Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Kate Millett essentially made 1960s feminism. They accepted and amplified Simone De Beauvoir’s assertions about a patriarchy that subjugated women and privileged men. Such a conception necessarily dehumanized men and promoted revolutionary anger.
We have seen that far from being a new phenomenon, feminism was already a force to be reckoned with by the mid-twentieth century.
It had flexed its power at the turn of the century in winning women’s political rights. It had infiltrated international organizations such as the League of Nations and, later, the United Nations. Its narratives of female victimization and male sexual brutality were becoming more widely accepted.
By the 1950s, the time was ripe for a general assault on traditional mores in America. Criticisms of capitalism and consumer culture were being developed in American universities by New Left academics such as political theorist Herbert Marcuse and sociologist Charles Wright Mills.
The major themes of feminism— “centuries of oppression” and “gender as a social construct”—had been given an intellectual gloss in the resentful treatises of English novelist Virginia Woolf and Parisian existentialist Simone De Beauvoir.
Enter three highly-educated American women who would translate feminist theory into popular narratives of rebellion that led to the Take Back the Night marches and the abortion advocacy that were to characterize feminism’s so-called Second Wave. These three authors gained so much national and international acclaim that the truth of their words, or lack thereof, hardly mattered.
Published in 1963, Betty Friedan’s blockbuster The Feminine Mystique was an elaborate fabrication dressed up as Friedan’s personal story. Friedan (1921-2006) complained in the book that after gaining the vote and professional opportunities, American women had been forced back into domesticity by a propaganda campaign of unmatched ferocity. The feminine mystique, as she called it, allegedly told women that their only possible destiny was “the career of wife-mother-homemaker” (p. 260). “Housework, washing dishes, [and] diaper-changing had to be dressed up by the new mystique to become equal to splitting atoms [and] penetrating outer space” (p. 284).
Yet despite authoritative sounding pronouncements by psychiatrists and sociologists and women’s magazines, it wasn’t working, Friedan claimed, not for countless women living lives of quiet desperation. They were literally countless because Friedan never attempted to count them, simply asserting that they were everywhere: women bored, frustrated, and lost, she said, possessed by a deep yearning for something more. Friedan called their discontent “the problem that has no name” (p. 58), and to emphasize its severity, she wrote of a “high incidence of emotional breakdown and suicide among women in their twenties and thirties” (p. 22), though, again, she didn’t give readers any numbers, making it impossible to know how many women were actually driven to end their lives by the experience of greater prosperity and security than had ever existed before.
Friedan scoffed at those who were skeptical of her thesis. One could be unhappy even in the midst of plenty, she stressed, telling readers that the suburban woman’s home was “in reality a comfortable concentration camp” in which women were “suffering a slow death of mind and spirit” (p. 369). Only a “self-chosen purpose” (p. 372)—in other words, a career outside the home and one’s children raised by others—could save these suffering suburbanites.
Friedan claimed to know what she was writing about because she had lived it. She claimed that her then-boyfriend had persuaded her years earlier to give up her PhD scholarship and planned career. As a result, she said, “For years afterward, I could not read a word of the science that once I had thought of as my future life’s work; the reminder of its loss was too painful” (p. 68). She found herself trapped in the domestic dead-end of suburbia like all those other female POWs: “I married, had children, lived according to the feminine mystique as a suburban housewife. But still the question haunted me. I could sense no purpose in my life” (pp. 68-69).
Some of us might be less than moved by Friedan’s portrait of alleged despair. Was it really so terrible to be, as she said, raising her children and working part-time as a magazine writer? Friedan’s entire book rested on the preposterous idea that men’s work lives, in contrast, were deeply fulfilling.
It turns out, however, that Friedan’s self-description was a fabrication. Friedan was never a housewife, and wasn’t for a moment captivated by the feminine mystique or haunted by a sense of lost purpose.
She was, as her admiring biographer Daniel Horowitz has amply documented, a Communist organizer and paid propagandist, committed to labor agitation and to fomenting radicalism amongst American women. Her husband Carl allegedly complained (according to David Horowitz, no relationship to Daniel) that she never stayed at home with their children and left all the housework to their maid. So the entirety of her personal howl of rage was based on a fib.
