American family today . . . An invaluable
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Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
The Ultimate Social Meaning of Friedan’s Sovereign-Self Feminism
Radiant with the hopes kindled in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan concludes her landmark feminist manifesto with an optimistic question about the beckoning future: “Who knows what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves? . . . It has barely begun, the search of women for themselves. But the time is at hand when the voices of the feminine mystique can no longer drown out the inner voice that is driving women on to become complete.”1 Fifty years later, Americans—especially American women—have answers to Friedan’s question. Unfortunately, those answers are not ones Freidan anticipated. For a freedom rooted in nothing except the self—autonomous, questing, unencumbered—has stranded millions of American women in bitter isolation.
For those trying to assess the half-century outcomes of the feministrevolution Friedan helped spark, the first reality demanding attentionis indeed simply the epidemic of female unhappiness in recent years.Despite all the glowing assurances Friedan and her allies gave, their effortsto make women free to “search . . . for themselves” has not made thosefreely questing female selves happy. A 2009 study conducted by WhartonSchool researchers Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers has concluded,on the basis of a very large longitudinal data set, that during the last 35years—a period of astonishing triumph for feminist activists—“women’shappiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men.” Indeed, the researchers report that although women reported higher levels of happinessthan men three-and-a-half decades ago, “women no longer reportbeing happier than men, and, in many instances, now report happinessthat is below that of men.”2
The declines in women’s happiness puzzle the Wharton scholars, whoremark, “Social changes that have occurred over the past four decades have increased the opportunities available to women, and a standard economic framework would suggest that these expanded opportunities for women would have increased their welfare.” Trying to interpret the curious downturn in women’s happiness, the researchers particularly scrutinize “social and legal changes [that] have given people more autonomyover individual and family decision-making, including rights over marriage, children born out of wedlock, the use of birth control, abortion, and divorce.”3
Arguably, the quest for such autonomy lies at the very heart of Friedan-style feminism. It is impossible to understand the social and legal changes that Stevenson and Wolfers highlight except as a consequence of that quest for self-centered autonomy. As a leader launching that quest, Friedan declared unceasing war on “a culture [that] ha[d] . . . erected legal, political, social, economic and educational barriers to women’s acceptance of a maturity” that would keep a woman from “trading in her individuality for security” inside “the sanctuary of the home.”4 As a champion of woman as autonomous self, Freidan deplored the immature foolishness of the woman who, in her efforts to be “the gentle wife and mother,” had failed to be “a person in her own right, an individual freeto develop her own potential.”5 Sadly, Friedan did not anticipate that her stunning success in selling the gospel of the free, autonomous, potential realizing Sovereign Self would ultimately leave women less happy and farmore alone than they had been.
But the bitter fruit of Friedan’s gospel does come into view in theanalysis of Stevenson and Wolfers. These two researchers marvel that during an era of dramatic “shifts of rights and bargaining power frommen to women” the psychological data indicate that “measures of women’ssubjective well-being have fallen both absolutely and relatively to thatof men.” The researchers explore a number of possible perspectives onthese data, but they finally must confront an obvious, albeit politicallyexplosive, possibility: “The changes brought about through the women’smovement may have decreased women’s happiness.” The researcherscouch this possibility in terms of “the complexity and increased pressurein [women’s] modern lives,”6 a plausible context, to be sure. But the morefundamental problem may be the rather simple self-absorption and egocentricselfishness that Friedan-style feminism licensed and fostered.
Let no one suppose that radical egocentrism is a uniquely feminist characteristic. In her masterful Gifford Lectures of 2006, political scientist Jean Bethke Elshtain does acknowledge that “the language of control and strong self-sovereignty” has for decades characterized “radical feminism,”more specifically the kind of “radical feminism” prominent in creating “a constitutionally protected abortion right” (and Friedan took great pride in having led the fight for legal abortion as a “right [that] was basic to the personhood of women”7). But Elshtain convincingly locates the feminist version of such language in a much larger historical pattern, one traceable to—among others—Descartes, Nietzsche, and Sartre.
