To the Editor:
After reading Rachel Shteir’s thoughtful and nuanced essay, “The Abandonment of Betty Friedan” (The Chronicle Review, September 11), I want to suggest that Friedan’s critics need to contextualize her work in the social structure of her time. In the mid-1960s when many women were reading The Feminine Mystique (1963), relatively few women in the United States were privileged to attend college and even a smaller number were admitted to graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences. These women could not read even a modest assortment of books by and about women. Through the 1970s, my own doctoral program in English recognized as worthy of study maybe one novel by George Eliot, a few poems by Emily Dickenson, and a nod to Virginia Woolf. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1953) was not on the list.
Almost all historical literature authored by women and people of color was not available in print so if enterprising graduate students did discover the existence of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1790) or Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a Woman” (1851), they would have been hard-pressed to locate an archive holding any edition. It was 1970s projects, such as The Feminist Press’s reprint series, the MLA Commission on the Status of Women’s “Women in Print” volumes, and small feminist journals, that made texts available well before commercial publishers took an interest in reprinting them.
I am emphasizing reading because in the 1960s most women were compartmentalized within a small circle of family, friends, and church or community groups. They were not discussing their circumstances as “the subordinate sex” until the early to mid-1970s when conscious-raising groups were proliferating in communities and on campuses across the country. The sharing of lived experiences in such groups and important 1970s books — for instance, Caroline Bird’s Born Female: The High Cost of Keeping Women Down (1968), Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1970), Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970), and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970) — allowed women to begin mapping the structures of oppression inflected by sex/gender, race, class, and other identity categories.
At a time when actual travel was rare, the internet and social media did not exist, and mainstream sources propagated the ideological status quo, we learned by reading, talking, observing, and gathering at local protests. Did Friedan and other Second Wave feminists make mistakes? Sure! But consider the structural formation(s) in which they were positioned.
Professor of English
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities