Passing of a Feminist Icon

Newsletter Jan - Apr 2006

When we talk to young adult college-going women or women in their early twenties from urban India today who were educated in elite schools, and come from financially better off families, a series of questions and arguments crop up time and again - ‘Why are you talking so vehemently about freedom and equality for women? Isn’t it already here? We have freedom to choose what we want to do, how we want to dress. We do not feel oppressed or downtrodden. Why do women like you keep harping on absence of equality?!’

Whatever answers we tend to provide most of these women are not satisfied. They think the women’s movement has no relevance any longer. We have not had the opportunity to ask these women for their opinion about ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ after a ten-year period if they marry and have children! But from anecdotal experience, we see that many of these women feel the pressure of ‘adjusting’ in the marital home, some of them have to let go their careers and the frustration from that decision takes its toll, the upbringing of children keeps them so occupied despite having servants in the house that they lose touch with the outside world. In any case they certainly miss the freedom they had when they were young! It is the ‘problem with no name’ – that Betty Friedan articulated in her path-breaking work, The Feminine Mystique.

Betty Friedan, celebrated author, activist and pioneer of the women’s liberation movement, who died on 4th February 2006 on her 85th birthday, would have certainly smiled at these young women and said ‘Wait until you are in your 40s, your children are grown up and then tell me what you think.’

Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963 when she had just crossed 40! The origin of how the book came about is interesting and certainly useful for the women we were referring to above. Friedan used to work as a journalist and she quit her job after marriage. When her children were grown up, she felt listless as a housewife. She tried to find out what her women friends from college were doing and how they were feeling about their lives. The feeling of ‘things were not going well’ was shared by many. After rounds of informal discussions, questionnaires and interviews she wrote the famous book.

The Feminine Mystique revolutionised the lives of many women in the United States. Many women younger than Betty Friedan read the book and suddenly realised what was wrong with their lives. They took it upon themselves to change. Many people believe that Friedan not only provided leadership but brought the feminist movement to the front stage in the U.S. It was a beginning of modern-day feminist movement. For the purposes of bringing women together she founded ‘National Organization for Women’ (NOW) ( in 1966, she was also its first president. In her later life Friedan went on to establish many more organisations such as National Women’s Political Caucus.

Friedan wrote many more books later in her life. Fountain of Age, It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement, Life So Far, The Second Stage. In 1993 Friedan attacked ageism in ‘The Fountain of Age’, highlighting how older people are stereotyped and treated.

With the publication of The Second Stage in 1981 she was criticised about changing her feminist stand. She argued that working with men is the way forward for the women’s movement as she considered preservation of families extremely crucial. On the backdrop of her resistance to include lesbians as a part of the women’s movement these opinions of hers were considered provocative and controversial. She braved the criticism. With passage of time, she appeared more outdated and the reasons were manifold. One, from the very beginning her focus in women’s liberation movement was on women like her: straight, white, middle and upper class housewives. It was important to bring those women into the fold of the feminist movement, and she did an exceptional job of it by providing leadership. However, she was not up to date with the other issues which were gaining equal prominence in the women’s movement with the passing years - the issues of class, racism and sexual orientation. In the beginning for making the women’s liberation movement more acceptable in the society, she thought it was better to focus on women with heterosexual preferences, and avoid talking about women with other sexual preferences. However, over the years she could not change her understanding sufficiently to move towards an inclusive contemporary feminist politics.

One of her friends of 30 years standing, Alida Brill, describes her as a ‘mapmaker’ - somebody who began to draw maps, however imperfect. She says ‘Early maps are never perfect. They have errors, omit essential places, and warn of mythical dragons. And some continents depicted turn out not to exist at all. Yet, lacking such early chartings, we would drift without any direction at all.’ Thus, despite her limitations in the worldview of feminism as we see and understand it today, Friedan has her own place in the women’s liberation movement and she needs to be duly acknowledged for her rightful place.