The Gains & Losses of Orthodox Feminism

Women have made great gains in modern Western society. Except for the poorest of the poor these gains have benefited almost all women in some way. These gains are the result of a significant social revolution that we have undergone as a society over the past fifty years.

Perhaps the most important early influence in this massive social change was Betty Friedan, who passed away last Saturday (February 5). Friedan was always interesting and often inflammatory. She spoke out on a number of issues over the course of her eighty-five years of life, at times offending the very feminist movement she helped to nurture and grow. Her 1963 bomshell, The Feminine Mystique, was a best-seller. It clearly expressed the agenda for a radical break from the post-World War II Eisenhower era and shattered what has been called “the cozy suburban ideal.” A 1999 New York State University survey of 100 examples of the best journalism of the century voted the book No. 37 on the list.

Showing that she could listen to some of her more conservative critics Betty Friedan’s later best-seller, The Second Stage, included an admission that she had been too dismissive of domestic life. She wrote, “Our failure was our blind spot about the family.” She deeply opposed “equating feminism with lesbianism” and was seen by radicals as “hopelessly bourgeois” according to feminist writer Susan Brownmiller. She routinely insisted, in her last twenty years, that feminism needed to remain in the American mainstream, an appeal that in general has done very little to stop the radicals. She also argued that men be accepted as allies, which has happened more in recent years.

Some of Betty Friedan’s more radical feminist allies were deeply troubled by these moderating statements. Friedan had the courage to break with these radicals whenever she saw their influence as harmful to the cause, prompting social critic Susan Faludi to accuse Frieda of “yanking out the stitches in her own handiwork.” For these more moderating influences I think we can be grateful.

Betty Friedan’s influence clearly gave us some huge and important gains for women, such as equal pay for equal work, promotion opportunities in the work place and the just concept of maternity leave. I realize all of these can be faulted, at least at certain points, but most Christians, and most men, would agree that in the broadest sense they are true and good gains for women and equality. And Friedan’s attempt to define women in ways that were not always seen in relationships to men that were sexual was another gain. In her last years Friedan also advanced the cause of the aged through her book, The Fountain of Age (1993), which contributed to social gains in understanding the personhood of the elderly.

I also found Betty Friedan worth listening to, at least sometimes. I very often disagreed with her and at times found her manner insufferable. But she made real sense at times. And she did have the courage to disagree with her comrades at several crucial points. She had clearly studied whatever her subject was at the moment, thus she spoke with a large degree of intelligence and sought to improve lot of women in general.

This is not the place to write an entire piece on the history of feminism in this country. However, it is worth noting that not everything called feminist is evil. As has been true of all social movements for change there is always the good mixed with the bad. The thoughtful Christian should always welcome the good and then learn to show where the evil must be resisted and why. Conservatives, by the nature of the case, do not do this very well.

It is also worth noting that modern orthodox feminism has continued to turn in more radical directions in the past twenty years. It has created, says Christina Hoff Somers, in the January 13 National Review, “a large network of gender-type apparatchiks who work tirelessly behind the scenes to transform American institutions according to strict feminist specifications.” Adds Sommers, “There women fervently believe they are improving the world” but this is in fact the real problem. The liberties gained over the past fifty years are quite real and they are generally good. But the agenda seems to now be taken up with moral and political ends that are destructive of faith and culture.

Christina Hoff Sommers rightly suggests that the modern leaders would do a great service to women if they sought to understand what real women want and need and how they can be helped to achieve it. Instead the bureaucrats and radical liberals support the professional feminist propaganda machine and create a context in which, as Sommers argues “NOW knows best.” How much better it would be if these modern feminists stopped focusing on issues like how not to have a baby or how to abort a fetus if you do not want the baby that you have conceived.

Perhaps the most foolish of all radical feminist nonsense is the ongoing attempt to demonstrate that there is no unique maternal bond between a mother and her child. To teach that the world is divided by gender, and that gender is nothing but a social construct is so patently stupid that most will not accept this view of life easily. Having said that I believe it is imperative that orthodox Christians catch up on basic issues of equality while we also continue to condemn, with proper scholarship and care, the modern radical “anti-motherhood, anti-family” agenda of the Left. We should also celebrate the gains of the past fifty years. To some degree we can thank Betty Friedan for these even while we strongly disagree with her on several important issues. Today 57% of college graduates are women and a majority of the graduate degrees now granted in the US are given to women. As the father of a healthy, well-balance and lovely married daughter, who is also a graduate of an excellent private college, I am grateful for all of these gains. I wanted everything for my daughter that she could rightly receive by way of both education and opportunity. I encouraged her to “be all that she could be.” I realized at the passing of Betty Friedan that some of this way of thinking came from people like her. Admitting that may offend some but it is simply the truth.

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