The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Feminism: Wrong From the Start

Posted on | March 9, 2011 | 19 Comments

Betty Friedan (left) leads a 1971 protest supporting the Equal Rights Amendment

Instapundit links to a column by Barbara Kay that is premised on a counterfactual revisionist narrative:

The feminist revolution began as a necessary reform movement, but unfortunately evolved into a marxism-imbued, revolutionary one. Second-wave feminism’s focus soon shifted from women’s equal rights (which are limited to those defined by law) to women’s interests (which are limitless), as perceived through a victim’s lens.

This is an outright falsehood — a propaganda myth fostered by the feminist movement — and no matter how many times this myth is repeated, it will still be false.

Facts, as John Adams observed, are stubborn things.

Betty Friedan, generally credited with inspiring “second wave feminism,” was in fact a Marxist radical:

[T]he woman who has always presented herself as a typical suburban housewife until she began work on her groundbreaking book was in fact nothing of the kind. In fact, under her maiden name, Betty Goldstein, she was a political activist and professional propagandist for the Communist left for a quarter of a century before the publication of “The Feminist Mystique” launched the modern women’s movement.

Friedan’s long-hidden Communist past is not just a coincidental blip in her biography, nor is it insignificant to the origins and progress of modern feminism.

‘Comfortable Concentration Camps’

Given the context of its time — The Feminine  Mystique was published in 1963, when Cold War tensions were at an alarming crisis stage — we would be extraordinarily naive to assume that Friedan was merely a woman writing about the lifestyle woes of American housewives. To buy into Barbara Kay’s claim that Friedan was the leader of “a necessary reform movement” requires us to ignore the very clear evidence that Friedan and her movement wre a particularly clever project of anti-Americanism, as a time when the Soviet Union and its allies were the world’s foremost proponents of anti-Americanism.

Simple question: What was the most frequent accusation of Communists toward their opponents in the post-WWII era?
Simple answer: That the targeted opponents were “fascists” or “Nazis,” motivated by hatreds, and desirous of goals, every bit as evil as those of Hitler.

Every serious student of the Cold War era is familiar with this routine rhetorical tactic of the Soviets and the pro-Soviet Left. If you are unwilling to accept my word for this, you may inquire with such authorities on the subject as David Horowitz, Daniel J. Flynn, or Jonah Goldberg, and they’ll tell you the same thing: From the end of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union, every prominent opponent of communism — Richard Nixon, Joe McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan — was repeatedly attacked as a proto-fascist or a crypto-Nazi by the Left. (Gore Vidal to William F. Buckley Jr., 1968: “The only pro-war crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.” Buckley to Vidal: “Now listen, you queer, you stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”)

This point about the pro-Soviet Left’s habit of likening its opponents to Nazis is important in considering Friedan’s critique of the typical American housewife’s existence:

In one of the most shocking passages of her 1963 feminist classic, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan claimed that “the women who ‘adjust’ as housewives, who grow up wanting to be ‘just a housewife,’ are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps. . . .” Friedan went on to explore this analogy for several pages, and then continued to use the phrase “comfortable concentration camps” to refer to suburban homes.

Was this accusation really “shocking”? Only to someone who was unaware of, or who failed to understand the significance of, Friedan’s Communist past.

At the time her influential book was published, Friedan carefully concealed her past and, even at the time of her death in 2006 –several years after the truth had been revealed — the liberal media ignored or glossed over Friedan’s Communism in its obituaries. One suspects that Friedan’s eulogists feared that, if the facts were too widely known, it might undermine support for feminism.

As well it should.

‘We Will Bury You!’

To say that Friedan was a Communist (or perhaps ex-Communist, “fellow traveler,” whatever) is not to assert that she was a KGB agent acting on orders from the Kremlin. Rather, her association with the pro-Soviet Left, and her demonization of suburban homes as “concentration camps,” point to the basic falsehood of Barbara Kay’s claim that so-called “Second Wave” feminism began as a movement for “necessary reform.”

One does not “reform”  concentration camps, after all.

The movement that Friedan fomented was from its inception a radical, revolutionary movement of the anti-American Left, aimed at undermining the “domestic tranquility” of a nation which was at the time fighting what John F. Kennedy called a “long, twilight struggle” against Soviet imperialism. (Nikita Kruschev, 1956: “Whether you like it or not. history is on our side. We will bury you!”)

One need not engage in conspiracy-mongering to see how Friedan’s arguments in The Feminine Mystique served the anti-American cause. The widespread prosperity of post-war America was a key point in the propaganda battle with the Soviets. During the 1959 “Kitchen Debate” between Nixon and Kruschev, Nixon had pointed to labor-saving kitchen appliances — a dishwasher — and said, “In America, we like to make life easier for women,” to which Kruschev replied: “Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under Communism.”

Well, whose side of that debate did Friedan take? What Nixon had cited as one of capitalism’s benefits for women (a modern kitchen, “like those of our houses in California,” he told Kruschev), Friedan re-imagined as “concentration camps” — presumably with women’s own husbands in the role of SS guards!