To be sure, Friedan never cites any of these powerfully influential egocentric philosophers. She is not a consistently philosophical thinker; her keenest insights are socioeconomic. Perhaps the best and most reliable part of The Feminine Mystique is her critique of how twentiethcentury women found themselves stranded in suburban homes stripped of their meaningful functions. She notes how, for instance, because of modern technologies and bureaucracies, “more and more of the jobs that used to be performed in the home have been taken away: canning, baking bread, weaving cloth and making clothes, educating the young, nursing the sick, taking care of the aged.”8 Nor was Freidan the only one to notice this pattern. Writing just a few years before, Harvard sociologist Pitirim Sorokin lamented that the home was losing so many of its functions that it was fast becoming a “mere incidental parking place” for consumption and sexual relations.9 And only a decade after Friedan, cultural historian Stuart Ewen highlighted the way that advertisers, manufacturers, and educators had joined forces in turning the socially isolated homemaking wife into a “machine operative” and “general purchasing agent.”10
In her response to this ravaged home economy, Freidan articulates not just an agenda for economic, legal, or social change. She articulates—albeit somewhat disjointedly and elliptically—a philosophy. True, Friedan’s non-economic analysis as a whole is far more psychological than philosophical, taking its references from Freud and his critics, from Fromm, and from Erikson. But psychological thinking must incorporate some kind of philosophical thinking, even if it be the derivative and unanalyzed popular philosophy driving the culture of the day. So if Freud could be—as Friedan asserts—“a prisoner of his own culture” in early twentieth-century Vienna,11 then Friedan herself could be very much a prisoner of her own philosophical culture in mid-twentieth-century America, a modern culture deeply informed by the philosophers of the Sovereign Self. Friedan may suppose that she is striking an iconoclastically original posture when she summons the female readers to finally become “free to become themselves” in “search . . . for themselves.” But careful analysis reveals that in this summons, she gives her readers merely a fractured echo of the egocentric doctrines promulgated by thinkers such as Descartes, Nietzsche, and Sarte.
It is her commitment to such self-centered lines of thought that prevents Friedan from responding to the real crisis she perceives in the home economy with family-strengthening ideas. She might have championed possibilities such as home-based employment or home schooling (an idea she peremptorily dismisses as irrelevant because, as she believes, “the law does not permit [women] to teach their own children”12). Buther unacknowledged intellectual pedigree as an heir of the philosophers of the Sovereign Self commits her to an ideology intrinsically hostile tothe natural family and the home as its sustaining environment.
Friedan nowhere quotes Descartes, but she is clearly his unwitting disciple. For it could fully be said of her life philosophy exactly what Elshtain says of Descartes’ philosophy: “There is a self-controlling projectof mastery in Descartes’ position, as well as a focus on the will.” For Friedan, just as for Descartes, “the heart of the self ” is an “autonomous” mind that insists on “positing . . . a self apart from and free from relationship.”13 In The Feminine Mystique, Freidan unmistakably affirms her ownbelief in a self fully as willful as Descartes’ and just as resistant to being defined by relationships to others. Friedan asserts that once a woman “begins to see through the delusions of the feminine mystique,” she inevitably “realizes that neither her husband nor her children, nor the things in her house, nor sex, nor being like all the other women, can give her a self.”14 In The Second Stage, published almost 20 years after The Feminine Mystique, Freidan leaves little doubt as to the fundamental persistence of her commitment to this quasi-Cartesian self: “The personhood of women, that’s what it’s really all about, first and finally.”15
