(WOMENSENEWS)– In 2002 with a Rutgers colleague and a film crew, I interviewed the then 81-year-old Betty Friedan at her summer home in Sag Harbor, Long Island. The women’s movement seemed stalled then, and we wanted her perspective.
Did the author of "The Feminine Mystique" (1963), the book credited with igniting the modern women’s movement, think that by the mid-21st century our children and grandchildren would have breathed new life into that unfinished movement?
Our upbeat subject replied that by mid-century, there might be no need for a women’s movement.
"Well, I hope that by then our focus will not long have to be on women as such, or women vis a vis men . . . [that] we will have achieved what at the moment we seem to be achieving — real equality between men and women," Friedan said.
Indeed, Friedan insisted that even without an activist women’s movement then, gender equality was advancing.
"I see it in my sons . . . I sense it in the culture generally. The man with the baby in the backpack is no longer a freakish sight on the streets of our cities today."
Still, Friedan guarded her abiding allegiance to activism. What was needed in the 21st century, she told us, was "something larger" than a women’s movement — namely, a "people’s movement" with diverse leaders of both sexes acting together and championing not just women’s rights but civil rights, unions, youth movements and more. It was exciting, but it sounded like a fantasy.
Friedan died four years later on Feb. 4, 2006, her 85th birthday.
From ‘Occupy’ to Ferguson
Were she still with us, she would surely have welcomed the renewed protests, starting in 2011 with Occupy Wall Street to the recent protests around Ferguson. She might even have envisioned them turning into the "people’s movement" she described to us.
She would also have appreciated (mostly) the exciting new film, "She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry." It is the first ever feature-length documentary on the U.S. women’s movement (1966-1971). Lively coverage includes everything from a humorous sidewalk "ogle-in," with women turning the tables on leering men, to engaging conversations with many early movement leaders.
"She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry" highlights Friedan’s presidency of the then-new National Organization for Women and her leadership of the "Strike for Equality" march in New York City on Aug. 26, 1970, celebrating the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Drawing 50,000 people, this was the first feminist event with nationwide TV coverage and front-page headlines.
Friedan held fractious liberal and radical wings together with an agenda — still mostly unfulfilled after 45 years — of equal pay for equal work, abortion on demand, funded child care and paid prenatal leave. Then Sen. Jennings Randolph, of West Virginia, called the marchers "a band of bra-less bubbleheads." But President Richard Nixon issued a proclamation naming Aug. 26 "Women’s Rights Day."
Award-winning director Mary Dore acknowledges that she became "obsessed" with this project after realizing that the civil rights and anti-war movements were already widely documented. Fundraising was her biggest challenge, and even liberal foundations that supported her earlier projects backed off. Some worried about her including abortion; others alleged, mistakenly, that the women’s movement had already been well covered.
A Subject ‘So Neglected’
"It amazed me that the subject was so neglected. It was arguably the biggest social movement of the last century, yet doesn’t get the respect of other 1960s movements for reasons both complex and very simple: it’s about women," said Dore in an interview with Indiewire.
Naming young people her target audience, Dore hopes the film’s historical content will help them in their renewed organizing efforts.
But what might a revived women’s movement look like? What would it mean, in 2015, to "finish" the unfinished women’s movement?
One intriguing answer to these questions landed on our laps on Jan. 20. In an historic first for a State of the Union address, President Barack Obama put a central focus on the role of women in the economy. But his message was for everybody.
"It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us," the president said. "Things like child care and sick leave and equal pay will make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of Americans. That is a fact. And that’s what all of us — Republicans and Democrats alike — were sent here to do."
Now it’s our turn. Together, women and men of all races and ages can speak with a single voice on the need for child care, paid maternal and sick leave and equal pay –issues that impact us all.
Maybe there is something to Friedan’s idea of a "people’s revolution" after all.
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