Featured image: Betty Naomi Goldstein Friedan (1921-2006)
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – “Is this all?”
On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in state and federal elections. Friedan’s 1963 book opened a new battleground. Where the suffragettes demanded electoral and property rights, a “Second Wave” of feminists challenged ideas of femininity itself. The National Abortion Rights Action League (now NARAL Pro Choice America) fought to free women from the tyranny of motherhood. In the December 1971 debut of Ms. magazine Jane O’Reilly proclaimed “We are all housewives. We would prefer to be persons.”
Half a century later we remain locked in that war between the sexes and mistrust between us is at an all-time high. Men Going Their Own Way have declared themselves conscientious objectors. Pick-Up Artists hone their techniques in a hunt for female prey. Involuntary Celibates rage against a cruel world where women refuse to emulate porn videos. And, much as we may want to, we can’t forget White Sharia. It’s hard to deny feminists have reason to fear toxic misogyny. But it’s equally hard to deny the damage left in the wake of feminism’s advances.
Early feminists frowned on condoms, associating them with brothels and infidelity. The birth control pill and the Sexual Revolution gave women the freedom to enjoy sex out of marriage. Instead of repressive chastity, they could enjoy orgasmic ecstasy with the partners of their choice. In 1973 Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying celebrated no-strings attached encounters where “zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff.” Today women are freer than ever to explore their sexual fantasies yet find themselves facing increasingly harsh relationship realities.
Today women are no longer expected to prioritize marriage and motherhood over their dreams and career goals. Instead they face social and economic pressure to put those silly relics aside altogether. Mothers in the workforce are forced to juggle the demands of childrearing and career. And since women hold nearly two-thirds of all student loan debt in the United States most have little choice but to remain at their jobs. Instead of freedom from the drudgery of housework many working women find themselves burdened with the chains of wage slavery – or with both!
As is usually the case with waves, the Second Wave feminists have been replaced by a “Third Wave” which is “mediated by the terrains of race and multicultural alliance” and which argues against heterosexuality and gender normativity. If the Second Wave started amongst affluent housewives, the Third Wave has largely been a product of academia. And while First and Second Wave feminists concentrated on the needs of women, the Third Wave focuses instead on the ways various “axes of oppression” are exploited by an evil patriarchal system.
In this new feminism, White women are excoriated as sellouts who preserve their White Privilege against the interests of their non-White sisters. Even their efforts to own their privilege and to call out racism in the feminist community are scorned as “co-opting Women of Colour’s analysis of racism.” And the leaders and organizations which claim to protect women have shown a notable reluctance to speak up when the attackers are Democrats, fashionably non-White, or both. In the name of “intersectional feminism” women are once again told to put aside their needs in favor of others.
Whether or not postmodern America is a more free, fair and just society is open to debate: it certainly is not a happier place. 16.5% of non-Hispanic White Americans – three times the percentage of other ethnic groups – are currently taking antidepressants. Women are twice as likely as men to be prescribed antidepressants and to experience depression. It seems that all the advances made since 1963 have not helped American women answer Friedan’s silent question. Perhaps that is because we are not trying hard enough. Or perhaps the angst which Friedan chronicled was rooted not in a hostile patriarchy but in a deeper sickness.
Uprooted from our ancestral traditions and cultural heritage, we center our identities in what we buy, what we eat, what gets us aroused, how much we earn and what slogans we yell. And while all these things are certainly important in day-to-day living, they don’t answer the burning questions of “Who am I and what is my purpose in life?” We have been poisoned by a toxic philosophy of consumerism, hedonism and nihilism. That poison will never heal us no matter how much we drink. All we have against that toxin and those who spread it is each other. We are the only antidote. We are the only hope of rebuilding what was lost. And unless we come together, we don’t have a chance.