References to Nietzsche are, like references to Descartes, nowhere to be found in Freidan. Yet except for the gender of the noun and pronouns, Elshtain’s gloss on his thought applies fully to Freidan’s: “For manto seize his will to power, he must be sovereign, radically self-fashioning. Anything else is bad faith.”16 Friedan may at times try to reassure her female readers that, somehow, her feminist agenda will still allow for “fitting in the love and children and home that have defined femininity in the past.”17 But the “fitting in” would appear to be an afterthought, far less important than a quasi-Nietzschean striving for autonomous self-fashioning.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the “contempt for the weak” that Elshtain finds in Nietzsche surfaces in Friedan as well, manifest in the disdain Friedan evinces for the woman who “seek[s] the sanctuary of the home” and in so doing shrinks from the “frightening” difficulty of “grow[ing] up finally and be[ing] free of passive dependence.”18 Something of Nietzschean hauteur drips from Friedan’s scornful dismissal of “the gentle wife and mother—loved and protected by her husband, surrounded by her adoring children.”19
Her philosophy even shares with Nietzsche some of the elements that prompt Elshtain to assert that in the German philosopher’s thinking, “The genuine self-sovereign must be a destroyer, bold, even merciless.”20 Friedan advances a self-sovereignty that clearly includes merciless destruction through legal abortion as a right that is “basic to the personhood of women.”21
To see just how much merciless destruction Freidan’s down-market Nietzscheanism has helped spawn, we might turn to the social critic Benjamin DeMott, who in his 2000 book Killer Woman Blues laments the emergence of a “tough-guy feminism,” characterized by “hard-nosed egocentricity” and “the freedom of brutality and cynicism.” Having repudiated the role of “woman as caregiver, as incarnation of mercy, tenderness, and generosity,” the new wave of feminists relish the “taste of pugnacity” and of “sexual bullying.” The feminist vanguard—Friedan,in particular—may have promised wonderful human development, but what DeMott sees in twenty-first-century feminists is a force “generating hard women—creatures increasingly powerful, increasingly villainous.” Such feminism looks “catastrophic for the human essence.”22
Friedan herself seems to have vaguely sensed that she might have helped release a malign genie from its bottle. How else does the reader account for her curiously rapid shift in The Second Stage from celebrating the way she and her feminist allies had advanced “the choice, the autonomy, the freedom, and the equality of women” to arguing—on the same page—for a recovery of traditional feminine virtues? Thus not three paragraphs after Friedan congratulates herself on having helped lead the charge against oppressive restraints on the autonomous self, she begins talking about the need “to get beyond the male model of the workplace now. We have to be able to talk of our own values again. The values of love and care and nurturing, to which women have been socialized . . .[W]e have to be true to our own basic values as women; the values of nurturing and of life, to which we subscribe.”23 Friedan seems reluctant to acknowledge that traditionally feminine values such as love and nurturing and even life simply cannot survive in a world in which women are zealously protecting their uninhibited right to choose.
Certainly, Freidan does not wish to admit that she had put such values in grave peril and opened the door to merciless countervalues in her dismissal in The Feminine Mystique of “religious orthodoxy” as an oppressive obstacle to the free and autonomous Self.24 In her dismissal of religion as a check on her own self-willed “transvaluation of values,” Freidan again looks rather like Nietzsche. But in privileging the Self as autonomous, sovereign, and free, Freidan must not only reject God; she must also hold other human beings at a distance. For letting others draw close means accepting the responsibilities and moral demands that come with all interpersonal relationships. Readers see Freidan’s most radical refusal of such responsibilities and demands in her advocacy of unlimitedabortion rights.
