Betty Friedan

Rethinking Feminism

VTR Date: March 13, 1982

Richard Heffner discusses feminism from a 1982 perspective with his friend Betty Friedan.


GUEST: Betty Friedan
VTR: 3/13/82

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And I admit that I have a very special stake in today’s program as well as in today’s guest. For a few years ago my wife wrote what I believe is a very special book entitled Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood After Freud and Feminism. And while it’s true that people like Margaret Meade considered it a wholesome antidote to the years of over permissiveness and of the rejection of motherhood, and Gail Sheehey saw it as a stirring call for the conservation of one of our most precious natural resources, the capacity to nurture, still the prevailing strong orthodox feminist rejection of motherhood, of family, as something of a male sexist trap, made my wife and her book seem to be somewhat previous. The case of premature mothering, so to speak. An old idea whose time perhaps had not yet come back. But that was before it promised to come back with a vengeance at the hands of one of the most extraordinary women of our times, of all times. Betty Friedan is an old friend. I said this would be a very special program for me. We met back in the 1960s while she was still researching the substance and then the impact of her now classic book, The Feminine Mystique. Well, so much has happened since then, and so much of it due to Betty Friedan’s brilliant capacity for both expressing and mobilizing the inchoate hopes and disappointments, the frustrations and then the rage of women who could find no satisfactory place for themselves in contemporary America. Nor did Betty Friedan just identify and write about these dissatisfactions. Rather, she helped organize women’s’ awareness of them into productive action and meaningful change. Change that has affected all of us to such an amazing degree. For no one has been more at the feminist barricades than Betty Friedan has.. And yet as she writes at the beginning of her provocative new Summit book, The Second Stage, she’s tired of the pragmatic, earthbound battles of the Women’s Movement, tired of rhetoric. As she writers, “I want to live the rest of my life”. But first Betty Friedan wants to introduce us to the Second Stage of her crusade for humanism, key to which is her statement that, “I think we must at least admit and begin openly”, she says, “to discuss feminist denial of the importance of family, of women’s own needs to give and get love and nurture, tender loving care”. Betty, I’m so glad that you’ve been able to join me again on The Open Mind. We met and talked many, many times. And I’m going to begin to say that your critics are now saying that, like this nation, Betty Friedan has simply turned conservative. And that’s what the second stage means. What do you say to that?

Friedan: No. they haven’t read the book. (Laughter) Read The Second Stage and you’ll see that that’s not quite it. There’s an evolution, an evolution. Not a going back. We can’t go back. What has happened as a result of the Women’s Movement, it’s too life-opening, life-affirming, and the very equality that we fought for and to some degree won is in danger now. And there are those who would push us back. But I feel it is urgent to realize that we are in a different place now. And there are new questions, new problems that we couldn’t even have foreseen until all that has happened, you know, in the last 50 years as a result of the Women’s Movement did happen. And we are now at a place, well, younger women especially who are living in terms of the movement that I helped start, there are new questions about the living of equality, and there are new questions about the saving of it.. And these questions, I feel, cannot be seen in terms of women alone, nor women against men, even though some of the focus had to be that way in the first stage. Now both women and men have a new stake in new, coming to new terms, new terms, not old ones, new terms about families and restructuring work.

Heffner: You know, I remember back many years ago now, we, you and I, were in a small cable television studio and there were a group of leaders in the Feminist Movement. And you used the word “humanism”. Even then you were not talking so much about feminism as you were talking about humanism. What’s happened to those women who, other women who were leaders in the feminist movement as you’ve raised the banner of humanism rather than the old feminism?

Friedan: Well, I think it isn’t quite correct to just say “humanism” either, because this is an evolution from feminism. But feminism is a very specific thing. You know, if you’ve read my book, The Second Stage, I talk almost as much about men this time as about women. And I do see that in the next stage, in the second stage, in the second stage, men, the consciousness that we concentrated so on women, women as a separate person or that the personage of the woman in the first stage, now men are having new yearnings, new problems that have no name, that bring them into quite a similar place to where women were, except that men are not going to have to march in the same sense, that men…

Heffner: Why not?