Friedan’s clever bit of ju-jitsu — depicting the “American Dream” of middle-class suburban living as a totalitarian nightmare, with women as its victims — fit hand-in-glove with the Marxist critique of Frankfurt School theorists like Theodor Adorno, who portrayed the traditional family as a breeding ground for the proto-fascist “Authoritarian Personality.”

Just as Friedan’s ideology and rhetorical method are clearly rooted in the pro-Soviet Left of the Cold War era, so too was the movement she helped inspire. This is where Barbara Kay’s claim that Second Wave feminism was ever a mainstream “reform” movement runs hard aground on the stony facts: The feminist leaders who followed in Friedan’s footsteps were self-proclaimed radicals.

“Marriage means rape and lifelong slavery. . . . We reject marriage both in theory and in practice. . . . Love has to be destroyed. It’s an illusion . . . It may be that sex is a neurotic manifestation of oppression. It’s like a mass psychosis.”
Ti-Grace Atkinson, quoted in 1969 Life magazine article

“Male supremacy is the oldest and most basic form of class exploitation.”
Ellen Willis, “Women and the Myth of Consumerism,” in Ramparts, 1969

The feminist “liberation” movement led by New York Radical Women and the Redstockings collective was not about “reform.” The feminists who protested against the 1968 Miss America pageant were not about “reform.” These women were avowed radicals and, given Betty Friedan’s own Marxist past, one searches in vain for any rational basis for Barbara Kay’s claim that what “began as a necessary reform movement . . . evolved into a marxism-imbued, revolutionary one.”

Barbara Kay wants to draw “a bright line between revolutionary feminism and Palinite feminism,” as if there were a prize to be won by claiming the “feminist” mantle for Palin’s politics.

“Thanks to Sarah Palin, the long political hibernation of socially conservative feminism is over,” Kay writes, but no such thing as “socially conservative feminism” ever existed, and it is myth-making to claim that it did.

It is a good thing that conservative women have prominent activists and spokesmen who articulate their values and serve as role models, refuting the liberal propaganda claim that the feminist “women’s movement” speaks for the interests of all women. But it is wrong to apply the “feminist” label to conservative women who are, in fact, anti-feminists.

As much as I appreciate the basic fight-fire-with-fire tactical approach to countering the Left’s identity-politics organizing principle, it is a strategic error to co-opt the Left’s labels, or to attempt to mirror the Left by promoting an erzatz identity politics on the Right.

Feminist ideologue Jessica Valenti says Sarah Palin is not a feminist, and Phyllis Schlafly — the most influential woman in the modern conservative movement — also says Sarah Palin is not a feminist.

Valenti and Schlafly are both correct. Words have meanings, and if the definition of “feminist” is infinitely elastic, then it ceases to have any real meaning at all.

UPDATE: Little Miss Attila accuses me of promoting “oversimplified fiddle-faddle” but, as previously noted, facts are stubborn things. 

Attila says that I treat “Betty Friedan and the feminist movement” as though they “were one and the same,” and brings up the name of Gloria Steinem without, apparently, having bothered to acquaint herself with Steinem’s biography, or correlating it to the history of feminism.

Fact: There as no active feminist movement in the United States prior to 1963, when Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. While Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was published in 1949 (translated into English in 1953), it did not reach a mass readership, as did Friedan’s book.

Fact: At the time Friedan published The Feminist Mystique, Gloria Steinem was a magazine writer. Steinem’s brief stint as a 29-year-old Playboy Bunny was, in fact, an assignment for Show magazine.

Fact: Friedan co-founded, and became first president of, the National Organization for Women, in 1966. NOW initially focused most of its effort on pushing for enforcement of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act

Fact: What is today known as feminism began as the “women’s liberation movement” in 1967. “Women’s lib,” as it was often derogatively called, was allied with the anti-war New Left and engaged in public protests.

Fact: It was not until 1969, as an assignment for New York magazine, that Steinem wrote “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation.”

If you can believe Wikipedia, it was this 1969 article that “catapulted [Steinem] to national fame as a feminist leader.” But if you will read the article, you see that Steinem was merely reporting about a movement that already existed.

Radical feminists like Shulamith Firestone, Robin Morgan and Carole Hanisch started the parade and Steinem, by covering it for a trendy magazine, made herself the drum majorette. (Notice that, in her article, Steinem reports on the activities of Redstockings, W.I.T.C.H. and other feminist groups without ever naming any of their leaders.)

With a boost from her longtime editor Clay Felker — who helped her publish the first issue of Ms. magazine in 1972 — Steinem became the media-friendly face of feminism, who was described by Newsweek as wearing “hip-hugging raspberry Levis, two-inch wedgies and a tight poor-boy T-shirt” in an August 1971 cover article that also described Steinem’s “long, blond-streaked hair falling just so above each breast and her cheerleader-pretty face.”

You see that it is absurd for Attila to throw out Steinem’s name as if, by doing so, she disproves anything I had written about the origins or orientation of “Second Wave” feminism.

Little Miss Attila calls herself “a recovering lefty,” and there is no better cure for that disease than studying its actual history, as opposed to the deceptively self-glorifying propaganda of the Left.


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