In less lethal ways Friedan rejects the natural proximity to others required by traditional marriage and family life. Such proximity entails unacceptable constraints on the Sovereign Self. Freidan regards any marriage that impedes a woman’s “growth to autonomy” as “regressive”—with marriages in early adulthood coming in for particular censure.25 And she attacks it as a psychologically debilitating mistake that many women have chosen to live “without careers, without any commitment other than their homes, . . . [so that they] could devote every moment to their children.” Without any “serious purpose in their lives,” they become piteously absorbed in “their child’s bedwetting, thumbsucking, overeating, refusal to eat, withdrawal, lack of friends, inability to be alone, aggressiveness, timidity, slow reading, too much reading, lack of discipline, rigidity . . .[and every other] sign of incipient neurosis.”26
Friedan and the Family
To be sure, Friedan mutes her hostility to the family in her Second Stage. It is time, she asserts, for her and other feminists to overcome their “blindspot about the family.” But when Freidan argues that “feminism must,in fact, confront the family,” she quickly adds “albeit in new terms,”27 terms that ultimately re-enthrone the Sovereign Self. Even when Freidan begins a paragraph on the “importance of children, family, the home,” she very quickly segues into a disturbingly Nietzschean riff on how, in the post-feminism-world, these family-and-home considerations must serve “the needs of women . . . for mastery, power, assertiveness, security,and control.”28
In any case, Freidan makes it clear that the “family” she wants to reclaim as part of her second-wave feminist agenda has little to do with the natural family of a married father and mother and their children. In her feminist imagination, “families” will comprise “men, women, and children in whatever combination, changing over time.”29 The vague and protean character of the “family” Freidan favors helps explain why “first stage feminism (women versus family) can be transcended by a secondstage focus on women and family.” For the deceptive second-stage focus actually makes “issues like ERA, abortion, child care . . . urgent not just for the individual woman but for the very survival of the family.”30
Freidan in fact reveals just what kind of “family” her feminist philosophy underwrites when she writes autobiographically:
Shortly after my divorce, being equally afraid of remarrying and of loneliness, and even of coping with holidays and vacations for my children all by myself, I started a sort of respectable, non-hippie commune. A half-dozen friends—women and men, divorced or unmarried, some with children, some not—rented a big house on the tip of Long Island, which we used weekends and during the summer, and at Thanksgiving and Christmas.31
Friedan admits that this “respectable, non-hippie commune” generated “continual battles . . . [over] the sharing of the chores and the expenses,” as well as considerable “emotional problems and nuances that were difficult to deal with” because “nothing could be taken for granted.” It is no surprise that this bizarre “extended family of choice” lasted less than a decade, after which its constituent Sovereign Selves flew off into social space.32
The instability of a “family of choice” built on Freidan’s feminist principles inheres in the character of the “choice” she espouses—the unceasingly egocentric “choice” of the Sovereign Self. Of course, most men and women want to make the identity of their spouse a matter of choice. But those with morally healthy sensibilities recognize that having made their choice, they do not continue—year by year, month by month, evenday by day—to insist on a new range of fresh individual choices. Rather,they deliberately stop choosing as they steadfastly adhere to vows that bind them to their spouse, and they extend the loyalty they give to their spouse to the children the couple brings into the world. As an evangel of the gospel of the Sovereign Self, Friedan has nothing to teach about suchloyalty.
Freidan is hardly the only feminist, and feminists are hardly the only modern social group, to succumb to the illusion of “a family of choice.” Inevitably, these feminists and these groups end up with nothing but the Sovereign Self, hopelessly addicted to the kind of endless choosing that destroys marital and family ties and consequently dooms deracinated women to emotionally frigid isolation. A pathological addiction to unrestrained individual choice helps explain why in the lives of many late-twentieth-century Americans, the literary scholar Joseph Epsteinsaw “the Dream of Self ” replacing “the Dream of family—with its promises of stability, of motiveless love, of dependability in crisis.”33 Freidan’s “family of choice” actually indicates not a genuine commitment to family but rather the affinity of her thought with that of yet another of Elshtain’s master philosophers of the Sovereign Self: namely, Sartre.
The fission of Freidan’s “family of choice” into so many untethered individuals may be explained by borrowing from Elshtain’s comments on Sartre’s vision of the “atomistic sovereign self ”: “we are isolated monads confronting a social and natural world set off against and in opposition to our free projects.” Elshtain sees Sarte as one who “grounds individual choice in freedom.” But Elshtain concludes that such freedom ultimately makes social ties so impossible that its exponents finally end up agreeing with Sartre: “Hell is other people.”34 The fragmentation of Friedan’s “family of choice” suggests that the people in that family finally, in a Sarte-like way, recoiled from the hellishness of each other’s company.