Friedan: Well, because it’s a different kind of, it’s not a battle in that sense. I mean, men had the power that everybody felt was, you know, the power, you know, the opportunities that were valued by society. But men were also locked into the masculine mystique. And men are now yearning for new values in life, and the sharing of the parenting, you see, the sharing of the parenting, the equal-opportunity parent, the co-parent, the new goodies that men are getting out of housework. It isn’t just because women have changed or women are forcing men to change. Men are moving to new values and new needs in their own lives that bring them to a place converging on where women are now, that makes it possible for us to think of getting the structural changes we need in the second stage, not by battles of women against men.

Heffner: Betty, is it impolitic in terms of the Women’s Movement for you to talk about humanism? Because you quickly said, “Something new, something different”.

Friedan: Well, because the humanism is that humanism, it’s too vague a term, you see. A lot of times it might have seemed quite specific. It is the second stage of that which began with the modern Women’s Movement, although in the second stage I think it’s going to be more than a Women’s Movement. But humanism is too large a term. I mean, I am talking about human liberation, yes, a stage in human liberation. But it’s a specific stage. It’s about very concrete problems that women and men have in their lives now as they make new choices about having kids, as they come up to new economic urgencies with inflation, as we come, well, men come up against a lot of this in middle life, and so it’s called midlife crisis. But for some men it’s beginning younger than midlife, and there’s things that I called about women nearly 20 years ago in The Feminine Mystique as the problem that has no name or she eats peanut butter sandwiches with her kids, is this all. Now men are asking, “is this all”? In some different way than the woman that has been too much concentrating on just career, as if all fulfillment could come from career in the last 20 years. And we may be short-sheeting her other needs that are also part of the personhood of women. Now, I see a lot of women, some in terms of belated choices to have children, some in terms of agonies over that choice, some in terms of just what else out there I really want, bringing the question of career, profession into some focus that isn’t’ the same as it’s been in the last ten years. You know, and the economic cuts across this. It’s a very…we’re in the second stage, whether we like it or not. Now the question is what do we do.

Heffner: For man, the problem that has no name, is this a function of feminism? Or, let me ask, to what extent is it a function of feminism?

Friedan: Only in part, only in part.

Heffner: Well, what part?

Friedan: Well, in some way, the women, like those men I review in my book, The Second Stage, he said, “For ten years now all we’ve been hearing now is women, women, women. What does it mean to be a woman? How does she prefer herself as a woman? Even make men talk about women”. And he said, “But what about me”? He said, “What is it. What do I have but my job?”. And you see, it isn’t such a good job, or he’s being laid off from that job. Or even if he’s made it, you know, the guy next door who’s lived his life with a corporation, the office next door for 20 years, suddenly the company’s reorganizing and out, or men, the men that are dying, you know? The heart attacks, the strokes in our age group or even younger ones, you know? The younger man says, “I don’t want to live my life just like that. I want some new life”. He says it for his own reasons also in response to what’s happening with women. In other words, once women really began to ask questions about their lives, are men just going to take unquestioned that being strapped to that very macho kind of image where he’s defined just as a breadwinner? He doesn’t want to be just a breadwinner anymore. So also in response to reality where he has to share the parenting more, if they have a kid it’s his choice now in a way it never was before as well as hers, because he’s got to share the responsibility. He’s finding some goodies in that. Now, part of that is in response to what’s happening to women. The woman is sharing the earning. It’s necessary that the husband share more with the parenting. But then new goodies emerge. And so now you see that, I mean it isn’t just an accident that movies like Kramer vs. Kramer were such a hit. And if you name anybody mothering today, she might say parenting, or mothering-fathering or something like that.

Heffner: Well of course, I always raise the question, why didn’t she talk about mothering as well as fathering, or the other way, fathering as well as mothering. But that was a function of her sense that there is something special to mothering. And as I read The Second Stage, I must say, I felt that you were saying that there was something especially feminine to mothering. Not true? Just parenting.

