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Interview with Betty Friedan

September 1, 1994


Kathleen Erickson Vice President
Interview with Betty Friedan

Twentieth Century history has been driven by great conceptualizers—from Freud's theories of the subconscious to Henry Ford's assembly line. For the women's movement, the great post-war conceptualizer has been Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, The Second Stage, and most recently, The Fountain of Age. It was Friedan's Feminine Mystique that initiated a fundamental re-thinking of how women defined themselves, their responsibilities and their choices in the postwar world. It was Friedan who, in The Second Stage, challenged the direction of some within the women's movement who have veered toward an increasingly separatist view of women's issues.

And today it is Friedan who emphasizes economics, not sexual politics, as the basis for women's continued progress toward equality. The Region met with Ms. Friedan at her home in Sag Harbor, New York, to talk about women and economics.

Region: Your writing seems to suggest that achieving gender parity in income is the highest priority for achieving overall gender equality. Is that what you mean to say?

Friedan: Economic equity is an enormous empowerment of women. Having jobs that provide income means that women can be a more effective force, a more equal force, in the political process. Women with income take themselves more seriously and they are taken more seriously.

I don't mean to say that income is the only benefit women gain from working. Yes, you have to have money to live. But there is something beyond monetary rewards. It is essential to be a part of the ongoing work of society. I've interviewed men and women who've burned out on their jobs, or lost jobs, that have started on new career paths that aren't going to provide the same level of income or status, but that end up being more satisfying. The concept of being part of a community is very, very key to longevity and the quality of one's life. It's a very important theme in The Fountain of Age, where I'm looking particularly at issues affecting older men and women.

So it's the two together, income and being involved in a meaningful way in a community that I see as being important. But to address the specific issue of equity, there's no doubt that income is the bottom line.

Region: Is that a bottom line on which women have focused?

Friedan: A poll was done a couple of years ago by the Ms. Foundation and the Center for Policy Alternatives in Washington. The poll asked women—women who were selected across race and class lines—what are the most important issues facing women today ? Overwhelmingly, the answers that came back, regardless of the women's race or class, were: getting jobs, keeping jobs, getting promoted in jobs, and how to put jobs together with family, relationships, other parts of women's lives. So yes, I'd say women have the economic bottom line in focus. Having said that, I'd have to acknowledge that within the women's movement, there are certainly those, so-called radical feminists, who feel the key issue facing women today is oppression by men. And for these women, progress can be achieved only through a kind of "down with men, down with marriage, down with motherhood" approach.

I'm not politically correct on this point. I abhor political correctness generally, but most particularly in connection with feminism. Implicit within feminism is the need to be responsive to change, responsive to the fundamental conditions of life. To focus on male oppression is to deny the fundamentals. While I can understand the legitimate emotional freight, the anger, that attaches to men's and women's historical roles, I don't see this view as getting us anywhere—and more importantly, I see it as keeping us from dealing with the real conditions that women need to address. Indeed, I see common ground on which men and women must stand together if real progress is to be made.

Certainly a great deal had to change to allow women to begin to achieve the measure of financial and emotional independence women have today. But at this point in time, having raised consciousness regarding women's potential, having put reproductive freedom solidly in place along with legislation that makes discrimination and harassment of women in the workplace illegal, we need to move on.

Region: From a public policy perspective, what needs to be done to further the objective of economic parity?

Friedan: Let me emphasize what I just said: What we're talking about is not just economic parity for women, but more economic choices for men, as well. And I see our needs as being both in public policy and in redefining the corporate bottom line.

Take for instance the corporate downsizing that is so widespread today. It's something that's affecting both men and women. It affects men who've been conditioned to expect the status and security of employment; it affects women who've only just made it into lower and middle management jobs, the jobs most vulnerable to downsizing. There's a risk here that men will begin to see women as the enemy taking jobs, and that women will see men as taking away from them the rewards they've worked so hard to achieve.

In fact, public policy should be addressing the root causes of downsizing and look at all the options, including shorter work weeks. Corporations need to define work in new ways, need to provide more support for job sharing, flex hours, and other policies that would offer a broader range of participation in the work force.

Region: When you talk about a shorter work week, one of the first obstacles that comes to mind is remaining competitive in the global market.

Friedan: What we're talking about here is how we define our public policy objectives, including economic policy. If our public policy objective is to assure broad participation in the work force, to free up men and women to work and raise families and to continue to draw on the experience and abilities of older men and women, as well, then our economic policies need to support that objective.

