We seem to have come full circle, having begun this blog three and a half years ago with a discussion of Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, and now we are ending it with another discussion of the same book viewed quite differently.
I have mixed feelings as I write this last post, understanding fully your desire to move in new directions in your writing and teaching. And I wish you well as you look forward to your doctoral studies. But at the same time, Kim, I realize I’ll miss these 72-27 conversations and the topics we have enjoyed exploring together.
Knowing that you’ve already said your goodbye to our readers in your August post (and being aware that this will be a one-way conversation, giving me the last word!) makes it a little hard to write. I’m so used to writing these posts with the anticipation of your feedback in mind. (Of course, our readers can be assured that you and I continue our personal friendship and communication apart from our 72-27 colleagueship as coauthors.)
Time and space won’t permit me to address everything you wrote in your last letter in which you responded to my May post on “What Betty Friedan Did and Didn’t Do. ” And it’s not necessary because you already interacted with that post quite thoroughly—for example, in your summary of the “marketing of desire,” about the exploitive, manipulative nature of so much advertising.
Speaking of Women
But I do want to comment on your warning about the dangers of thinking of women as a monolithic group and the need to see how this issue of gender intersects with class, race, sexual orientation, and so many other issues. I know what you mean, and I agree that we need to fine tune our language and avoid giving the impression that the concerns of the economically and educationally privileged, white, middle-class American woman of the 1950s and 1960s whom Friedan primarily addressed, represented the full meaning of the word woman or the concerns of all women.
Yet we need to keep in mind that at the time Friedan was writing, the image of the white middle-class homemaker was the prevailing image (and societal ideal) of womanhood throughout the majority culture in the United States. It was the dominant image seen in the movies, on television, and in magazines. The fact that there was discontent within this group of women, where it was least likely expected (according to societal norms), was noteworthy and a reason she wrote the book and pitched it to that audience.
As we’ve already discussed, Betty Friedan, having been a writer for women’s magazines, knew her suburban homemaker audience well. She was well aware how members of that particular category of women were the targets of articles telling them their gender determined their destiny. And along with the articles were the advertisements designed to persuade them that fulfillment and happiness were only a new refrigerator or dishwasher away. Friedan knew the lie behind what she called the“feminine mystique,” the idea that women were somehow different by nature and would be content with lives that did not acknowledge nor fully utilize their talents and that stunted their growth as full human beings. All they had to do was accept the one-size-fits-all model of womanhood and be content. And she knew that the restlessness many felt and the yearning for something more than being a wife and mother (as wonderful as that could be), was a very real “problem with no name” that innumerable women experienced.
But of course you are correct in saying that Friedan was not explicit about writing for that particular audience when she wrote about “women” in what seemed a universal sense, nor did she deal with racial issues and other issues related to power systems that encompassed much more than gender—even though she was writing during the Civil Rights era. Much of white America, however, still seemed oblivious to the vast changes beginning to take place in their own lives and in society at large.
Friedan’s book was published in 1963, the same year as the March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. And yet at that time, not only articles but even advertisements in mainstream magazines and television commercials in the 1950s and 1960s were devoid of black people. People of color in general were in a sense invisible—or at least viewed as belonging to an altogether separate culture. To see advertisements with black models, one had to turn to specialized magazines written specifically for the African American market, such as Jetand Ebony. I remember running across a copy of Ebony magazine during my teen years and seeing for the first time images of African American families represented in the same way as any other American families who might be interested in purchasing toothpaste, or floor wax, or a new car. The situation is quite different today as both black and white models are featured in general interest magazine advertisements and television commercials, as well as in specialized publications aimed toward specific audiences with specific needs, concerns, and interests.
Different issues—different groups
I’ve been reading Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (Yale University Press, 2011), in which she uses the Hegelian concept of recognition as a framework for understanding the situation and struggles of African American women today. She writes that for a political system to be considered fair, it “must offer its citizens equal opportunities for public recognition, and groups cannot systematically suffer from misrecognition in the form of stereotype and stigma.”
In other words, both invisibility on the one hand, and misrecognition (in the form of myths about black women), on the other, are detrimental to African American women. Why? Because the myths and stereotypes spill over into negative attitudes, expectations, and treatment of black women by both black and white people, as well as affecting the self-image of African American women themselves and the energy they must expend in attempting to counteract such stereotypes. Harris-Perry found that three particular myths or characterizations stood out in her research with African American women in her focus groups: the black woman as Mammy, or as hypersexual, or as a strong woman (who might also be viewed as angry and emasculating).
Harris-Perry’s book provides an example of explicitly addressing issues faced by a particular group, whereas you and others have been pointing out that Betty Friedan wasnot explicit in naming the group whose issues she was addressing back in 1963. True. However, as I wrote in my last letter, her middle-class audience needed that message of acknowledging the “problem that had no name,” which provided one of numerous wake-up calls taking place at that time, prompting many women, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, to realize they were being shortchanged and should not have to settle for the limited lives society wanted to assign them.