Friedan: I feel that the two things that we’re going to be very conscious of in the second stage, that it is now a choice to have children, in a way that’s going to make that a…I mean, for instance, I think some of them are talking about a new baby boom in the 80s, but I don’t know if it’s a new baby boom. But I certainly do see a lot of women that are not very young, they’re in their mid-thirties or their late thirties, choosing in a very definite, desirous, responsible way, after maybe some conflicts or postponing it a lot, choosing to have kids. I see men entering in on that choice with a whole new consciousness that he never had before. And I see the younger ones moving into this too, in a different way than before. Now, I think that mothering, nurturing, all that, not necessarily as a biological instinct, although there is a biology there. But that has been so basic in the identity of women. But if we deny that value, although we must express it these days, and in our total long lifespan, in ways other than just having our own children, but if we deny that importance of that value, we do deny part of our personhood as women. And I am not going to say that the experience of mothering is precisely the same as the experience of fathering. But I also feel that there’s a lot of it that is the same in that as men are really allowed to or must in a way or wish to really equally share even from the delivery room to the paternity leave, which is a whole new demand now that men are having, that they share the experiences of parenting from the earliest years instead of being pushed aside when the baby comes, and then there is that duel, the mother and the baby and the father was pushed aside. Now the father is sharing more of it. The experiences, the abilities, the sensitivities that are going to come out in men from that sharing of the nurture could be enormously important and have great side effects to do with our approach to politics, you know, even war and peace.

Heffner: With someone else I’d be afraid to be hoist on the notion that biology is destiny. But I’m not afraid of that with you. It seems to me though that we’re going to have a very strange situation here in which, as you say, men become more conscious of choices that they can make. Yet biology to a certain extent is destiny because so many young women are finding that there is a limit to the choice they can make, a chronological limit. Not true with men.

Friedan: Absolutely. The biological clock. It’s true. There are realities. You know, the Women’s Movement, the mainstream feminists, we didn’t, we all of us were aware, the mainstream feminists, of our own family, we knew from those roots. Our focus was different in the first stage. Our focus had to be on the barriers in employment and all. And where arguments about biology and so on were used to somehow justify denying women equal opportunity, we could have no, you know, we wouldn’t allow that to happen and we still wouldn’t. But I don’t think there is, I think that the power of this wish, the need to have children, I don’t know. Does it come from biology? Does it come from all the generations of where that has been the identity of women? All I know is that motherhood has been a very powerful value in my life. My life would have been much the poorer if I hadn’t had it. I welcome the fact that I’m going to be a grandmother in a few months.

Heffner: Congratulations.

Friedan: And I am delighted. I feel a very strong sense of the generation moves on. And I’m going to get a big kick out of seeing my son and my daughter-in-law as parents, and then I hope my daughter. And so I think there is such a powerful part of human life there that what, that the thing is that motherhood and parenting and the whole thing is different now with the new economic situation, and our new awareness of the total personhood of women. In other words, we’re arriving. You know, some of the young women in the first stage would say, “I’m not going to be trapped the way my mother was trapped. You know, I’m not going to be trapped the way my mother was trapped. There really isn’t that much security in marriage, so I’m going to put it all in profession and career.”. it was absolutely right that her need for professional training and really right of the Women’s Movement to put her absolute emphasis on breaking through the barriers that kept women from moving as people in society, breaking through sex discrimination. And we are right now to be putting this great priority on getting the Equal Rights Amendment, because the very laws that are protecting women against such discrimination are being gutted. And the Reagan administration says not to enforce them. But when women are able to earn, when women have a new self-respect as persons that came from all these events of the Women’s Movement, and when they are taken with new seriousness as people, then they can choose motherhood and find themselves as mothers without, hopefully without the martyrdom or the sense of being trapped or having to pay too great a price. But there is unfinished business here. We have to get things like maternity and paternity leave. We have to get maybe a voucher system for childcare. We have to get new time arrangements, flextime and so on. We are not going to get those for women alone. That would only be an excuse not to hire women. But there were, are new need of men that those things would fill.

