As the gods of humor would have it, the new issue of the Weekly Standard features an article on “the woman Betty Friedan wanted to burn at the stake.”
Ms. Friedan, who died over the weekend, at the age of 85, slipped the mortal coil without incinerating, Phyllis Schlafly, her nemesis. But a comparison of the careers of the two women is nevertheless instructive.
Though still very much with us, Schlafly certainly realizes that she’s not going to be accorded the sendoff Friedan is receiving from the mainstream press when her time comes.
This is from the Washington Post’s obituary:
“Betty Friedan, whose manifesto ‘The Feminine Mystique’ helped shatter the cozy suburban ideal of the post-World War II era and laid the groundwork for the modern feminist movement, died Saturday, her birthday. …
“Few books have so profoundly changed so many lives as did Friedan’s 1963 best seller. Her assertion that a woman needed more than a husband and children was a radical break from the Eisenhower era, when the very idea of a wife doing any work outside of house work was fodder for gag writers, like an episode out of ‘I Love Lucy.’
“Independence for women was no joke, Friedan wrote. The feminine mystique was a phony deal sold to women that left them unfulfilled, suffering from ‘the problem that has no name’ and seeking a solution in tranquilizers and psychoanalysis.”
Some might argue that the problem had no name because it didn’t really exist-many American women led fulfilling lives before Betty Friedan came along. You’d never know this from reading Friedan’s obituaries.
Here is the famous quote from Friedan:
“The problem lay buried, unspoken for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban housewife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question: ‘Is this all?'”
The bleak portrayal of life in the suburbs-seething with homicidal rage yet at the same time repressed-in the dark movie “American Beauty” is the lineal descendent of this view. But, just as this caricature of distaff desperation in “the Eisenhower era” was a lie, so was much of Freidan’s own life.
In her autobiography, Ms. Friedan accused her ex-husband Carl of beating her up. The accusation garnered headlines from a press lacking in skepticism. As David Horowitz wrote at the time:
“The media ran with the story. Now Mr. Friedan has responded with a website, in which he charges that his ex-wife was mentally disturbed and given to fits of violent rage. It was she who abused him, says Mr. Friedan, not the other way around.
“The ex-Mrs. Friedan, meanwhile, has softened her charges, telling Good Morning America, ‘I almost wish I hadn’t even written about it, because it’s been sensationalized out of context. My husband was no wife-beater, and I was no passive victim of a wife-beater. We fought a lot, and he was bigger than me.'”
Far from being the desperate housewife she claimed to be, Friedan was a journalist with a history of activism in far-left causes: her book was propaganda. Phyllis Schlafly was a housewife. She had no desire to “shatter” the “cozy” ideal of suburban life. It was her life–she was also a lawyer, activist, bestselling author and mother.
Comparing the two women, Karlyn Bowman, author of the Weekly Standard piece, writes:
“Schlafly, like her antagonist Betty Friedan, was born in Illinois in the 1920s. Both women were raised by strong mothers who encouraged their talented daughters. Schlafly worked the night shift to pay her way through Washington University, and then went to graduate school at Radcliffe. (Years later she obtained a law degree.) …The young Schlafly’s passions were a distrust of centralized government and political elites. Her deep Roman Catholic faith also inspired her political activity, and particularly her opposition to communism.”
The intrinsic difference between Schlafly and Friedan is that Schlafly saw the locus of evil as over there, the Soviet Union, while Friedan saw it as here-our society and the heart of society, the family. Phyllis beat Friedan at her own game, organizing women to fight the utterly and absolutely superfluous Equal Rights Amendment, and winning.
Unlike Friedan, she had a great marriage and a great sense of humor-she used to begin speeches by thanking her husband, the late Fred Schlafly, for letting her attend the event-she would then chortle and say she always thanked Fred because it drove the feminists crazy. By contrast, Friedan’s “I’d like to burn you at the stake,” uttered to Schlafly in a debate (wonder who was winning?) was not said with a twinkle in the eye. A campaigner for better employment opportunities for women and traditional values, Schlafly has probably done more for the average woman than Friedan.
Betty Friedan was embraced by the press and has been able to exert an enormous influence over American life for nearly half a century. But, as Bowman writes, things are changing:
“Phyllis Schlafly’s story, and most news about women, is usually told from the feminists’ perspective in part because many writers and journalists feel more sympathetic to that view. That is changing somewhat with the work of a new generation of women, such as my estimable AEI colleague, Christina Hoff Sommers and organizations such as the Independent Women’s Forum and the Women’s Freedom Network.”