My own writings at the time, were among writings aimed at another specialized category of women: women of faith (and particularly women in conservative evangelical churches) who were finding that certain Bible verses were being used to keep them from being all they were meant to be. The 21st century backlash and re-emergence of the “let the women be silent” and “submit to your husband” teachings (which of course never really disappeared) is, of course, one of the reasons you and I started this blog in 2008.
New York columnist Gail Collins, in her book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present (Little, Brown, 2009), tells how women in the 1960s were expected to act, dress, and live, without questioning or recourse. They faced high barriers to their aspirations toward anything beyond wifehood, motherhood, and homemaking.
“Medical and law schools banned female students or limited their numbers to a handful per class. There was, for all practical purposes, a national consensus that women could not be airplane pilots, firefighters, television news anchors, carpenters, movie directors, or CEOs.” (p. 7)
Many middle-class women, such as those Betty Friedan had addressed, began feeling less alone and were empowered to band together, challenge patriarchal ideas, and work to change the system. A new women’s movement was emerging. Have you seen the intriguing history of Ms magazine that recently appeared in New York magazine for the 40th anniversary of Ms? (Like Friedan’s book, Ms was also criticized for being elitist and directed to the middle class, leaving many women out.) The New York piece is a fascinating and honest account of both the successes and bumps along the way—including some serious conflicts at times within the Ms staff. The readers’ comments with this recounting of Ms’s history are interesting, too. One of the issues that came up, both in the recounting of the history of Ms and the comments about the article, was the same one we’ve been discussing in Friedan’s work—failing to give enough attention to women of color. (The New York magazine article includes Alice Walker’s resignation letter over that issue. )
What Women Have in Common
So I think you and I can agree, Kimberly, that many power systems overlap and intersect in discussing gender concerns and that all of them need to be discussed, although different books and articles might address different audiences. At the same time, I believe there is a sense in which we can and should talk about women as a single category in which the word does have a universal sense. Being a person of the female sex has meant—and continues to mean—to be in a position of inequality and vulnerability, although the degree that this is true may vary among individuals and groups and the times and cultures in which they live.
What do I mean? Some of the issues that especially impact women as a category are issues related to reproduction and child and elder care, sexual harassment, rape, war and displacement, poverty, and a disproportionate burden of domestic chores whether or not women are gainfully employed. If we were continuing this blog, we could have long discussions on every one of these topics (some of which we’ve already discussed to some extent in earlier posts). Here, I can only comment on a few of them briefly.
“When One Woman Cries”
I titled this final blog post as I did because it sums up the idea of sisterhood—that we’re all in this together. The words come from a statement by a West African woman in the PBS five-part series, Women, War and Peace (which can be watched online).
Near the end of the final episode, titled “War Redefined,” there is an account of a large peaceful demonstration on March 3, 2011, as women banded together near Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, to protest strong man Laurent Gbagbo’s refusal to relinquish power after losing the presidential election. As the women marched, supporters of Gbagbo, armed with machine guns, fired randomly into the crowd, killing seven women and wounding as many as 100 more.
Word spread quickly. Three weeks later, in solidarity with the women of Ivory Coast, women from a number of other West African states banded together to form what they called “a thousand women march” and demanded to have their voices heard during the program of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional bloc of 15 West African nations, meeting on March 23 and 24 in Abuja, Nigeria.
Since two of ECOWAS’s member nations, Guinea and Niger, had already earlier been sanctioned by ECOWAS after anti-democratic actions and violence against protesters, the women felt that what they had to say about the post-election conduct of the losing presidential candidate in Ivory Coast and the ensuing violence there would also be taken seriously.
One of the women participating in the Thousand Women March told an interviewer:
“When one women cries in Guinea, she cries in Liberia; she cries in Ghana; she cries in Niger. When one African woman cries, we cry all over. OK? That’s why we gather everybody. We’re all speaking with one voice.” (Quoted at about the 51 minutes and 12 seconds mark [51:12] on the documentary, “War Redefined,” Part 5 of the PBS series, Women, War and Peace.)
Her message is one we all need, no matter where we live. It is important that we as women, regardless of our physical or social location or any differences among us, keep listening closely so that we can hear the cries of women—women in our own circles and beyond—and then speak out and take action in various ways against injustices the world over. We are sisters. When one woman cries, we all cry. And when one woman is empowered, we are all empowered.
Violence and the Cries of Women
Since space does not permit discussing in detail all the areas I mentioned earlier as having a particular impact on women, and since this is our last post for 72-27 and the discussion won’t be continuing, I’m just going to list some links worth checking out about a few of the topics—in particular, some that relate specifically to violence against women. On Alternet recently, I ran across this succinct definition:
“Violence against women is a complex set of destructive, primarily male behaviors that include psychological and emotional abuse, forced marriage, son preference, honor killings, sexual harassment, trafficking, and violence against women in armed conflict.” (From Hearts on Fire: Twelve Stories of Today’s Visionaries Igniting Idealism Into Action by Jill Iscol with Peter Cookson. Reprinted in Alternet, Nov. 8, 2011)
I wish I could share links and thoughts about everything on that list, but here I’m going to mention only two of the behaviors and attitudes related to them.
