Betty Friedan and feminism looking their age

Posted Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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I first read The Feminine Mystique, the Betty Friedan classic that turns 50 this year, while sitting on top of a washing machine.

This seemed oddly appropriate, given the theme of Laundry as Anathema in the seminal work (if seminal is a word one can use about an iconic feminist text). Both then and more recently, I was struck by how poorly the book had aged. Much has happened since then.

These days, the most common use of "feminist" in a sentence is: "I'm not a feminist, but ..." We want the same things feminists wanted, but the word chafes.

Part of the reason is this book. It is abrasive. It is dated. Civil rights is an ongoing struggle. But this movement has succeeded so well that we forget that much of what women have and want could be described as feminist.

To say that we deserve as many options as our male counterparts is so obvious that it often goes without being stated. That's not feminist, we think. That's common sense.

We don't want to put our dreams on hold to focus on The Goals of Womankind. "Someone else worry about Women's Rights," we say. "I am too busy trying to become an astronaut."

And then a state legislator says something, and we all come roaring out of the woodwork.

Few doors are overtly closed to women as they were in Friedan's time. A woman can be president -- she merely hasn't.

The problems now are more subtle than they were in Friedan's time.

As Ann Richards put it, we can do everything men do, but we have to do it backward and in heels. If we are in politics, we have to have hair and makeup, or else! We have to work as hard as Michael Jackson and make it look effortless, like Beyonce.

Men, we hear, age and become distinguished. To achieve the same effect, women have to have injections.

In the sciences, résumés with identical credentials but names of different genders do not get the same response. Then there are those state legislatures that like to address women as objects and vessels, not as people. "Are we not past this?" we ask. Men do not have to put up with this, but -- don't complain. You're losing time!

The idea of a cohesive movement centered on our shared identity as women has faded.

The outcome of feminism to this point is that we are all individuals now. Consider what passes for a feminist text these days, Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman. It's not about how to be A Woman. It's about How To Be Caitlin Moran.

There aren't Female Comics. There are Lena Dunham and Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling. They don't speak for all of us. They speak for themselves. And this is great! The end of the movement was supposed to be a moment when we were all judged as individuals. We want that moment to have arrived already.

So each of us is tackling this on her own. And the problems we each face in isolation are enough to spin a movement out of. A few months ago, one woman reported being groped on the sidewalk -- and hundreds poured in with similar comments. But it takes one to start it. And we try not to.

It is good to remember what Betty had to say. Our problems are still problems. But compared with what used to be stacked against us, they're nothing we can't handle.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog at

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