BETTY FRIEDAN'S The Second Stage is the right book at the right time. She sees the problems facing women now. She has ideas about how to deal with them. And the thrust of her solutions push the women's movement back toward the mainstream of American thought about where the good life takes place--in that small group of familiars called the family.
Eighteen years ago in The Feminine Mystique she said, "The problem that has no name stirring in the minds of so many women today is not a matter of loss of femininity or too much education, or the demands of domesticity. It is far more important than anyone realizes. It is the key to . . . new and old problems which have been torturing women and their husbands and children, and puzzling their doctors and educators for years. . . . We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: 'I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.'"
It was 1963. In the decade and a half that followed, a confluence of forces beyond anyone's imagination-- massive use of oral contraceptives, a monstrously inflationary war in Vietnam, more inflation from OPEC oil and federal fiscal policies, and the informed will of our first post-World War II generation of college-educated women--gave American females some of what they wanted.
They organized themselves to gain access to power outside the family. They learned how to change the behavior of institutions. Because they had acquired control over their childbearing bodies they could enter business, industry, and government with plans to stay. They got some of what they wanted because standards of living would fall without wives and mothers at work. Moreover the U.S. economy could not face foreign productivity unless women worked.
Women flew from the kitchen, and today about 52 percent of all women between 19 and 59 years old are employed. Friedan cites one study showing nearly 90 percent of all women over 40 work. Only 11 percent of all U.S. families consist of dad on the job, and mom at home with the kids. Fifty-eight percent of all mothers of school children work. The change has affected American life all the way from the size of grocery stores to the frequency of church services. The family of Right-to-Life and presidential fantasy no longer exists.
But Friedan senses "something off, out of focus, going wrong" as women try to live the fuller life of economic participation and equality that she, Gloria Steinem, and others in the women's movement fought for. "I sense the exhilaration of 'superwomen' (women who've broken through to the executive suite and enjoyed the tokens of professional and political equality) giving way to a tiredness, a certain brittle disappointment, a disillusionment with 'assertiveness training' and the rewards of power."
Right. Things have gone awry, and at least half of The Second Stage is description and analysis of the women's movement off the road, while the Moral Majority, Ronald Reagan, and various Neanderthal forces bear down with a wrecker.
Many of the gains of the 1960s and 1970s are in jeopardy. The Equal Rights Amendment is short of ratification, and time ends next June. Congress is threatening to amend or circumvent the Constitution in order to void the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming women's right to abortion; this especially strikes at "the personhood of women" because oral contraceptives and intrauterine devices have proved dangerous or defective. An array of federal entitlement programs equalizing access, protection, or compensation have been crippled or reversed by Ronald Reagan and an intimidated Congress. If the economy fails or falters, women will lose jobs faster than men. Women's freedom is economically contingent. Therefore it can be lost.
Even women's gains are illusory. Women earn an average of "fifty-nine cents to every dollar men earn, the average male high-school dropout today earning $1,600 more a year than female college graduates." Some of the largest corporations in America have admitted pay discrimination against women. In some states women must prove, in court, the equitability of their contributions to a marriage in order to share in property after divorce. In 1979 8 million women headed households, half of them on less than $10,000 a year, and a third on less than $7,000.
Women themselves, says Friedan, have placed the gains of the women's movement at risk. "We must at least admit and begin openly to discuss feminist denial of the importance of family, of women's own needs to give and get love and nurture, tender loving care," she says. Burning bras and operating as if their freedom was to be won in bedroom battles, women have let the Moral Majority and Right-to-Lifers claim family as their property. Gay separatists have diverted the movement into sexual politics. Victors and activists have been corrupted by power. Upon election to Congress, appointment to government, elevation in the corporation, women have abandoned the issues and constituencies that brought them to power and have compromised or acquiesced on women's issues to stay there. Fifty-two percent of the U.S. population are women, but women failed their U.S. senators in the 1980 election. Nearly all women's rights supporters lost.
Friedan knows what's wrong with the movement. She also knows what women want because she is a clinical psychologist by training, and she founded and served as first president of the National Organization for Women.
Friedan says women want what we all want--everything, or as much of it as we can get. They want to work and to choose when to have children. They want to participate fully in all aspects of the world around them-- business, politics, education, sport, social service--but they also want freedom to do that for which they are uniquely qualified. They want to be able to bear and rear children, and they want help from men and the institutions men have made.
The basic question our society must answer, says Friedan, is this:
"Must--can--women now meet a standard of perfection in the workplace set in the past by and for men who had wives to take care of all the details of living and--at the same time--meet a standard of performance at home and as mothers that was set in the past by women whose whole sense of worth, power and mastery had to come from being perfect, all-controlling housewives and mothers?"
Her answer has to be "no" because woman has a double set of needs: "Power, identity, status and social security through her own work or action in society, which the reactionary enemies of feminism deny; and the need for love, identity, status, security, and generation through marriage, children, home, the family, which those feminists still locked in their own extreme reaction deny. Both sets of needs are essential to women, and to the evolving human condition."
Friedan is less clear about how both sets of needs can be met. But the women's movement has gone beyond the "feminist mystique" of the pill and unshaven legs. It has entered what she calls "the second stage: the restructuring of our institutions on the basis of real equality for women and men, so we can live a new 'yes' to life and love, and choose to have children."
The gains of the past must be preserved and advanced --ERA, job equality, full sharing in family assets, control over childbearing. But now we must change how we work and live. Friedan says women and men need flexible working hours so one or the other can see the kids off to school or greet them when they come home. We need a national policy for maternity and paternity leaves so women can bear children without loss of job or seniority, and men can truly become parents.
She says women must press for new alternatives to child care, "using services and funds from a variety of sources (public and private, companies, unions, churches, city state, federal agencies, but always parent- controlled), demanding tax incentives and innovations like a voucher system."
She tells us that "the second stage has to focus on a domestic revolution within the home and extending, in effect, the concept of home. We have to take new control of our home life, as well as work life." Men and women must share roles at home. But they need new physical and special designs in housing and neighborhoods to take into account the changing, shifting needs of women and men, singly or in couples, with or without children. And Friedan calls for new kinds of buildings and communities in which kitchens, dining rooms, recreational areas are shared while each family has private space. Sweden offers models.
She has other good ideas, like child allowances, job rehabilitation for mothers, and community family service centers. She has read her Paul Goodman, Karl Menninger, and Milton Friedman. But what she doesn't have--and probably can't devise at this time--is a strategy or even a tactic to convert the second stage into action.
The prognosis isn't good. Women voted against themselves in 1980. Friedan cites surveys showing women don't want day-care centers and we spend less on such services than most industrialized countries. She pretty well proves that women start acting like men when they get men's power. The Congress is a near-perfect example.
She knows what women are up against: "In all known political terms, the women's movement as we knew it has come to a dead end; the problems are insoluble."
But she has hope. It lies with men. She believes the women's movement has led men to ask new questions about their own lives--what work is for, what families mean, what love does. And she thinks a convergence of mutual interest may "provide a new power and energy for solutions that seem impossible today." I suspect economics more than idealism will do it.
There are things wrong with Friedan's The Second Stage. Most of them are matters of style or taste. Friedan's case histories fatten the book in the absence of program proposals. She tells us too often that she is at the power center of the women's movement, talking to big shots and lecturing at West Point. Her material is repetitious, disorganized, and written in a hurry.
But one only notes the flaws to dismiss them. The Second Stage is intelligent, compassionate, and pertinent. It's an education. And it provides a course of action, especially for men. If we don't want for our mothers, wives, and daughters the freedom we have, why is it worth having? If we are not partners with women, what are we?