Yester evening, as I entered the apartment loaded with groceries, Bill, who was supposedly “working” looked up from his laptop and laughed.
“The irony of it. That you should go get groceries while I am sitting at home reading this.”
“Betty Friedan passed away, the Times reports.”
Books change lives. Remember that Ayn Rand-quoting misanthrope you used to know in school? Or that Sartre-reading existentialist who kept raving about how meaningless life was? But how many books can you think of that changed not just a few lives but the whole world? Books that questioned an entire generation’s attitude to life and their place in society, books that transformed the world as we knew it to be.
Rousseau’s The Social Contract heavily influenced the protagonists of the French Revolution and the American War of Independence, two events which changed the course of history. Marx’s Das Kapital reverberates in various parts of the world even today. Einstein’s essays on Relativity changed the way we looked at the physical universe. And more recently, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (along with Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex) changed the fabric of Western society and inspired women’s movements on the other side of the globe. I read The Feminine Mystique when I was 19 and I was completely captivated by what she called “the problem with no name”. She wrote:
"The problem that has no name — which is simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities — is taking a far greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any known disease."
Her emphasis might have been on middle-class, suburban American women but there was no doubt in my mind that it applied to women everywhere. I grew up in a place where gender inequality is very much institutionalized and rarely questioned. In classrooms and playgrounds, when you are not “allowed” to do certain things or play certain games, when you need to be more “protected” from the world, when you are “pushed” towards certain professions, when you learn to carry safety pins and chilli powder in your purses, in movies where the women are a “commodity”, at work when you have to work twice as hard and still don’t make the cut, and most of all, at home where your worth is measured by your ability to cook and clean, to bear and bring up children. That I was brought up in a “liberated” household is hardly the point; the biases of the society always wield an unconscious influence in every home, admit it or not. And every single time that happened to me or to anyone I know, I would remember Friedan:
“Experts told them how to catch a man and keep him, how to breastfeed children and handle their toilet training, how to cope with sibling rivalry and adolescent rebellion; how to buy a dishwasher, bake bread, cook gourmet snails, and build a swimming pool with their own hands; how to dress, look, and act more feminine and make marriage more exciting; how to keep their husbands from dying young and their sons from growing into delinquents. They were taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents. They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights -- the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists fought for.”
And today, as I read the news of Friedan’s death, its very humbling to remember that the many things that I take for granted here in the country that has been my home for the past five years – equal rights, equal pay, legal abortion, maternity leave to name a few – were the fruits of the feminist movement that this woman kick-started in the 1960s. To those who argue that Friedan’s feminism is not inclusive (as she does not seem to include the poor, the blacks or the lesbians), I would say that lets not take the woman or her ideas out of her time and place.
So has the battle been won? At least in this part of the world? Can we all go back home victorious and wait for the food to appear on the table? Not so fast. Just switch on the television set, or read one of those “lifestyle” pieces (remember Maureen Dowd’s book?) that seem to appear with astonishing regularity in the NY Times? Or just look around you. How many of your co-workers slipped into suburban obscurity over the past few years? Can we really deny that in this country, we are still “taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents?” Can we really claim that we as a society don’t measure a woman’s worth by the man she ends up with? And until a day arrives when we can make that claim, here or in any other part of the world, Betty Friedan’s work is not finished. The torch just passes on to you and me.
Update: Do read R~’s tribute to Friedan at Locana.