I believe that every woman should be a money-producing unit. Needing the money has nothing at all to do with it. But just being able to tell anyone that you have three cents of your own and won’t they please mind their own business; to know that you are free and independent and can call your soul your own—that is what economic independence is. We need not worry at all about the home, for what one may consider neglect of the home today, may, in fifty years from now, be considered intelligent care of the home.
Ruth Hale, journalist and feminist
The above quotation is from a 1929 magazine article titled, “Has Modern Woman Disrupted the Home?” As was discussed in Part 1 of this essay, one only has to look at what early feminists wrote half a century or more before Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique to see that the ideology of contemporary feminism is in some ways identical to, and in other ways a progression from, feminism of the early 20th century.
Those early feminists spoke of woman’s freedom and fulfillment as something necessarily to be found outside of the home and of daycare and nannies as the desired norm for childcare. They spoke of their desire for an equality with men that would blur or erase sex differences as much as is possible, believing, as later feminists did, that much of what differentiates woman from man is socially constructed. They already spoke about birth control and the need to control the number and timing of pregnancies if women were to achieve freedom and fulfillment in their lives.
How is this different from the wave of feminism that began in the 1960s? Perhaps feminist victories such as legalized abortion on demand were not in the dreams of these early feminists. Nevertheless, the writings of these early feminists reveal that the ideology they were forging is the ideology that led to the idea that abortion is a woman’s right, and other calling cards of second wave feminism. Early feminists believed that economic independence is essential to women’s emancipation, and since most women will marry and have children, the baby becomes the “great problem.” Second wave feminists then developed a three-pronged approach for the baby problem: abortion, birth control and daycare—all three of which were advanced under the guise of women’s freedom and “rights.”
The main idea of The Feminine Mystique, the influential book that helped launch second wave feminism, is American post-war culture imposed an oppressive standard of femininity on women—that she should dedicate herself to her family and her home—which obstructed her from reaching her full human identity. Only in leaving the home and becoming educated, or using the education she has, and entering a profession and becoming financially independent, will she become fully human, leaving behind her immature and incomplete self.
The following quotes from the Mystique are a few “highlights” from the book:
Housewives are not human: “It is urgent to understand how the very condition of being a housewife can create a sense of emptiness, non-existence, nothingness, in women. There are aspects of the housewife role that make it almost impossible for a woman of adult intelligence to retain a sense of human identity, the firm core of self or ‘I’ without which a human being, man or woman, is not truly alive.”
Housewives are like concentration camp victims: “For women of ability, in America today, I am convinced there is something about the housewife state itself that is dangerous. In a sense that is not as farfetched as it sounds, the women who ‘adjust’ as housewives, who grow up wanting to be ‘just a housewife,’ are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps—and the millions more who refused to believe that the concentration camps existed.”
Friedan called for “drastic steps” and “emergency measures” to correct the problem of women remaining in the housewife role including a government-subsidized national education program for women to get them out of the home.
In the epilogue to the book she calls for a complete restructuring of society—“a sex-role revolution for men and women which will restructure all our institutions: child rearing, education, marriage, the family, the architecture of the home, the practice of medicine, work, politics, the economy, religion, psychological theory, human sexuality, morality, and the very evolution of the race.”
The main ideas of The Feminine Mystique as described above became the backbone of second wave feminism, and, as Suzanne Venker and Phyllis Schlafly point out in The Flipside of Feminism, Friedan’s worldview is the one that “many Americans have been raised to accept.” In Domestic Tranquility, F. Carolyn Graglia writes, “Most of the writing on women and the family after The Feminine Mystique has been based on this perception of the housewife’s inferiority” and “society is now embued with the message” of The Feminine Mystique.
The ideological bloodlines which can be traced from the beginning of feminism in the 1910s to the feminism of the 1960s should give pause to anyone who thinks that feminism turned bad in the 60s, or that feminism in the U.S. began with the ideas of Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique. Friedan’s thinking echoes the thoughts of earlier feminists such as Henrietta Rodman and Charlotte Perkins Gilman as discussed in Part 1 of this essay.
