Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Anti-Feminist Mystique?

I think I must be the worst feminist journalist/blogger in the world, or at least the country.

It’s tempting to pretend that I was just too cool to write about 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique’s publication, but the truth is I had no idea.  I somehow managed to get left off the list for review copies of the reissued volume, no one invited me to be on a panel on its impact, and goddess knows my friends weren’t talking about it.

In fact, the date might have slipped by me altogether if I hadn’t bought a Kindle last week and celebrated by spending even more money on a subscription to the New York Times.  So yesterday, on my way to work, I read an article by Janet Maslin reflecting on the book’s impact, and it had links to a piece that had appeared a couple days earlier and that referred to another piece – you get the picture.

Everyone, it seems, was celebrating this momentous day except for contemporary feminist activists.  Amitai Etzioni diaried (is that a word? Why not if “diarist” is?) about it on The Daily Kos.  Historian Peter Dreier wrote about it on The Huffington Post and Truth Out.  New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Gail Collins, who wrote the introduction to the 50th Anniversary edition, hosted a video round table and gave an interview to The Atlantic.  (The Atlantic, incidentally, has had no less than six articles about the book in the last few months, most by men and fairly uncharitable).  Third-wave feminist Kathleen Parker wrote a snotty “Who needs it?” column in The Washington Post.

So what’s left to say?  Not too much except that:

(1) A surprising number of the major pieces were written by men, and many of the ones by women – especially the hostile ones  – mainly quote men;

(2) Nearly all the comments on the aforementioned video debate – which is highly entertaining and I recommend it – are by irate men who clearly have not read the book but think they know what it says;

(3) It’s amazing how much outrage the book still provokes – again, mostly by people who never read it, as Stephanie Coontz documented in her book A Strange Stirring; and

(4) People are, as always, quick to condemn prominent feminists where they would be more forgiving of almost any other icon who was but a product of her time.

I only saw Friedan in the flesh once.  She came to speak at my college.  All the feminists on campus were there.  A Black woman – that’s how they identified then -- got up and asked a question, I don’t remember exactly what it was but basically she was taking Friedan to task for ignoring the specific oppressions of women of color and poor women.  Friedan reacted like a skunk whose tail had been stepped on.   

“Don’t make me the enemy,” she screamed. 

 The woman she was screaming at, a friend of mine, ran out of the room in tears, followed by other Black women who gathered around her.  I and some of their other white friends followed.

“That’s why we’re not in the movement,” I heard one Black woman say to the woman who’d been the target of Friedan’s venom.

I was so humiliated.  I couldn’t believe she’d done that – this woman that we all looked up to.  It was just a terrible day all the way around.  It was doubly shocking because obviously that wasn’t the first time Friedan had been challenged on racism.  It’s kind of like how angry Bill Clinton used to get when feminists criticized his policies or his mediocre record on appointing women to high positions.  You always think that years of being publicly criticized would make people grow a tougher skin – or maybe even be able to listen and hear what people are saying.

Given that experience, it’s surprising that I feel like defending Friedan now.  Or maybe it’s not.  Maybe I’m remembering times when I didn’t behave well in public.  Or maybe I’m thinking ahead to a time when something I did or said that seemed groundbreaking is going to seem antiquated and even counterrevolutionary.

Either way, it’s hard not to scream when I read something like Ashley Fetters’ “4 Big Problems with The Feminine Mystique,” in The Atlantic.  Fetters begins with “It’s racist. And it’s classist.” (quoting the estimable bell hooks for the specifics) but quickly moves on to quote biographer Daniel Horowitz to support the claim that, “It’s founded on a lie.” The lie in question is Friedan’s choice to deny her past as a union organizer and “radical leftist” (Horowtiz’s phrase).  So are we supposed to disrespect Friedan because she was concerned about working class women, or because she wasn’t?  Or are we just supposed to disrespect her -- because?

(Because I know how very interested you are in the minutiae of my life, let me just mention that this is the first blog post I've been able to do completely from home, having finally gotten my place wired on Saturday.  It's fabulous.)

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