Friedan didn’t want to admit that she was a Communist; so she invented a housewife persona and a problem that couldn’t be proved or disproved in order to promote the destabilization of one of the most high-functioning, productive, and dynamic societies that had ever existed. That it was ready to be destabilized tells us something about the perils of prosperity and the power of comfortable, discontented women. Friedan went on a few years later, in 1966, to co-found the National Organization for Women (NOW), a pro-abortion feminist lobby group. A prickly, often-unpleasant personality, she never confessed to her lie.
In the same year that The Feminine Mystique was exploding like a red bomb, another woman, Gloria Steinem (b. 1934), was crafting her own compelling story—also not entirely accurate—about the plight of young women in an allegedly predatory world. Almost none of the women profiled in Steinem’s story were bored housewives. They were “Bunnies” working at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club in New York City, one of a number of such clubs that Hefner was marketing mainly to middle-aged businessmen wanting to be served drinks by pretty girls dressed in tight outfits and bunny ears.
Steinem, like Friedan a graduate of the illustrious Smith College though more than a decade younger than Friedan, assumed the name Marie Catherine Ochs and subtracted four years from her age to become a 24-year-old server at the Playboy Club for about 3 weeks. The exposé that she wrote was published as “A Bunny’s Tale,” (retitled later by Steinem as “I Was a Playboy Bunny,” reprinted in Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions), a long double feature in Show magazine.
Steinem had clearly hoped, and expected, to discover horrors at the Playboy Club, women pressured to have sex with club members, women verbally abused by misogynistic men. But her experience was quite mundane. The work was highly regulated, as one would expect for a position in which image was everything, and the shifts were exhausting, long hours spent on painful, swelling feet in a too-tight outfit, regulation 3-inch heels, and a stuffed bodice. But there was no sex with customers—customers weren’t even allowed to touch the “girls”—and aside from offers of dates from the mostly paunchy and balding club members, there was nothing unpleasant. The pay was never as good as advertised, and there were demerit points for having a tear in one’s stockings or a bedraggled puff tail, but about the worst that could be said of the job was that it was no more glamorous than waitressing.
Nevertheless, Steinem reported on the job as if there were horrors, telling readers how dehumanizing it was, for example, to have to memorize scripted phrases (“Good evening, sir, I am your Bunny, Marie. May I see the member’s key, please?” and so on). And this became her running theme: that she was treated as an object little better than a prostitute. One evening while working in the coat check, she noted that “There were a few customers, a very few […] who looked at us not as objects but […] as if we might be human beings” (Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, p. 58), and while walking home one night, she exchanged a glance with a high-class prostitute and noted that “Of the two of us, she seemed the more honest” (p. 59). The self-pity was hidden behind the allegedly searing insight.
Ultimately, what Steinem decided to emphasize about the story—and the meaning it’s been given ever since—was that the techniques taught and the interactions between male customers and female servers were archetypal of male-female relations as a whole: as she said, “All women are Bunnies.” This was a classic feminist move: take one group of women’s experiences, paint them as entirely negative (and with no context), and claim them as true of all women. According to Steinem, all women were taught to please men, were given lines to learn, were supposed to make men feel listened to, had to wear degrading outfits, and were essentially props to male self esteem.
That these weren’t the reality of Steinem’s life mattered not at all. That men came to the Playboy Club precisely because it offered a fantasy different from the rest of their humdrum businessmen’s lives, in which they were mostly undesired and un-titillated, also didn’t matter. Offered as a candid snapshot of women’s reality, the article was in fact a piece of propaganda as carefully fashioned as the Bunnies themselves.
Steinem went on to have a long public career as America’s best-known feminist, founder of Ms Magazine and spokesperson for many lobby groups. She is credited with popularizing the feminist slogan, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” In a 1982 essay on black American novelist Alice Walker, she demonstrated that her feminism was inclusive of racist caricature, quoting with approval Walker’s claim that “Since white men lived by raping the earth and then by threatening us all with the bomb—why not let them die by it?” (Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, p. 307). Steinem ended the article by assuring readers that “I think we can trust Alice Walker to know us. And we can change for the better if we know her” (p. 310). Genocidal rage against white men was ok with Steinem.
But she was good-looking and photogenic, and despite the poisonous radicalism of many of her ideas, she managed to make feminism seem attractive and reasonable—and she made a good career out of that.
