Friday, July 21, 2006

The Second Stage: Book Review

The future of the family is
an overriding feminist issue.
~ Betty Friedan, on page 73
of The Second Stage

The Second Stage, written by Betty Friedan, was first published in 1981 - twenty-five years ago. This was the year after Reagan was elected. I was 18 and had just voted for the first time (and not for Reagan). This was also the beginning of the end of the fight for the ERA, as Friedan laments in her often overlooked and occasionally vilified book on what she perceived as the next stage of feminist "evolution", or the most important issues facing the women's movement that she helped found in the 60's with her publication of The Feminine Mystique.

Reading this in 2006 gave me a big dose of that "history repeats itself" feeling. In addition to critiquing what she saw as some of the excesses of feminism (which she called "the feminist mystique", as opposed to the "feminine mystique"), Friedan also examined Reagan-era politics and their relationship to women's emerging roles and issues. The similarities to the last six years of Bush politics are striking.

And Friedan seems positively prescient when she looks at what is now termed "work-life balance", child care, flexible work, maternity and paternity leave, and the danger that the right wing would claim "the family" and "family values" if feminists didn't address the problems engendered by their own revolution:

But what about the family work? The responsibility that used to be the woman's, in the home and family, as the man's duty was earning the money, out in the real world? How are we to put a value on family work? What is it really worth, compared to that other money-earning kind of work? How long will she keep doing it, by herself, if it's not valued, or shared?

....Still, the sophisticates who shrug off all this hysteria about the family as sentimental cant betray their own blind spot. We have to break through the cant and the blind spot and deal with the problems of the family now, which neither feminists nor antifeminists can avoid in real life (p. 70).

Why, with the majority of mothers now working, haven't feminists put as much energy into the battle for a multifaceted approach to child care - developing new options, using services and funds from a variety of sources...demanding tax incentives and innovations like a voucher system - as they have put into the battles against sex discrimination or for abortion?....There was, in fact, cold silence, or even open annoyance, in various feminist ranks in response to our appeal, in the fall of '79, that the women's movement come to grips with the practical problems of the family which our move to equality entails (p. 73).

It seems like it has only been in the last ten years (or less) that most feminists have really taken motherhood and its problems seriously again - as shown by the many websites and books discussing the two and how they've proliferated in the last decade.

Note the new page on Mothers and Caregivers Economic Rights on NOW's website, for instance, and the founding of the Mothers Movement Online in 2003. Then there's this year's and the publication of The Motherhood Manifesto, by Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner. The recent frenzy of discussion on "the mommy wars" can even be seen as evidence of increased attention on what Friedan characterized as feminism's failure and blind-spot:

To the degree that feminists collude in assuming an inevitable, unbridgeable antagonism between women's equality and the family, they make it a self-fulfilling prophecy (p. 74).

Equality in jobs, without taking into account family, leaves women doubly burdened. And equality in the family isn't real for women if it is isolated from economic measures of worth and survival in the world....Part of the problem comes from the lack of real economic measures or political attention to the previously private woman's work, in home and family, an irreducible minimum of which is necessary for human and society's survival...(p. 80)

The women's movement did not fail in the battle for equality. Our failure was our blind spot about the family. It was our own extreme of reaction against that wife-mother role: that devotional dependence on men and nurture of children and housewife service which has been and still is the source of power and status and identity, purpose and self-worth and economic security for so many women - even if it is not all that secure any more (p. 156).

There were some passages that I didn't find particularly enlightening or interesting (such as Friedan's discussion of Alpha vs. Beta politics, and the look at cadets in the newly integrated West Point), but overall I found
The Second Stage a surprisingly timely and interesting work. I was a bit uncomfortable with her continued use of "evolution" (with its connotation of directed evolution towards progressive ends, as opposed to the more biological or modern anthropological use of the term), but that's minor in the scheme of things.

The parts of the book for which some feminists scorned Friedan for betraying feminism, I saw as again, relatively minor asides. She basically quibbled with the second wave feminists' focus on sexual identity, sexual discrimination, "rape culture", and abortion at the expense of economic inequality for women in families. Friedan never actually comes out and says the former are not important, but she does repeatedly argue against the polarization of politics that emphasizing these issues may incur. I'm not sure if that's a good or complete explanation for changes in feminism and national politics in the last 25 years, but it's interesting to ponder. Friedan herself sees this polarization at least partially as an over-reaction to the "feminine mystique", where the feminists wanted to get as far away from their housewife roots as possible.

While reading more about the transition from second wave to third wave (but "second stage"?) feminism, I ran across this interesting article & interview - The End of Herstory, by Kay S. Hymowitz - published in 2002, that explores some of the generational differences (in feminism, and popular culture as a whole) that I straddle. Although Hirshman is mentioned (as one of the old-style "radical" feminists), I thought it was interesting that Friedan's Second Stage was not - although Hymowitz does describe a "Feminist mystique" and "feminist career mystique". I don't think Hymowitz could still say that "Motherhood too interests orthodox Feminists only insofar as it overturns bourgeois norms."


Sandy said...

For another look at Hirshman and Friedan, check out Emily Bazelon's Slate article Understanding Betty Friedan: Why Linda Hirshman Doesn't.

Sandy said...

And how very interesting is it that so many on the internet mix up "The Feminine Mystique" with "Feminist Mystique".

Sandy said...

Note also the beginning of the Association for Research on Mothering (in 1998), and their latest publications on feminism & motherhood:

And Off Our Backs has a new issue on feminisim and motherhood:

MommyWithAttitude said...

That's interesting. I'm closer to a Betty Friedan feminist, I think, which is why I get so frustrated out here sometimes!