Ten years ago it would have sounded like the title of a farce or fantasy. A feminist conference on the future of the family? In 1970, women liberationists would have produced a wake instead of a day of seminars.
But last week, Betty Friedan told those assembled at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund event, "Today we turn the page to a new future." She officially staked out the family as feminist turf.
There has been a sea change in the women's movement.
At the first crest, many women saw the family they grew up in or lived in as an indoctrination center of prison of the female spirit. Younger and radical women, in particular, talked as if the future of the family belonged to the archaeologists.
The feminine mystique had told women only to view themselves in the context of their families. Feminism told women to view their "selves" totally outside of that context. The feminine mystique taught women to ask: "What do others want?" Feminism taught women to ask: "What do I want?"
But, over time, the women who asked themselves what they wanted added something to the list: a rich family life. Over time; women who explored their selves found that they wanted others. Many who grew confident and independent could risk and embrace mutual dependency; other acknowledged or rediscovered the pleasure of nurturing along with achieving.
Moderate feminists like Friedan had long warned against exchanging the feminine mystique with a feminist mystique, but other wome simply changed. Now, when you look around at the old radicals, you see more mothers.
Phyllis Chesler, the author of "Women and Madness," has published "With Child," a rich, honest diary of the explosive mix of feelings about childbearing. Jan Peterson, a member of the first radical consciousness-raising group, attended this seminar with her baby, and talked about homemaking. Still others have reconnected with their families, reconfirming the organic parts of their own identities.
This has happened naturally. There is a rhythm to most ideologies that move from 12-point programs to complexity, from intellectual purity to humanity.
But feminism has evolved against a backdrop of political change. While feminists were preparing for this sea change, members of the conservative, anti-feminist movement had grabbed the family as their issue. "The Family," as they portray it, is one with a father-breadwinner, mother-homemaker and children. It is a traditional vision rooted in nostalgia more than reality. But it is the ideal they defend.
Sooner of later, feminists with their renewed sense of family as a priority -- but a very different definition of family -- would engage in a debate. Today, curiously, feminist and anti-feminist are each out "pro-familying" the other.
There is, in short, a basic argument going on about who is For What Family. At the NOW conference, virtually every speaker noted that only 7 percent of the families in the country are what traditionalists persist in thinking of as The Family. They noted that by 1990, according to the Urban Institute, half of all the mothers of preschool children would be working. They noted the statistics on single parent families.
The futurist, Alvin Toffler, said at lunch: "I see us not witnessing the breakup of the family but revolution in the concept of families."
The anti-change people look at these statistics and see the family as an endangered species that can only be protected by making alternatives difficult and painful, by marketing guilt against employed mothers and by lobbying against day care for the children of working parents.
The women's movement, on the other hand, sees in these realities the family surviving in a range of new forms. In the seminars, they explored ways to bring emotional or corporate or public support to alleviate stress; from extending flexitime at work, to improving the status of homemakers, to creating new housing environments, to balancing the demands of work and home.
So, whole one group rages against the change in the name of the family, another carries into this future a new sense of the importance of this belonging.
As Friedan said, "There was hypocrisy about the family, a denial of personal truths from extremists of our own movement. We must ground ourselves again in our personal lives. We have the need to love and be loved. To nurture and be nurtured. We are not turning our backs on the future of the family."
They have, in fact, formally and publicly laid claim to the leadership of the "pro-family" movement.