The final disintegration of Freidan’s “family of choice” might, in truth, bring to mind C.S. Lewis’s disturbing depiction of hell as a sprawling gray city where the selfish and contentious damned inhabitants are continually “getting further apart” because they cannot stand one another’s company.35 The relevance of Lewis’s imaginative vision to the twenty-first-century America Friedan has helped create becomes all too clear in recent Census Bureau statistics limning the dramatic rise in the number of single-person households since the ’60s, the decade that saw the publication of The Feminine Mystique. Whereas single-person households accounted for only 13.3% of all American households in 1960 (and only 7.7% in 1940), such households accounted for 26.7% in 2010!36
A life of boundless choice does not deliver the happiness and fulfillment Friedan promised. As Elshtain notes in her critique of Sartre, “freedom is nothingness” when it is grounded in a vision in which “other persons, in the most fundamental sense, no longer exist for oneself.”37 It should not, in fact, surprise anyone that psychologists see the multiplication of single-person households exposing millions of men and women to psychological distress. After documenting the sharply elevated use of psychotropic drugs among individuals who live alone, an international team of public-health researchers expresses concern in a 2012 study that “people living alone may be at increased risk of developing mental health problems.” These researchers stress that in the United States and Europe, “Never before in history has there been such a great proportion of people living alone.”38
Fifty years ago, Friedan claimed a bold originality in urging female readers to break the shackles of family and home, making them “finally free to become themselves,” free to start the “search of women for themselves.” But a disturbing number of women—and men and children—are discovering that Freidan (probably without realizing it) was cribbing her emancipatory message from earlier philosophers of the Sovereign Self. Sober Americans are also discovering that Friedan’s message—regardless of its source—finally delivers nothing but the Lonely Self, isolated and depressed.
Dr. Christensen, Senior Editor of The Family in America, teaches Composition and Literature at Southern Utah University.
- Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton, 1963), 378.
- Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 1, no. 4 (2009): 190-191.
- Ibid., 192.
- Friedan, Feminine Mystique, 204.
- Ibid., 101, 68.
- Stevenson and Wolfers, “Paradox,” 191, 223-224.
- Freidan, The Second Stage (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), xxvi.
- Friedan, Feminine Mystique, 242.
- Pitirim A. Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics: A Study of Change in Major Systems of Art,Truth, Ethics, Law and Social Relationships, rev. and abridged ed. (1957; rpt. New Brunswick:1985), 700.
- Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976), 161-164.
- Freidan, Feminine Mystique, 105.
- Ibid., 242.
- Jean Bethke Elshtain, Sovereignty: God, State, and Self (New York: Basic, 2008), 174.
- Freidan, Feminine Mystique, 338-339.
- Freidan, Second Stage, 73.
- Elshtain, Sovereignty, 197.
- Freidan, Feminine Mystique, 338.
- Ibid., 204.
- Ibid., 101.
- Elshtain, Sovereignty, 198.
- Freidan, Second Stage, xvii.
- Benjamin DeMott, Killer Woman Blues: Why Americans Can’t Think Straight About Gender and Power (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 26, 49, 133-134, 179, 207.
- Freidan, Second Stage, xxxii-xxxiii, emphasis added.
- Friedan, Feminine Mystique, 351-353.
- Ibid., 176.
- Ibid., 196-197.
- Friedan, Second Stage, 70-71.
- Ibid., 79.
- Ibid., xx.
- Ibid., 216.
- Ibid., 292.
- Joseph Epstein, Divorced in America: Marriage in an Age of Possibility (Baltimore: Penguin,1975), 316.
- Elshtain, Sovereignty, 185-186.
- C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1973), 10-11.
- U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Person Occupancy Rates,” Historical Census of Housing Tables, U.S.Department of Commerce, October 31, 2011, http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/housing/census/historic/livalone.html.
- Elshtain, Sovereignty, 186.
- Laura Pulkki-Råback et al., “Living Alone and Antidepressant Medication Use: A ProspectiveStudy in a Working-Age Population,” BMC Public Health 12 (2012): 236.
Alone, Alone, Alone:
The Ultimate Social Meaning of Friedan’s Sovereign-Self Feminism
The New Feminism at 50:
Beneath the Feminine Mystique:
Some Other Problems That Have No Name
Feminism Through the Life Cycle
The Real War Against Women
The End of Men?
The End of Men: And the Rise of Women
Disillusioned in the Ivy League
Sex and God at Yale
Nicole M. Kooistra