What does feminism mean today, given that it is fifty years since the beginnings of ‘second-wave’ feminism?

GEA Policy Report, March 2013

It is fifty years since the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and nowadays it is often claimed that this book launched the women’s movement in the USA, and what is now called ‘second wave’ feminism worldwide. Given this, there have been, and are about to be, a series of events to celebrate Friedan’s publication and to discuss what feminism means today, and what has changed in the world, especially in the so-called ‘global north’. Is feminism alive and well in education and academia, or what has happened to it?

This coming week BBC’s Radio 4 has a series of events, beginning with Start the Week at 9 a.m. on Monday, followed by the Woman’s Hour Debate at 10 a.m chaired by Jane Garvey. Listeners are invited to add their thoughts by phone, email or by tweeting @bbcwomanshour #feminism.

Yesterday, The Guardian had an article entitled ‘My hero: Betty Friedan by Lionel Shriver’, the writer, in which she too mentioned that

‘50 years on…it is worth touching base with The Feminine Mystique which reminds us not to idolize that bygone life of lie-ins…such leisure came at a heavy price: a marriage that was in no way an equal partnership…[it] goads me to gratitude that, thanks to forerunners like Betty Friedan, I’ve had the opportunity to pursue a career…’

Last week there was a panel discussing The Feminine Mystique50 years on – at Jewish Book Week, chaired by Lisa Appignanesi, the feminist writer and including on the panel Bidisha, the young grrl writer, Julie Bindel, the feminist journalist, and Leah Thorn, the feminist poet. The chair and the three panelists commented first on their ‘personal and political’ reading of the book, followed by a discussion about the state of feminism today. Lisa opened the discussion by announcing the publication of her new edited collection, with the rather bizarre title Fifty Shades of Feminism and including a contribution by one of the panelists, Bidisha. There was indeed a bit of a discussion about whether Fifty Shades of Grey was only a modern version of Mills and Boon romance with some soft porn thrown in or whether it was a pernicious example of sado-masochism, and the wielding of male sexual power. Lisa felt it was the former and not harmful, whereas Julie took a rather more hardline view.

What was fascinating about the discussion was the fact that, as Leah Thorn put it, she was very pleased to be there as she got to think and talk about feminism for a whole hour uninterrupted! This is indeed a testimony to the ways in which feminism is now on the public and popular agenda in ways in which is wasn’t 50 years ago – when the term was barely used! She also gave a beautifully crafted comment on her own life as a Jewish teenage girl from Gants Hill when the book was published. She also mentioned that she was in New York in September 2012 for the memorial for Shulamith Firestone, who had died in the summer. Her book The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution was published 7 years later than Friedan’s and was altogether more radical and revolutionary in tone, although Friedan’s book had launched consciousness-raising groups which quickly spread across the Atlantic, and the National Organisation of Women (NOW).  Yet Leah argued that she had not been politicized through a book, but more through immersion in political activities as a young woman.

And curiously, for a panel made up of writers at a book week, the other panelists agreed with her. Indeed it seems to me that the other panelists had only made a cursory reading of the book and misunderstood its purpose and content. Julie Bindel argued that Betty Friedan was middle class and liberal, and became a leader in the USA of the women’s movement, illustrating the difference between the US and UK women’s movements. Bidisha argued that so many points of the book bear repeating so that it was great and full of dynamism, but the book was both classist and racist, because it implied that women did not work, and yet women have always worked. Nevertheless, she argued that Friedan identified a feeling of dissatisfaction, which led to a revolution.

Whilst Julie Bindel may well have been right to comment upon Friedan’s ‘homophobia’ and how this came out in the subsequent sexual politics of the women’s movement, what neither Bidisha nor Bindel seemed to be aware of were Friedan’s early political formation as a trade unionist and worker, at the time of rampant McCarthyism, so that she was often in danger of imprisonment for her politics and her views. She was forced to give up her job on becoming pregnant, which is why she decided to continue with freelance journalism, and writing the book, based upon her earlier survey of housewives, about what she identified as ‘the problem that has no name’, university-educated women feeling dissatisfied with having to give up paid employment to rear children and tend their husbands.

If we have come full circle, as Lionel Shriver argued, ‘actually being at home when a delivery arrives from Amazon’ there remains dissatisfaction…Perhaps the university-educated women of today who are married and mothers are the ones who are reading Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels but would they want to read Fifty Shades of Feminism?  What then is the state of feminism today?

It is quite clear to me, from my research for Feminism, Gender and Universities (to be published by Routledge, summer 2013) that many university-educated women were politicized by The Feminine Mystique and other books published in the 1960s and 1970s, so that academic feminism became above all a passion as well as a politics and a pedagogy. The global academy now has a multitude of academic feminists, still feeling passionate about their work, but nevertheless, feminism is still an ongoing struggle. Whilst there are more women than men as students in universities, the problems of male violence and sexual abuse or harassment have not gone away. Nowadays, it is almost invariably mentioned that a victim is or has been a student. Most recently, Reeva Steenkamp, the woman shot by Oscar Pistorius, was described as a law graduate who was about to deliver a talk on Valentine’s Day to schoolchildren about sexual abuse. What can we then contribute to this week’s radio debates about the state of feminism today?

Miriam David, GEA Policy Officer



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