Betty Friedan's Mixed Legacy
Serrin M. Foster, President, Feminists for Life
Betty Friedan, who launched the '70's women's movement with her 1963 landmark book, The Feminine Mystique, died on her 85th birthday, Saturday, February 5, 2006, in Washington, D.C.
Life for women changed dramatically after Friedan challenged the limitation of women's roles to wife and mother. She rightly deserves much credit from women today who can seek careers in professions previously open only to men.
It was one of the most significant social changes in history. But there is more to the legacy of the co-founder and first president of the National Organization for Women.
At the same time another movement was emerging—one whose mission would eclipse the goals of the NOW-led women's movement.
The other movement was founded by two men: Larry Lader, who was concerned with population control, and Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who had seen a botched abortion and believed that if abortion was legal, it would be safer for women.
Lader and Nathanson, co-founders of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, were unsuccessful in their attempts to persuade state legislators to repeal laws designed to protect women and children from abortion. Many of these laws were the result of advocacy and cooperation by suffragists, doctors and media a hundred years earlier.
According to Nathanson, who later became a pro-life advocate, Lader came up with a different strategy. They approached Friedan and other leaders in the women's movement whose goal had been equality, especially equality in the workplace.
If women wanted to be hired like men, paid like men and promoted like men, Lader argued, then women shouldn't expect employers to deal with women's fertility issues. Why should the boss contend with maternity leave and benefits, or time off when a child is sick, in a school play or in sports? If women could control their fertility, then women could compete with men for employment.
Friedan was reportedly not comfortable with abortion. To overcome her reticence, the founders of NARAL simply fabricated a false number of 10,000 women a year who had died from abortion. According to Nathanson the real numbers were probably closer to 500 a year.
With Friedan's acceptance of abortion, later editions of her landmark book were edited to include an epilogue promoting a “right to choose childbirth or abortion.”
Friedan's acceptance of the premise that women's rights should come at the expense of our children was a far cry from our feminist foremothers like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
The same women who fought for the right of slaves to be free and women to vote, also fought for the right to life. Stanton, who in 1848 organized the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, classified abortion as a form of infanticide. She said, “When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women that we should treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.” Victory Woodhull, the first woman to run for president, said that the “rights of children as individuals begin while yet they remain the foetus.”
Anthony believed that the solution to abortion would be found in addressing the root causes that drive women to abortion.
Stanton, who celebrated her maternity by raising a flag in front of her home, would have been well aware that women died in great numbers from giving birth. Women were a century away from the benefits of antibiotics, cesarean sections, or the prenatal care available to women in a developed country in the later half of the twentieth century, but Stanton did not believe that abortion was the answer.
Without known exception, the early American feminists opposed abortion in no uncertain terms.
A century later, Sarah Weddington successfully argued Roe v. Wade in part on the grounds that women couldn't complete their education if pregnant, and Lader and Nathanson convinced Friedan and other leaders of the women's movement that abortion was necessary to achieve equality in the workplace.
It became “Our body. Our choice.” And “our problem.”
Since then, women have struggled to make it in a man's world. Women often feel forced to choose between their education and career goals and their children. One can only imagine how the lives of 25 or 30 million American women would have been different if Friedan and her contemporaries had rejected abortion as a solution to the problems women face and instead told the NARAL founders “Women have children. Get over it.”
Though her legacy is mixed, Betty Friedan's work opened doors to women. This positive dimension should be remembered by all feminists. Feminists for Life will build on advancements for women in the workplace by pressing for more resources and support for pregnant women and parents, so women will not feel forced to choose.
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