Armed conflict. On this topic, I can think of no better way to alert us to how modern warfare and the proliferation of small arms affects women than to recommend the entire PBS series on Women, War and Peace. For an overview, here is a 16-minute expended preview of the entire series, showing, as the narrators point out, the impact of wars on women and the impact of women on wars.
Sexual harassment. Among the most disturbing things about the recent accusations of sexual harassment by Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain were the failure of some people to think of sexual harassment as something serious, not a joke, and the hurling of insults toward women who accuse a man of sexual harassment. The fact that contributions for the candidate increased greatly immediately after the harassment accusations was the subject of an opinion piece by theologian Susan Thistlethewaite in the Washington Post (November 2, 2011). In that compelling article, she wrote, “Money talks, people say. And this week, I believe, money being given to the Cain campaign was speaking very loudly to women and what it was saying is that sexual harassment against women in the workplace is no big deal.” It’s worth taking the time to read the entire article.
Rape. I know you’ve written quite a bit about rape, Kimberly, on your own blog as well as on this one. So I’m not going to write a lot about it here except to call attention to some material I’ve run across on the Internet recently.
1. On this brief podcast from PBS, Gloria Steinem is interviewed about “The Use of Rape as a Weapon of War.” She covers the main issues clearly and succinctly.
2. A little off topic, since we’ve been discussing issues specifically affecting women, but we can cry with our brothers who suffer as well as with our sisters. Here is a topic that is seldom discussed when we think about gender-based violence: rape as a weapon of war against men. The article linked here provides a short overview of a recent study of men abducted during conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They were repeatedly and brutally raped in ways that often required medical help if they survived, including long hospitalizations. They were also subject to other forms of sexual violence. The study was conducted by Mervyn Christian from Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, who points out that although the rape of men as a war weapon is generally underreported and ignored, “the complex societal, psychological and physical consequences are very similar” to the consequences endured by women (apart from pregnancy, of course, as a consequence of rape faced by women alone.) Those victims, male or female, who survive the rapes then face a life of stigmatization, as do their families.
3. Continuing with the subject of rape, Marie Fortune has written about the sexual violence against lesbians in South Africa who are subjected to rape supposedly as a punishment and “cure” or “corrective” for these women’s sexual orientation. Dr. Fortune doesn’t hesitate to call it what it is, beginning with the very title of her essay, “Corrective Rape? No, Hate Crime.”
“It is a message of terrorism and it is intended for all lesbians: ‘You cannot choose to be who you are and experience life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We will not allow it.’ Why is it that when women choose to step away from men (regardless of our sexual orientations), that some men feel compelled to convince us that we do not have that choice?” (From Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune, “Corrective Rape? No, Hate Crime, ” Marie’s Blog, October 24, 2011)
I think you’ll want to read the whole essay, Kimberly. As you know, we’ve published some of Marie Fortune’s other writings in Christian Feminism Today on the sexual abuse of children and on same-sex marriage.
4. Here’s another one worth reading. The Ms Magazine Blog has an article on efforts to change a common attitude about sexual assault within the U.S. Military, which, like sexual harassment, has all too often been the subject of jokes, trivialization, victim-blaming, and intimidation and thus often goes unreported.
Besides war and sexual violence in all its forms, we could go on to discuss so many other issues that touch women as a category in a unique way. We could discuss reproduction and child care and child rearing issues, the effects of poverty on women, the double work load expected of many heterosexually married women who are expected to fulfill traditional gender roles and shoulder a disproportionate amount of domestic duties no matter how many outside jobs they may hold. And so many other topics could be explored.
But this post is already way too long! I’m sure you will be writing about some of these topics on your own blog. And as you know, I will soon be writing a new intergenerational blog as part of the EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, along with Kendra Weddle and Melanie Springer Mock, who also write—and will continue—their own blog, Ain’t I A Woman: DeConstructing Christian Images, as well. We’ll announce on the EEWC-CFT website and Facebook page when the three of us will be starting the new blog together.
In the meantime, our readers can be assured that these 72-27 blog posts will be archived and will continue to be accessible even though we will not be adding new posts.
Kimberly, one of the things I liked best in your last letter/post was the way you picked up on Betty Friedan’s phrase and challenged us all to be looking for and naming new“problems that have no name” that are facing us in this rapidly changing 21st century world. Naming is empowering, enabling us to know more completely what we are seeing, feeling, and dealing with and then to do something about it.
I think that challenge is a good way to end this 72-27 blog, along with the realization that when one woman cries, we all cry. And when one woman rejoices, we can all rejoice with her as well.
Thank you, Kim, and thank you, our readers, for traveling this cross-generational journey with us over these past several years.
With love and appreciation,
I’m sorry to see this intergenerational blog come to an end, although it’s good to know there will be others. I especially appreciated your emphasis, Letha, on the fact that we who were young white middle-class women in the 60’s could not deal with other women’s problems until we were able to recognize our own. Suzannah Tilton, for instance, was discouraged from studying medicine for no reason than her femaleness; and women were very scarce as I entered my Ph.D. program at NYU. But now, on with a many-pronged approach to the problems of many kinds of women in many social situations.