Friedan and King: Super Models

Susan J. Douglas

Within the space of a week, three stories were front page news – the deaths of Betty Friedan and Coretta Scott King and this newsflash from the New York Times: Some Democrats Are Sensing Missed Opportunities.”

Recall life in 1964: Abortion was illegal, there were no sexual harassment laws, no battered women’s shelters and a conviction of rape required two eyewitnesses.

Talk about understatement, especially when the whopping lies of the Bush administration continue to pile up (Bush never met Abramoff, domestic spying is legal, no one at the White House knew the levees had broken). The old white guys in the party – Harry Reid, John Kerry, Howard Dean – and the disappointing female leaders like Pelosi and especially Hillary Clinton (Joe Leiberman in drag) would do well to consider what Freidan and King achieved in their lifetimes. 

King, of course, endured real threats to her and her family’s safety and, as Jimmy Carter pointedly reminded us (bless you, Jimmy), surveillance of their private life. She was enormously courageous. But so was Friedan, who forged ahead to change the lives of millions of women of several generations despite ongoing ridicule of her politics and, crucially and repeatedly, her looks. But in addition to the lessons in courage the Democrats might take from these women, they might note that both women fought for concrete, systematic policies and laws – to be enacted and enforced by, yes, state and federal governments – that dramatically reduced and, in some cases, ended inequality.

The major obituaries of Friedan, especially in the Times and on PBS’s News Hour,” either missed or underplayed this point entirely. Instead, it seemed that the main things Friedan did was coin a term – the feminine mystique” – and change people’s minds about women’s roles. It’s true, The Feminine Mystique was the number one bestselling paperback of 1964 and it has continued, to this day, to help women appreciate the costs of being defined only as a wife and mother, and of being economically and emotionally dependent on men. In this age when cultural politics and discourse seem to matter more than the law, the obits highlighted Friedan’s contribution to consciousness raising, and downplayed how she and legions of feminist allies fought for a new legal system.

So let’s remember what economic, political and social life was like for women in 1964. Want ads in the newspapers were segregated by gender, meaning that women simply could not apply for some jobs. Discrimination and admissions quotas to graduate and professional schools meant that women could be nurses but not doctors, teachers but not professors, secretaries but not managers or executives, paralegals but not lawyers. It was worse for African American and Latina women, who were consigned primarily to domestic and agricultural work. High school and college sports were for boys, not girls. Women could not get credit cards or mortgages in their own names, and when a couple applied for a mortgage the wife’s salary was not counted because it was pin money.” Abortion was illegal, there were no sexual harassment laws, no battered women’s shelters and a woman had to have two eyewitnesses to get a rape conviction. There was no pregnancy leave, and once a married working woman got pregnant, she also got fired.

All of this has changed because of legislation and court cases: not ideas and discourse alone, but the law. In 1963, Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act and in 1964, at the last minute, women succeeded in getting the word sex” added to the list of things you could not discriminate against in the Civil Rights Act – the all-important Title VII. Some congressmen regarded the addition of this word as a joke, so laughingly approved it, thinking no one would actually enforce such a prohibition. They were wrong. With the founding of the National Organization for Women in 1966, Friedan and a cohort of feminist compatriots began suing entities in violation of the law – and winning.

Coretta Scott King continued her husband’s work on racial justice and peace. She also dedicated herself to establishing the King Center in Atlanta and to advocating that her husband’s birthday become a national holiday. As a result, institutions all over the country, especially schools, take a day to recall what the Civil Rights Movement did accomplish, and what still needs to be done.

If the Democrats would truly study what these women accomplished, they might have something to say that would include plans for new institution building and legislative initiatives. They might say, We fought against poverty before, we can do it again. We fought to support women and children before, we can do it again. We fought against racial injustice before, we can do it again.” 

Democrats don’t need to raise people’s consciousness about these issues. Like Friedan and King, they need to offer concrete proposals for progress before we regress to a time when nothing seemed possible.

Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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