Three Who Made a Revolution | The Nation


Three Who Made a Revolution

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In The Feminine Mystique Friedan, who died earlier this year at age 85, described an array of nebulous social forces--women's magazines, Freudian psychology, politicians' speeches, advertising and more--pressuring and persuading women to be stay-at-home mothers, producing the baby boom and consuming household and beauty products and demeaning, demoralizing ideas about their capabilities. Her job was hardest of all, because these forces weren't technically coercive; to prove that they were, she had to argue against the powerful facade of contented domesticity, a facade not only men but many women were (and are) bent on preserving. Simply by demonstrating the forces that had pushed women back into the home after the war and into a more retrograde version of female identity, Friedan was digging deep and fighting hard; if her book now seems overly focused on middle-class married white women with kids, it carved out wholly new territory to think about what we might nowadays call the production of identity and the possibility of resistance.

About the Author

Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit is the author of fourteen books, including A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities...

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In many respects, The Feminine Mystique seems dated now. Friedan's background in psychology seems to have made her susceptible to a lot of the era's clucking over "delinquency," homosexuality, adultery and promiscuity, as though she were witnessing the first stirrings of what would become feminist and sexual revolutions without seeing the implications. Nor does she question the foundations (if not the delights) of marriage, affluence or suburbia. Still, there are fleeting moments when she recognizes the links between the "feminine mystique" and consumer capitalism, as in her observation that "in the suburbs where most hours of the day there are virtually no men at all...women who have no identity other than sex creatures must ultimately seek their reassurance through the possession of 'things.'"

Friedan's inchoate solution to "the problem that has no name" seems to be that these educated middle-class women need careers or some kind of intellectual stimulation, a solution far less profound than her analysis of the problem, and one that overlooked the women who were already invading politics. In The Feminine Mystique she said of the 1950s, "It was easier to look for Freudian sexual roots in man's behavior, his ideas, and his wars than to look critically at his society and act constructively to right its wrongs." Of course, Friedan would go on to think more radically about what women's lives could become and what we could change, and of course in writing for women's magazines and then taking up a five-year residence at the New York Public Library's Allen Room, where she wrote her landmark book, she was having more of a career than she let on--not to mention a history of youthful activism in left and labor politics that she seldom discussed.

Jacobs and Carson were also working--the former as an editor at Architectural Forum, the latter as an independent writer. Indeed, they and the WSP activists seem like the women Friedan imagined but did not actually portray in her book. Married with three children, Jacobs continued a professional life of writing, engaging in the world of ideas and, by the time her book appeared, fighting Robert Moses's plan to put an expressway through Greenwich Village's Washington Square. Indeed, she was able to shame the nation's anointed urbanist, Lewis Mumford, into supporting the cause, even though he had just patronized her book in The New Yorker as "Mother Jacobs's Home Remedies" and reduced her description of the rich social life an urbanite might experience on the street to "the little flirtations that season a housewife's day."

Sexism in those days went around undisguised; Time magazine, in the course of asserting that DDT posed no human health problems, brazenly portrayed "Miss Carson" as "hysterically overemphatic" with a "mystical attachment to the balance of nature," her book as an "emotional and inaccurate outburst." Carson, who never married but raised a couple of nieces and a great-nephew, had been a successful scientist and writer within the federal government before she became an independent full-time and bestselling author in 1952. Silent Spring was published in September 1962. The Cuban missile crisis began a month later, and for a while people in the United States thought they wouldn't have the luxury of dying slowly from chemicals, rather than suddenly from bombs.

A year earlier, the United States and the Soviet Union had decided to resume nuclear testing after an informal three-year moratorium. In response, six women met in Washington, DC, and began to organize what became, on November 1, 1961, a nationwide strike of tens of thousands of women in sixty cities across the country--mostly married-with-children middle-class white women whose radical potential would grow with the decade. The aboveground tests were already known to create radioactive clouds that drifted over the earth, dropping radioactive byproducts as they went. Strontium 90 was seeping into mother's milk and thereby into newborn children; the weapons that were supposed to protect civilians in case of an all-out war were routinely contaminating them. Using their status as middle-class moms as a shield, WSP activists plunged into the fray, taking risks no one else had dared, refusing to screen out potential communists and reaching out to women in the USSR. Within a couple of years, they had helped bring into being the Limited Test Ban Treaty (an achievement acknowledged by UN chief U Thant and President Kennedy) and made a mockery of HUAC's anticommunist inquisitions. In early 1964, they were among the first to oppose the Vietnam War.

Epochal insurrection was breaking out all over during what is often seen as the nation's most repressive era. The civil rights movement was in full swing (though the contributions of key players like Ella Baker and Rosa Parks would be marginalized and/or downplayed). In the 1950s the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis organized, respectively, gays and lesbians; the Daughters held their first national conference in San Francisco in 1960, the year students and labor protested HUAC's anti-educator hearings in that city in one of the first confrontations that looked like "the '60s." Tom Hayden spent the summer of 1960 with students in SLATE, the Berkeley student activists' organization, and brought what he learned back to Michigan and Students for a Democratic Society. The history of SDS is well-enough known at this point; that WSP was working side by side with SDS on antidraft and antiwar organizing has been airbrushed out of history's official portrait. But the later '60s only reaped what the more daring had sown at the beginning of the decade. And among the most visionary sowers were those women whose achievements as books and bans and changed roles are still here.

An e-mail arrived as I was finishing this essay, detailing the work of four or five women researching and deploying new bioremediation technologies in the cleanup of New Orleans' toxic residues. Based at the Common Ground community center, these women are scientists, environmentalists and urban activists all at once, and the e-mail goes on to describe them conferring while a young man reads a book to three girls in daycare. It's hard to imagine this guerrilla cleanup team now without Carson, Friedan and Jacobs then. "Only a book" is a popular epithet, implying that writing always takes place on the sidelines, but these three make it clear that books can change the world.

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