Understanding Betty Friedan

Why Linda Hirshman doesn’t.

Betty Friedan 

The former trial lawyer Linda Hirshman dedicates her new book, Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, to the memory of Betty Friedan. Feminism has failed in its transformative mission, Hirshman argues, because it hasn’t insisted that women work. “Bounding home is not good for women and it’s not good for society,” she writes. And she says that if Friedan were alive, “the real radical” of the women’s movement would agree. Betty (who was my distant cousin) always loved attention. But Hirshman does her a disservice by getting her legacy wrong.

In The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, Friedan accorded singular value to work, much as Hirshman does. “The only kind of work which permits an able woman to realize her abilities fully,” she wrote, “is the kind that was forbidden by the feminine mystique, the lifelong commitment to art or science, to politics or profession.” Her book played its iconic role in the women’s movement by opening the middle-class home to scrutiny and describing the limited lot of many stay-at-home wives in a way that spoke directly to them. (One reader told Friedan: “I was in the maternity ward with my third kid, and then I decided to go to law school.”) Friedan exhorted men to share in household work, and she would undoubtedly have appreciated Hirshman’s renewed critique of the stubbornly persistent “patriarchal family.”

But Friedan’s later writings make clear that she would have rejected Hirshman’s larger argument. Hirshman puts down what she calls “choice feminism,” i.e., the current state of feminist affairs, where mothers decide whether and how much to work and the movement affirms their varied choices. “Feminism has actively encouraged women to run from a fight,” Hirshman states, arguing that work is the “path to a flourishing life.” She’s not interested in institutional barriers, such as the difficulty of finding excellent and reliable day care and the long and inflexible hours some jobs require. Instead, she chides women for the constraints they impose on themselves when they cut back their working hours or stay home to take care of their children—instead of making their husbands step up. I don’t think Friedan would have supported this doctrinaire stance. Freidan couldn’t imagine remaining a homemaker, but she didn’t despise other women for doing so. She helped erect the big feminist tent that Hirshman wants to tear down. She also joined in the push for family-friendly changes to the workplace: the traditional feminist wish list of parental leave, universal day care, and employer flexibility that Hirshman dismisses as useless.

In 1981, two decades after The Feminist Mystique, Freidan published The Second Stage and incurred the wrath of feminists who thought like Hirshman. In this book, Friedan worried that feminism had reduced women to tallying up “grievances against men in office and home, school and field, in marriage, housework, even sex.” Taking note of women who’d devoted themselves to their careers and then found themselves unhappy, she tried to make changes in the workplace “the new priorities for feminists.” In 1986, she had this to say to the New York Times about a woman’s decision to cut back at the office to stay home with the kids: “It won’t be the same for every woman or every couple. But what we need are real choices. And I don’t want to hear women saying one choice is more feminist than another.” Of her daughter-in-law’s decision to be a “housewife” when her first son was born, Friedan observed, “The choices in themselves seem to create a new sense of values and of self in such a postfeminist woman.”

Hirshman must know that Friedan was, by Hirshman’s terms, a choice feminist. But she briefly mentions The Second Stage only to pan it. Betty had “lost her edge” when she wrote the book; it was “unworthy of the sixties radical she had once been” and was “ignored.” Given Hirshman’s hail-work agenda, her lack of enthusiasm for The Second Stage makes sense. But it hardly seems fair to invoke a thinker as your guiding spirit and then skip past the positions she took that directly counter yours. Hirshman is rigidly pro-work; she doesn’t really make room for women who work part-time or step out of the job market when their children are small. Friedan, by contrast, realized that her call to get out of the house and away from the kids wasn’t for everyone and made her peace with that. Rather than being faithful to Friedan’s legacy, Hirshman is cherry-picking it.

Hirshman presents four “rules” for women: She wants them to think practically and early about career goals; work steadily through their lives; make sure their husbands do a fair share of the housework; and have one baby if they want, but not two. There’s nothing wrong with this advice. And if you’re bent on the sort of high-powered career that Hirshman glorifies—she is particularly focused on the Supreme Court—then you might be well-advised to follow these directives.

Maybe the reason feminists generally don’t take Hirshman’s line, though, can be traced to the difference between collective and individual choice. When virtually only women stay home (as is still the case, since stay-at-home dads in the United States number fewer than 2 percent), then collectively speaking, that choice has a powerful social meaning. Kids presumably think more narrowly about gender roles when they see only mothers on the playground—and so do employers when they see only mothers leave the office. Hirshman points out all this. But when it comes to each of these mothers’ individual choices, how can anyone, feminist or not, say they’ve chosen wrong? If each mother finds her life fulfilling—and stay-at-home mothers frequently testify that they do and have told Hirshman so loudly—then she’s not the trapped wife of The Feminine Mystique, and no amount of feminist dogma is going to make her one.

Hirshman brushes by the difference between collective and individual choice, perhaps because she’s oddly tuned out from her audience. The “opt-outers” to whom Hirshman says she’s talking—the mothers with professional degrees who have put their children before their ambitions, and the Ivy Leaguers who don’t appear to have much ambition in the first place—don’t seem likely to remake themselves in Hirshman’s image. Friedan connected vitally with readers of The Feminist Mystique by describing their lives with empathy. She was them. Hirshman wants her book to have a similar effect—she wants to “restart the revolution.” But she’s a successful former lawyer and academic bent on browbeating women whose lives are different than hers, and it’s hard to see how that’s a winning strategy. Nor is it clear that it’s time to give up on bending the workplace to fit families. It may be a frustrating slog, but until more jobs give parents the breathing room they need to do right by their kids, mothers and fathers will continue to feel harried and sometimes desperate.

On a gut level, Friedan shared Hirshman’s instinct about the overriding value of work. A week before she died, when her daughter asked what words of wisdom she had for her grandchildren, Betty said, “Take risks.” For herself and for many women, that meant taking a leap into the public sphere. But Betty was humble enough—not words often used to describe her, I know, but apt here—to refrain from imposing her definition of risk-taking on other women. Hirshman has no obligation to follow that example. But she should have recognized the breadth of Betty’s legacy.