How do you do that, if you're a public policy maker? Well, maybe world leaders attending international economic summits need to spend more time considering how economic policies can support social objectives. Our economic policies get set at a very high level. What gets considered is the value of the dollar, trade agreements, interest rates. I'm not an economist and I wouldn't for a moment deny the importance of these larger issues. But more effort has to be made to integrate these larger, purely economic policies with social concerns. I don't think anyone fully understands the impact economic policy has on social outcomes. We tend, at the public policy level, to set our macro objectives and then clean up the micro impact in the political process. Social objectives should in some sense drive our economic agenda.

Region: Are there economists who are attempting to do this?

Friedan: Laura D'Andrea Tyson in the Clinton administration—and Robert Reich, too, at Labor—seem very sensitive to these concerns. But we need more people working actively to come up with a new economic paradigm that supports both growth and a more humanistic orientation within the workplace. The costs of not doing this are enormous. There is a great deal of frustration, that borders on rage, that politicians need to be responsive to. We're going to pay one way or the other.

Region: It's clear you've been busy writing. What else have you been up to ?

Friedan: One of my objectives over the past several years has been to address economic issues in the context of people's real lives. I started out with a think tank on the evolution of feminist thought under the Institute for the Study of Women and Men at the University of Southern California (USC). That effort ran into problems because I didn't see eye to eye with people in women's studies. The think tank found a new home in the Leadership Institute at the USC business school, where I've taught for the last seven or eight years and hold the position of distinguished visiting professor. I've also given lectures there on women's experience in management and on diversity in management—lectures that are now given to all MBA students.

It has been interesting to me that the business school has been much more open and receptive to these issues than was the more traditional academic setting. I think the reason for that is the business school recognizes that these issues are real—to both employers and employees. Business schools' constituencies are looking for solutions to these problems and business schools are being responsive.

On occasion I convene a retreat for women interested in economic issues—we met at the Xerox conference center this past January to deal with new economic thinking that is essential to women. And I'm going to be a Wilson Fellow in Washington this fall, which will be a wonderful opportunity to focus on women and economics.

Region: Earlier you mentioned the need to redefine the corporate bottom line ...

Friedan: I mean something rather broader than the "bottom line" in a profit sense. We need to redefine how corporations are organized and managed. There's increasing consciousness that a "command and control" style of management which one associates with a male model isn't necessarily what works anymore, especially with small to medium sized companies. There's increasing evidence that a more flexible management style, where responsibility is distributed up and down the line, is what works best. And that kind of management style is one that will allow individual workers more flexibility—men and women. It's also a style I think women are inherently well-prepared to implement and to be effective at within the corporate setting.

Region: What's your reaction to anecdotal evidence that women are electing to climb down the corporate ladder—that after investing a lot in education and training that prepares them to be full participants in the corporate environment, they opt out?

Friedan: I think it's tremendously important that women continue to be full participants in the corporate environment, and that they continue to seek the same responsibilities, opportunities and rewards in that environment that in the past have only been available to men. Having said that, I also would have to say we haven't gained much if we define success narrowly, if we see women as making progress only if they make it to the top of a corporation.

If women see a better future for themselves, financially, in human terms, or in terms of doing something that's more fulfilling than what's available within a corporate structure, they should go for it. And there's evidence that's exactly what they're doing. I've seen statistics indicating that women are getting Small Business loans at a rate six times greater than men. That means women are out there on the cutting edge of the economy. As I've already said, it's not clear that the male model of success is working very well for men these days. Why should women tie themselves to a male model of success—much less an outdated model? One of the true measures of achievement for women is that we're starting to create our own definitions, not just using the old definitions. And incidentally, there's also anecdotal evidence that suggests men are questioning the traditional definition of success, that men are "opting out." Men have a lot to gain from not being tied into a 9 to 5, corporate life as their only option.

Region: What about women who want to define success solely in terms of their role in the family. Is that an acceptable model for today's woman within a feminist construct?