Following in Steinem’s footsteps was Kate Millett (1934-2017), who in the 1960s set out to write the definitive analysis of women’s alleged oppression. What began as her PhD thesis at Columbia University was eventually published in 1970 as Sexual Politics, called the Bible of the women’s movement. It was a treatise filled with factual errors and nonsensical claims about history and biology that nonetheless passed among credulous reviewers as authoritative research, and it formalized many of the terms at the heart of feminism.
Though Millett’s area of research specialization was English and Comparative Literature (and the book was largely made up of chapters on novelists D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jean Genet), Millett focused extensively in her theory chapter on the alleged scientific consensus regarding “gender identity.” She claimed in a footnote, without attribution, that “The best medical research points to the conclusion that sexual stereotypes have no basis in biology” (n. 7, pp. 26-27), and she explained in her main text, again without evidence, that even the heavier musculature of the human male was not entirely “biological in origin but [was] also culturally encouraged through breeding, diet, and exercise” (p. 27).
So averse was Millett to accepting any non-conspiratorial explanation for culture that she had to claim it untrue that physical strength had ever mattered in history: she wrote with no attempt at argumentation that “Civilization has always been able to substitute other methods (technic, weaponry, knowledge) for those of physical strength” and she alleged that “Contemporary civilization has no further need of it” (p. 27). She stressed that “Whatever the real differences between the sexes may be, we are not likely to know them until the sexes are treated differently, that is alike” (p. 29)—a conveniently unrealizable proposition that asserted, even while it appeared to draw back from asserting, the socially determined nature of male and female.
And finally, she cited the findings of now mainly discredited sexologist John Money and his fellow researchers who had allegedly discovered through research on inter-sex patients “that gender role is determined by postnatal forces, regardless of the anatomy and physiology of the external genitalia” (p. 30).
Perhaps Millett is not to be blamed for relying so exclusively on what seemed then to be cutting-edge sexology research; we now know that claims about the infinite malleability of gender identity were always controversial and have now been extensively criticized, though they continue to be influential and have resulted in hugely expensive and often personally devastating social engineering programs as well as the trans movement now tearing feminism apart. It would serve feminists well to remember how enthusiastically earlier feminists pushed the social constructionist thesis in the 1960s and after.
Millett went so far as to claim that sexual desire itself was learned rather than instinctual: “Even the act of coitus is the product of a long series of learned responses—responses to the patterns and attitudes, even as to the object of sexual choice, which are set up for us by our social environment” (p. 32). Her treatise laid the groundwork for the remaking of human beings as completely blank slates to be refashioned according to a feminist utopian framework.
It was a refashioning that had to begin with the destruction of the family, as Kate’s sister Mallory Millett has recently exposed in her memoirs of growing up with Kate and witnessing first-hand Kate’s Maoist-inspired ravings about making “Cultural Revolution” by “destroying the American family […] by destroying the American Patriarch.” The father, husband, provider, and protector, must be destroyed.
Kate Millett, though was never simply the passionate researcher that she claimed to be in her Introduction to the reissued Sexual Politics; from the time she was a child, she was a victim of bipolar disorder that prevented her from assessing her society reasonably. She spent years in and out of mental institutions, with various suicide attempts.
Participating in the founding of the National Organization of Women and many other women’s organizations, she encouraged the feminist takeover of all institutions in order to sow the seeds of America’s dissolution; only then could the oppressive patriarchy at last be undone and a thousand-year feminist Reich begin. She looked forward rapturously to the transformation of human personality in order to “change the quality of life” (p. 363). Unfortunately for her and for us, she was one of the last people in America who should have been tasked with outlining that blueprint.
In 1963, it just so happened that 268 American coal-miners, all men, died on the job, one of many counter-facts that never made its way into any of Freidan’s, Steinem’s, or Millett’s statements about patriarchal privilege.
These were highly educated women filled with rage, who spoke in fervent terms about the liberation of women, and the coalition of oppressed groups (Millett, 363) who would allegedly bring it into being. Because men were the alleged architects and beneficiaries of the oppressive order that had to be overthrown, male alienation and suffering were at worst a necessary evil; at best proof to be seized on with satisfaction that the revolution was proceeding. The vengeful feminism of the next 50 years was by 1970 firmly in place.
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