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The Fight Takes Feminism’s Conflicts Seriously

Strife within the feminist movement was used to discredit it. But now a new play is taking a harder look at the Second Wave.

Martha Cooper/New York Post Archives /Getty

Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem didn’t like each other. In many ways, they weren’t allowed to: Beginning in the late 1960s, the media pitted “The Mother of Feminism,” as Friedan was often called, against her younger colleague, casting an important social movement as a catfight. It didn’t help that they looked so different: Steinem was and is thin and tall, while many reporters described Friedan with anti-Semitic and sexist slurs. If their fight was shaped by two different visions about what feminism should be, it was also driven by a culture that spent a good deal of time trying to destroy women who fought for equality.

The Fight, a new play by Jonathan Leaf, spotlights the battles that shook Second Wave feminism, both outside the movement and within it. Lezaf’s previous plays are about the moral dilemmas of twentieth century intellectuals, and, according to its creators, The Fight is based on “dozens of interviews” and, “vast amounts of research.” The play aims to bring to light the personal stories of the movement leaders, along with what Leaf calls the “buried scandals” of the Second Wave. Specifically, it dramatizes the eruption at the 1973 National Women’s Political Caucus convention in Houston, when Friedan, who had co-founded the organization two years earlier, was first told that she had been elected to the national steering committee, then that she did not win a seat. When a recount was done, she lost. Both Friedan’s and Steinem’s biographers conclude that the confusion was an oversight, not a conspiracy, but at the time Friedan accused NWPC of ballot fraud and hired a lawyer. The Fight—which concerns the efforts of Caitlin Schultz, a graduate student and single mother, who attempts, two decades later, to find out what really happened—posits that the election really was stolen.

Like the disgruntled third waver that she is supposed to be, Caitlin wants to learn the truth of these events for a dissertation about the Second Wave. The plot advances as she interviews the Friedan and Steinem characters—whom Leaf names “Doris Margolies” and “Phyllis Feinberg.” Leaf strings together these interviews with scenes from the feminists’ past that are supposed to illustrate the conflict between their ideologies and their lives. One scene is inspired by how, during Steinem’s affair with the tycoon Mort Zuckerman (here “Milt Kahn”), she asked him to bail out Ms. magazine. In another, the Friedan character describes her violent marriage to Carl, which some feminists have used to explain her silence on sexual politics issues and to further discredit her. (In Leaf’s play, as in Friedan’s memoir, she says that they were both violent with each other.)

These scenes, along with others portraying Doris’s and Phyllis’s families as the inciting incidents for their feminisms (Phyllis’s mother was unstable; Doris’s cold) struck me as klutzy and boilerplate. Doris is unattractive, loud; Phyllis is beautiful and self-involved. The audience does not get any sense of the women’s heroism or the great, moving works they created. Nor does Leaf give us a sense of how hard it must have been for Doris—or Friedan—to speak in the face of all that she was experiencing.

Friedan was expelled from NWPC in Houston in part because she opposed the movement’s radical turn, notably its support of gay liberation. By that time, many movement women had already hated Friedan for years, as far back as her founding the National Organization for Women. They hated her for being a classic liberal voice and they hated her tumultuous temperament. The Fight’s biggest failure is that Leaf is unable to convey his lead characters’ historical complexity on the stage. Both women had great strength, which is not evidenced here.

Friedan’s appeal and the fight’s meaning are rendered less effective because Leaf is unable to decide whether his play is fact or fiction. He has given the characters new names. He has inserted a disclaimer in the script and made fussy changes, like swapping out the second part of the legendary maxim about how much a woman needs a man from “like a fish needs a bicycle” to “an armadillo needs tap dancing.” This waffling dilutes the great Second Wave feminists the audience is presumably there to see. And it muffles the impact of the movement’s alleged “buried scandals.” In the last scene, the Steinem character alleges that Bella Abzug’s husband burned the ballots while she watched. It’s not clear whether or not Leaf made this up.

Just as the play began its run, sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein had emerged, triggering an eruption of claims by women of predatory behavior of men in their industries. I wondered what The Fight would say about whether the Weinstein affair has energized feminism, and whether it would, as The New York Times claimed, realize a “profound shift” in a culture that has long understood sexual harassment as the price women pay for public lives. I worried that instead of ending misogyny and sexual crime, the new outrage over sexual harassment would wind up narrowing the definition of sexism, as has happened so many times before. Like everyone else in America, I had followed the many news stories outing sexual predators. But hardly anything about the Second Wave was mentioned. Hardly anything connected abuse and harassment to other issues of gender inequity.

Friedan was deeply concerned about the media’s anti-women bias from the 1960s. “The gut issues of this revolution involve employment and education and new social institutions, and not sexual fantasy,” she wrote. She focused on the media’s complicity in suppressing women’s drive for equity (by which she meant wages and representation) while sensationalizing feminists’ private lives. Even in 1968, her resistance to what she called “sexual politics” was anathema to the many Second Wavers who wanted to overthrow the patriarchy. But Friedan opposed making gay liberation, sexual harassment, rape, and what she thought of as radical separatism part of the feminist platform because she feared that a media that gravitated toward sex scandals and away from legislative efforts at equality would destroy the movement. The media, after all, has an endless appetite to see women made into victims. It was in part these stances that relegated Friedan to the historical dustbin as radical feminists seized the popular imagination.

You could argue, as some of my favorite feminists have, that because men are being fired for sexual offenses, legislative advances will finally follow. Open discussion of harassment and rape will lead to other equities. That argument sees the fact that this time, the media (and social media) is exposing sexual harassment and rape and sympathizing with its victims is progress. But I think it’s more complex. Forty years after the Second Wave, we do not have the ERA, equal pay, childcare or equity in political representation. We do not have reproductive rights. We do not have parental leave. What we have are waves of scandals about men raping and harassing women.

In the climax of the play, Caitlin blackmails Phyllis to persuade her to reveal who stole the ballots in the first place. Caitlin’s ammunition is the knowledge that Phyllis ignored a sister feminist’s plea for help when she revealed to Phyllis that a diplomat had raped her. In an email, Leaf confirmed to me that this scene was based on a real incident, taken from an interview with a movement veteran. “A feminist leader who won’t speak out about rape,” Caitlin says harshly. And Phyllis gives in and agrees to help her with her book.

In the shadow of the recent onslaught of high-profile sexual misconduct allegations, this line had a particularly strong resonance. It is not just about so many younger feminists rejecting the second wavers for their silence or their equivocating. The second wave was unlike other progressive liberation movements in that the very people who were agitating for equality could face retribution for their activism in their most intimate personal lives. That reality shaped the movement more than many movement leaders—especially Friedan—wanted to admit.

The Fight is not the play I want to see about these characters, this story. But it’s a first attempt to reconcile some of the feminist movement’s most devastating conflicts. It is hard, as Friedan used to say, to shift the paradigm. But in the future, maybe we will get the play we want, and maybe we will get the equality we want as well. I hope it doesn’t take much longer.