement in America — unmarried women in more than half of the U.S. weren’t allowed access to contraception. Married women in some states couldn’t sit on juries, get a job without their husband’s permission or keep control of their property and earnings.

Today that world seems almost quaintly remote: an exotic, long-lost era we revisit with love-hate fascination by watching Mad Men. The “happy housewife heroines” of those years are grandmothers now, and a great many, having found new lives beyond their homes in the 1970s (whether by choice or necessity), bear little resemblance to the “sweet, simpering and sort of stupid” femininity that Friedan once described as the ideal of her day.

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And yet, as Friedan herself knew full well and wrote and said countless times before her death in 2007, the revolution she championed for women — and for men, she would undoubtedly interject — is only partly accomplished. Over the past half-century, women left their homes and marched into the workplace. They left the secretarial pool to become Secretaries of State, Supreme Court Justices, astronauts and more recently combat soldiers. They now earn not only more college degrees but more advanced degrees than men, and they make up half of the U.S. workforce.

But this flowering of female potential in the world of work and economic self-empowerment was only part of what Friedan envisioned when she dreamed of a day when women would reach their “full human potential.” She understood that work — with the mental engagement, self-empowerment and sense of autonomy and accomplishment that it brings — is only part of what goes into being fully human. We, men and women alike, to paraphrase Freud, to whose legacy The Feminine Mystique is deeply (and often regrettably) indebted, also have to love. We exist in a web of relationships that require time and care and nurture. And when it comes to achieving the goal of allowing everyone to create a fully realized human existence, we have miserably failed as a society over the past 50 years.

The inhuman pace of American family life today is not at all what Friedan had in mind when she wrote of the need “to change the rules of the game to restructure professions, marriage, the family, the home.” We work more hours than anyone else in the industrialized world, whether because of the high demands of upper-middle-class extreme jobs or the need of low-wage workers to hold down multiple jobs in order to keep their family afloat. Those of us fortunate enough to have vacation days don’t take them. Fueled by the fear of losing our jobs, we jump to the demands of the 24/7 economy, leaving no off-the-clock respite from work. Having a home that feels like home — a place where you relax and connect with your loved ones — is an increasingly rare occurrence, a luxury item we glimpse in the pages of shelter magazines. Reality, for most families, is a crazy treadmill of getting by.

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This is to a large degree about policy. Unlike the rest of the developed world, we’ve never adopted measures like paid family leave or benefits-guaranteed workplace flexibility to try to make work and family more compatible. It’s partly about our national ethos of valuing moneymaking over care, and it’s partly about the fear that after decades of stagnating wages and rising costs in health, housing and education, we’ll see our families fall fatally behind.

Friedan saw this coming. In 1997, reflecting back and thinking forward, she predicted that the greatest threat to the unfolding future of the women’s movement wouldn’t be age-old sexism, persistent stereotypes, gender expectations or unfairly shared caretaking duties. Those would be impediments, but the larger danger would be the tilt in our national values that occurred in the last decades of the 20th century: “the culture of corporate greed,” the downsizing and downgrading of formerly solid middle-class jobs and “the sharply increased income inequality between the very rich … and the rest of us, women and men.”  She worried that the increasing difficulty of the lives of all but the richest men would fuel a backlash and make “scapegoats of women again.”

Whether the popular (and much contested) “End of Men” narrative is a sign of that backlash remains to be seen. Yet I feel hopeful, for now, that the callousness with which American working people have been left to their own devices to balance the unbalanceable demands of work and family has actually brought men and women closer together. (Indeed, men now report more work-family conflict than women do.) The fact, for example, that the need for a solution to the disaster of American childcare made it into this week’s State of the Union address indicates just how much the unfinished business of the women’s movement has become everyone’s business, a matter of economic policy, of real political concern.

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If only we had a voice like Friedan’s now to raise the national consciousness, to translate the “strange stirring … sense of dissatisfaction … yearning” and sense of struggle felt by both men and women into a rousing demand for change. We need “a vision of what life should be like,” as Vicki Shabo, the National Partnership for Women & Families’ director of work and family programs, recently put it to me. Looking to the past won’t give us a workable model. It’s time to find a new set of answers to Friedan’s silent question: Is this all?

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