Heffner: You know, you talk about new needs of men. And I think about the new burdens of women, because there have been those, you in your new book point out, Second Stage, that there was a concern that women are beginning to experience the downside of the masculine mystique. They’re beginning to suffer physically, and presumably emotionally. And I wonder whether it’s possible that we have moved too far.

Friedan: Well now wait a minute. I think that if women, what I say in the book is if women too literally copy the male pattern, which men are finding a killing pattern, which…

Heffner: Why?

Friedan: You know, the type A, type B, the stress pattern. So men are learning things about that. Men, if women, and there was a period for a stage where dress for success, assertiveness training, too much, you know, copy, you know, the male pattern. And I think it’s a reaction against the feminine mystique, maybe a little leaning over too much backward. But women were denying, maybe forfeit some of their own strengths, you know, as women. But they wouldn’t get into precisely the same trap men get in. the superwoman trap that a lot of women are in today is in a certain sense even worse than the male trap in the sense that in the office she’s competing, as she must, to be a success in the job world according to standards that were set in terms of men. They have wives to take care of all the details of life. And also standards set when men had to find their whole identity by beating that competitive rat race. At the same time, she isn’t that sure of herself yet. So she may feel she has to do twice as good at it. She goes home and she is still taking on herself in the old way, running a full stage home, if you will, terms of the standards of the past where women had to play their whole part, their whole status, their whole identify in the perfectly run home, the perfectly controlled children, because they had no control over their life in the larger sense, because they had no power in the society as well. Now, if she tries to add one on top of the other, she has to be superwoman, and a very tired superwoman, or she falls into this either/or, the either/or trap, which is no-win. And so what I’m saying is these are new problems. We just have to realize in the second stage we have to work at the tradeoffs a little more clearly, both in terms of people’s personal lives, women and men, and also in terms of new kinds of solutions we need, new standards for instance, new standards about childcare, new arrangements, maybe even new architecture. So many people say that they liked my book, The Second Stage, my thoughts about the whole question of how we would organize our very houses, you know, and what some new things that we need there. Well, we don’t have to be, why do we have to be superwomen? I don’t think we have to be superwomen in the old sense. And as women in the second stage begin to get more and more really confident about themselves as people, they will begin to use the strengths that came from the part of their experience that they have had strengths as women. Maybe these strengths come out of it from the closeness to life that women have been, but I see women now, I mean, I was just on my book tour for The Second Stage in Texas and in Georgia, where the traveling salesmen were always men, and the sales rep this time were women. Terrific young women in their, oh, I figure their early thirties. I love to watch the way those women did this sales rep, the traveling salesman bit if you will. They didn’t’ do it a bit the way the men did. But they were so clearly had their own flavor, their own style, their own strengths. And they were so good that, and you know, it isn’t that I’m trying to make a new feminine mystique, because I’m not. I think that there have been experiences and qualities that women have had that now that we have demanded our equality and asserted our personhood as women, and we are now able to have a certain amount of psychic and economic independence, now we can put some real value not only on sharing the power that men have had, but on the power that used to be allocated to women. And men at the same time are going to put new values on those experiences and power, and men are going to gain new sensitivities and new strengths as they share, for instance, the parenting.

Heffner: Then of course there is the professional woman I know who says that what every woman needs is a good wife.

Friedan: Yes, I know, that kind of joke. But you know what, I don’t think any of us, I mean that’s a nice fantasy…

Heffner: It’s not a joke.

Friedan: yes I know. But I’ve heard women say that. Sometimes you feel it yourself. But I don’t think any of us are going to have that sort of full-time, all…

Heffner: All-serving…

Friedan: …all serving same life anymore. And I don’t think that it’s the, what do you call it, role reversal, the house spouse is going to work either. What I think here is that we are going to work out new tradeoffs, much more flexibility of patterns. I think that if they can afford it and choose to, one or both could take reduced work schedule outside the home and concentrate more in the home when the children are little. That would be fine. They don’t have that economic choice, most people, now. But I think even in our dealing with each other, women and men, the new tradeoffs that are going to come in the new marriages will not be, they will be much more various than before. I mean, it won’t be always with a yardstick measured 50/50. It will be 40/60, 30/70…

Heffner: But wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute, Betty. Fifty-fifty is something of this generation.

