Betty Friedan. (Flickr)
I’ve been reading all the press surrounding the fiftieth anniversary of the Feminine Mystique. Not a piece goes by without mention that by all accounts Betty Friedan was not a particularly likable woman. That is not revisionism; people have been snickering about Friedan’s flyaways and outfits since her heyday, of course. All the way back in the early 1970s Nora Ephron was making light of Friedan in Esquire for despising Gloria Steinem, aping a jealous inner monologue: “It’s her baby, damn it. Her movement. Is she supposed to sit still and let a beautiful thin lady run off with it?” I come to you not so much to knock over that stereotype—to be honest, Friedan does seem a little unpleasant, what with her whole suspicion of the lavender menace and all—as to wonder whether we need to keep framing these things with the slight note of apology we do. Friedan was more of a woman behind the curtain than Glinda the Good Witch, sure, but how much longer are we going to hold women to the goalpost-shifting “likability” standard?
More disturbing than the criticism of Friedan herself is the way it has leaked into discussion of her book. I have been told by more than six or seven youngish writers on women and culture that they’ve never read it. I confess myself that I might not have were it not for the intervention of an undergraduate class on the cultural history of the Cold War. Some of that has to do with the unfashionability of the second wave, these days. It’s a bizarre feature of modern “young” feminism—the third or fourth wave—that even as we say that we are not like our forebears, further inquiry reveals near-total ignorance of what those forbears actually did, or said, or wrote.
Yet even for slightly older generation, the theme of these pieces revisiting the book is surprise. For them the distance between modern feminist sensibilities and Friedan’s is anger. Gail Collins, writing the introduction (excerpted a couple of weeks ago in The New York Times Magazine), summed it up as “a very specific cry of rage.” At NPR, Slate’s Hanna Rosin, speaking for the class, I suppose, is quoted as saying that, “We don’t write with that kind of anger and rage anymore.” And of course I understands that neither Rosin nor Collins meant to diminish The Feminine Mystique with this observation. And yet I kept wondering, wherever I encountered the observation, whether it wasn’t a problem that female anger still had the power to startle us into remarking on it.
No one disputes that the vision that Friedan offered was “privileged,” and that the professional success of a certain kind of woman—one with a college degree and an eye on a co-op in Brooklyn Heights—has received disproportionate attention ever since. But if anything, the one part of her book that had potential for universal resonance was precisely the anger. It is an angry-making thing to live in a society that systematically excludes you from power, whatever the basis for it. Even now, in our “enlightened” age, it is an angry-making thing to listen to Republican politicians make idiotic comments about rape. And if there is a time and place where anger not only can and ought to be expressed, it ought to be in polemics about inequality, no?
And yet these days we feel such pressure to be polite about these things. Everything must be presented in measured terms. And while we insist on that, the marginalized people, who need better policies and laws, who need, simply, to be heard, have to seethe quietly in rooms by themselves. I don’t know about you, but personally I’d prefer to hear their versions of The Feminine Mystique. I’d rather they start the same kind of avalanche, with their angry yelling, than be told they have to be polite and “likable” to get any traction.
Jessica Valenti calls for anger—or, rather, the truth—in the case of Olympian-turned-murderer Oscar Pistorius.