Monday, February 06, 2006

R.I.P., Betty Friedan

Feminist pioneer Betty Friedan died on Saturday. I haven't read her books and certainly don't share her views on abortion, but I think her influence on culture is nothing short of profound. The core of her revolution was the idea that women could have goals of their own and not define themselves only in relation to their husbands, essentially opening up half of the population to full participation in society.

Since 1963, when The Feminine Mystique was first published, women have made tremendous gains and feminism as an idea has flourished, split, declined, and re-emerged as post-feminism, which some people say isn't really feminism at all. There is still dispute over the specifics of the role of women, but today, at least on an abstract level the independence of women is largely a settled question in America.

There is also still, of course, the question of biology. Women and men are different, and it goes much deeper than just the fact that women can get pregnant and men can't. Through a combination of culture and biology, women are still the ones who do the bulk of the child-rearing, and as a society we have yet to come up with a satisfactory solution to the problem of combining motherhood with the pursuit of a career without shortchanging one or the other. In a feedback loop with rising housing costs, double-income families have gone from being an anomaly to almost a necessity in much of the country.

While the idea of women stretching beyond their traditional roles is widely accepted, chauvinistic attitudes do still exist, and of course women in many parts of the world have very few rights at all. Because of the physical and psychological differences between the sexes (of which we only have a limited understanding), I don't think that true equality, whatever that means, will ever be achieved, nor should it even be a goal. I think the real goal goes back to the founding of the country: equality of opportunity, not necessarily of result. Friedan saw that the doors of opportunity were shut and pushed them open.


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