Friedan Goes Fuzzy

Beyond Gender is a rambling recap of a pair of seminars that Friedan chaired, in 1994 and 1995, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. These gatherings, ominously billed as New Paradigm Seminars, aimed to define a progressive political movement–or ethos, at least–that would subordinate the identity politics that have dominated liberalism (and feminism) since the late ’60s to some vision of the common good. Rounding up the usual suspects from labor, the women’s and civil rights movements, academe, journalism, business, and the land of think tanks, Friedan led discussions about the economic instability, the growing gap between rich and poor, and the middle-class time squeeze that she sees as the proper business of progressive politics.

This is, of course, rich territory. But if this slim volume has any virtue, it is as proof that fame, influence, and the well-earned sense of respite that comes at the end of an illustrious career are the enemies of good writing. For it has almost every flaw a non-fiction book can have, including the maddening shallowness that inevitably characterizes even the most lively group conversation. In addition to being scattered and poorly organized, it’s full of dizzyingly bad language–sentences that draw a deep breath, sprint to the end of the diving board, and … never quite land anywhere. The new movement she envisions, Friedan writes, “has to be political to protect and translate our new empowerment with a new vision of community, with new structures of community that open the doors again to real quality of opportunity.”

These cul-de-sac sentences which don’t actually say anything, abound. “Too often the so-called debate on family values is a debate about abortion or sexual immorality or divorce, but when we talk about the value of families, we are talking about conditions that support and nurture family values.” Huh?

Beyond Gender is also out of date, appearing more than two years after most of the meetings it describes. Thus it agonizes breathlessly about the ascendancy of Newt Gingrich, and entirely fails to acknowledge the economy’s recent strength. Finally, it exempts itself from the basic rule that a writer on public policy (indeed, any writer) needs to do more than simply gesture in the general direction of the facts she wants to marshal. “In 1992,” Friedan writes, “a lot of women were elected, a lot more women came out to vote, a lot of men voted for women, and, of course, by a significant majority of women over men, Bill Clinton was elected president with Hillary Rodham Clinton as his wife despite the Republicans’ attack on career women and the Dan Quayle-Murphy Brown thing.”

I harp on this last weakness because it seems to betoken a deeper vagueness, amounting to a form of airy contempt for all the workings of politics. Unconsciously, Friedan embodies a vice that has too often plagued the American left: a moral vanity that resists the very idea of politics as a continuing struggle among legitimately competing interests and ideas. Here is her capsule summary of the social policy of the past 70 years: “More than sixty years ago you had Roosevelt, you had the New Deal. You had a whole era of social policy and social progress. Then it looked like we were going to destroy that with the Contract with America. That hasn’t happened. The people don’t want that all destroyed, but nobody has come up with a new structure, with the kinds of policies that would lead to the common good as a priority for evolution of democracy”

Beyond Gender deals, however inchoately, with important subjects: most provocatively, the question of why liberals (one might say Democrats, were they not creatures of a Jurassic paradigm) have made so little headway with the issue of income disparity. And one of Friedan’s great strengths as a leader of the women’s movement has been her willingness to combat its more sectarian impulses. She was the first and most important of the third-wave feminists of the ’60s and ’70s to suggest that they had thrown the babies–the literal babies–out with the bath water, alienating potential followers by refusing to honor the importance of family in most women’s lives. More recently, she has questioned the heavy emphasis that the movement’s leaders have placed on such issues as abortion, rape, and sexual harassment; they have, she argues in Beyond Gender, given short shrift to the workaday issues of economics, child care, and family life that mean far more to the average woman.

But beyond that admirable willingness to question her allies, Friedan’s horror of politics means she hasn’t much to contribute. Most of the men and woman she brought together in her seminars have thought more rigorously about the issues she is raising for far longer than she has. But they tend to speak from a point of view, whether it is conservative, liberal, or something in between; and the greater the force of their ideas, the more they resist being ground down to the bland, paradigmatic porridge that Friedan hopes to concoct. Whenever one of them takes a clear stand on something–as when conservative former assistant secretary of education Chester Finn suggests that fatherlessness is actually caused by individuals’ failing to live up to their responsibilities–Friedan quotes him politely and then changes the subject, like someone tolerating a dinner guest who has said something rude.

My favorite point in the book comes when political scientist Benjamin Barber finally tries to pierce the enervating harmony that rules Friedan’s discussions. “We forget that there are real conflicts of interest in America,” he says. (One imagines him pulling at his necktie in frustration.) “There are costs, and not everything can be solved painlessly…. The new paradigm can’t pretend there are no conflicts, there are no real distinctions of interest. It has to understand that political action works through conflict.” But Friedan steams serenely on, seeming unaware that she is being tactfully instructed in reality.

In sum, skip this book and read instead Friedan’s great The Feminine Mystique, which came out almost 35 years ago, and will be republished in a new hardcover edition this month. Eons seem to have passed since the book’s publication, and entire social continents have shifted. The revelation it holds for readers of today is how strenuously Friedan had to work to advance the radical idea that women were unsatisfied by lives that had no dimension beyond husband and children; what a crowd of shibboleths she was staring down, and how brave it was of her to do it. Reading it, one has some faint sense of how unimaginable a revolution she was urging on her countrywomen, three and a half decades ago, and how remarkable it is that she had the imagination to help set it in motion.