Twentieth Century history has been driven by great conceptualizersfrom
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 womenwomen
who were selected across race and class lineswhat 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 anywhereand 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 administrationand
Robert Reich, too, at Laborseem 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 managementlectures 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 realto 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 issueswe
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 flexibilitymen
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 ladderthat 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
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 successmuch 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
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 incomesbut
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 peopleyour
children, your husbandand 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 discussedtwo years on welfare
and that's itthat 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 todaypolitically
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 linesbetween
men and women, old and young, black and whiteisn'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
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 wonon paper75
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 feministsif
I thought of them at allas 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 lifethat'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 todayand
I saw this clearly in the research I did for The Fountain of Ageis
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.