Friedan: Right.

Heffner: The 50/50 is the feminist movement.

Friedan: Yeah, and I think that 50/50 is a very good ideal. It is a very good ideal. But I think that as we begin to move from all of our strengths we are going to put values not only in terms of the previous male yardstick, but whole new values are the experiences that used to be monopolized by the female and now they will not be. And so the tradeoff of that,women and men in any given family will not be the same this month as next year, and will not be the same from family A to family B. in other words, we’re going to have much more flexible, diverse patterns and tradeoffs. Now we’re having a new pattern where women are having their kids much later in the late 30s, even their 40s. There are some great values to that pattern after she’s already started her profession. On the other hand, I can see that…I don’t want to wait that long, or a young man who, on my recent trip, he said to me, “Listen, I’ve been reading your book, The Second Stage, and these are my problems you’re talking about”. He said, “My wife just graduated from law school and she’s got a terrific job in a law firm. But the problem is that I want to have kids when I’m young enough to play ball with them”. So I said, “Well, what’s the problem? You want her to quit her new law job and stay home and take care of kids?” “Absolutely not”, he said, ‘ “That would be inconceivable to me, as well as to her because, “he said, “I want to be a writer. And as soon as I can I want to quit my job and really work seriously at my writing. And it’s absolutely essential to me that she has this job in the law firm. But, “he said, “I’d like to have kids while I’m young enough to play ball with them. And she says the way her job is, the way her office is, in her profession she can’t even consider it for ten years”. Now, you see, it’s his question as well as her question. It’s his, if he has this vital feeling that, men were never conscious of that much before. They didn’t have to be. I want to have kids when I’m young enough to play ball with them. Then he’s got to consider things like paternity leave, and he’s got to see to it, help her, join her in getting job restructuring for her. They both have to work out and get through the unions, through their organizations.

Heffner: Betty, I understand it. I also know that I’m being given a time signal. We just have a couple of minutes left. And I don’t want you to leave this table before I ask you more about the politics of this situation within the Feminist Movement. What’s happening?

Friedan: Well, the…

Heffner: Just between us.

Friedan: The Feminist Movement at this moment, and me, myself and I in my capacity, I’m on the barricade which I still am on, that great priority is the Equal Rights Amendment. And that has to be…

Heffner: That I understand. But let’s go beyond that. Let’s go to the position you’re taking. How accepted is it?

Friedan: Well, I think that this is consciousness we’re talking about here, new consciousness. As I go around the country I meet, for instance, younger NOW leaders, women in their 30s, women who are dealing with these questions.

Heffner: The National Organization of Women.

Friedan: Yeah, right. I mean, there’s a wonderful young NOW leader in San Diego. She had just helped me to battle for not just equal pay for equal work, but equal pay for work of comparable value so some of the work that women has done is going to get paid not just at the lowest level the way it was before, but paid at least as much as a garbage collector and so on. But she had decided she wanted to have a kid before it was too late, and she was, we both hoped that this would happen for her within this year. And she said, “But you’re talking about my life. You’re talking about the question that I’m dealing with”. These are the questions that women today, young and not so young, whether they call themselves feminists or not, are dealing with in their lives. So where you find, and so I find great response to the things I raise in The Second Stage from women and men in their 30s, in their 20s, and some in their 40s too. Now, there are a few feminists – I don’t know how many there are – who seem to be very threatened by these new questions. And they don’t want to really deal with the questions I raise. It’s as if they’re locked into a first-stage reaction. And if you say, “Well, we must deal with new patterns of putting together, say, motherhood and the choice to have children with work and so on,” as if, if they give an inch to these softer needs, they lose the whole ballgame. And I think we must move onto these new questions and we don’t have to be afraid or so defensive.

Heffner: (Laughter) Next time we’re going to talk about that ballgame. Thanks so much for joining me today, Betty Friedan. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; the Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A Wein; and the New York Times Company Foundation.