What may surprise conservative, traditionally-minded women who abhor second wave feminism but look upon the first wave of feminism as benign is that sexual liberation and economic independence for women through use of birth control was already on the agenda of feminism in the early 20th century.
As Nancy Cott writes in The Grounding of Modern Feminism, “Severing the ties the woman movement had to Christianity, Feminism also abandoned the stance of moral superiority, which was tied to sexual purity, and evoked instead women’s sexuality…Sex outside of marriage in the 1910s was outlawry befitting Feminist aims to explode the understructure of conventional society.”
“The birth control movement in the 1910s, however, appealed to Feminists on many counts and was the most obvious political form their ideas on sexuality took…It spoke for women’s exercise of their sexuality and control over their reproductive capacity free of state interference.”
Margaret Sanger, the well-known birth control advocate and founder of Planned Parenthood, was one of these early feminists.
Another feminist and advocate for birth control was Crystal Eastman. Eastman, a lawyer and a suffragist, wrote an article for the Birth Control Review in 1918 explaining her views on feminism and birth control (emphasis is added):
Feminism means different things to different people, I suppose. To women with a taste for politics and reform it means the right to vote and hold office. To women physically strong and adventuresome it means freedom to enter all kinds of athletic contests and games, to compete with men in aviation, to drive racing cars…to enter dangerous trades, etc. To many it means social and sex freedom, doing away with exclusively feminine virtues. To most of all it means economic freedom…This is to me the central fact of feminism.
Whether other feminists would agree with me that the economic is the fundamental aspect of feminism, I don’t know. But on this we are surely agreed, that Birth Control is an elementary essential in all aspects of feminism. Whether we are the special followers of Alice Paul or Ruth Law, or Ellen Key, or Olive Schreiner, we must all be followers of Margaret Sanger.
Life is a big battle for the complete feminist even when she can regulate the size of her family. Women who are creative, or who have administrative gifts, or business ability, and who are ambitious to achieve and fulfill themselves in these lines, if they also have the normal desire to be mothers, must make up their minds to be a sort of supermen, I think. They must develop greater powers of concentration, a stronger will to “keep at it,” a more determined ambition than men of equal gifts, in order to make up for the time and energy and thought and devotion that child-bearing, even in the most “advanced” families, seems inexorably to demand of the mother. But if we add to this handicap complete uncertainty as to when children may come, how often they come or how many there shall be, the thing becomes impossible. I would almost say that the whole structure of the feminist’s dream of society rests upon the rapid extension of scientific knowledge about birth control.
As the readers of this magazine well know, the laws of this state, instead of establishing free clinics as necessary centers of information for the facts about sex hygiene and birth control, actually make it a crime, even on the part of a doctor, to tell grown men and women how to limit the size of their families. What could be a more pressing demand on the released energies of all these valiant suffrage workers than to repeal the law?
According to Cott, these early feminists “took as their mentor the democratic theorist Mary Wollstonecraft and revered her for her norm-defying sexual life as well as for her vindication of the rights of women.” Further, Cott writes, “feminism can be seen as a demand to extend to women the individualistic premises of the political theory of liberalism.”
Feminists in the 1960s also took Wollstonecraft as their mentor, and Betty Friedan and her followers became known as “liberal feminists” (as opposed to “radical feminists”—although anti-feminists tend to think of the liberal feminists as the radical ones).
An argument can be made that feminism as an organized political movement only came into being in the 1960s. However, feminism as an ideology with adherents organizing in small groups did exist much earlier than the 1960s. The seeds were planted in the early part of the 20th century—and earlier as is evidenced in the radical thinking of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton—for what was sown by feminists from the 1960s on.
Part 3 of this essay to be posted next week.