Friedan: Of course it is, as long as it meets the woman's needs as well as the family's needs. I do think women who make that choice are doing so with some degree of risk. Research has indicated that women's standard of living fell enormously following divorce reform. Our courts, in divorce cases, haven't always been consistent in recognizing a woman's contribution when she's chosen to make that contribution within the home. I do think this has been a transitional issue, it has largely affected an entire generation of women who did not have independent incomes—but for women who chose not to work at paying jobs, the issue becomes one of judicial equity. And of course, apart from divorce, there is always the question of what happens to a woman who is left a widow where there isn't an estate to meet her ongoing needs? There's emotional risk, as well. If you put all of your skills and energy into other people—your children, your husband—and your children grow up and your husband dies or leaves, you lose the context of community I talked about earlier.

Region: Much of what you're saying would suggest that you see income as being at the root of most of our social ills. Do you think income is more significant than race or gender as a determinant of success ?

Friedan: There is no denying that there has been and is still discrimination on the basis of gender and of race. Furthermore, in a time of economic stress, there's a danger of women and people of color becoming scapegoats. But I do believe that access to employment and earning is key; once that's in place, many of the social problems are relieved. There's no question that the black middle class has benefited greatly by the civil rights movement. But there is a large black underclass that still does not have access to jobs. If there's no clear road to income and status except crime, we should expect social problems. You can't solve this problem without addressing the economic issues, and the same is true with gender.

Region: Is welfare reform necessary?

Friedan: Don't make the welfare mother the scapegoat for our economic problems. There are a lot of mistaken stereotypes here. The typical welfare mother is not necessarily black, she doesn't keep having children on welfare, and she doesn't have all that many children. And eliminating welfare all together would have an insignificant impact on the economy. As far as the suggestion that's being widely discussed—two years on welfare and that's it—that isn't practical if there aren't jobs at the end of two years. There have to be good jobs and good child care.

Region: Is the woman's movement still relevant today—politically and in creating the kind of change you're supporting?

Friedan: It is certainly still needed. We've come a long way, but we haven't begun to go far enough. Where I think the movement is vulnerable is in what I've already mentioned: Creating battle lines—between men and women, old and young, black and white—isn't going to meet anyone's needs. It is also true that there is now a whole generation of women who take what's been achieved for granted. They don't understand the need to keep working to protect what we have and to achieve more. They think what they have is an irrevocable entitlement, when in fact civil rights, historically, have been won and lost before. We could lose ground again.

I had a call from a woman in Rhode Island. She was a reporter who wanted to do a story on why the women's movement in Rhode Island had died. By "died," she meant that no one was going to meetings, marching, chaining themselves to fences anymore. I told her, that's not what's needed anymore. We need to integrate our objectives for jobs into economic policy discussions. We need to be actively engaged in corporate settings, fighting for the kind of changes that will make the work place responsive to the changing needs of women and men. Marches and "events" were a necessary part of the evolution of the women's movement, but what was needed 75 years ago isn't necessarily what's needed now.

One of the remarkable changes that has taken place in the woman's movement since The Feminine Mystique was published is that women using their rights has been normalized. Important rights were won—on paper—75 years ago, but the women who used those rights were by and large women who didn't marry and didn't have children. And they were viewed in a negative way by society as being spinsters. Before The Feminine Mystique, the great majority of the few women who were in Who's Who were unmarried.

Looking at my own experience, as recently as 1958, when I was a graduate of Smith, the best women's college in America, I knew nothing of feminism, I knew very little of the battle for women's rights that took place in the last century and in the first half of this century. I thought of feminists—if I thought of them at all—as a group of neurotic spinsters suffering from penis envy. I was, after all, a psychology major, and I'd been very much influenced by Freud.

When I started to examine my own life, my mother's life—that's when I began to question the limits of women's lives and the way we were defined. And it was shocking to find how much that had been forgotten, how it had atrophied because it had not been carried into the mainstream. We need to keep those ideals active in the mainstream.

Region: Where do you go from here ?

Friedan: I've spent 25 to 30 years focusing on women's issues and the last 10 years on women and men and age. As I said before, I see no solutions in terms of power blocks. What is needed is a new vision of community, a higher vision of the good of a whole community that transcends polarization of groups. Groups have been effective in the past in achieving equality. Now we're in a position where the only way progress can continue is through a new definition of community. What is positive today—and I saw this clearly in the research I did for The Fountain of Age—is that the narrow focus of material status, the need to conform, are viewed today as irrelevant issues. People are looking for meaning in their daily lives. That means that there's a potential for people to come together to protect the ongoing stream of life in generations to come.

Region: That's a good way to end. Thank you, Ms. Friedan.