American Feminism, Still vigorous in its latest run of thirty years, is also old enough to produce its own vexed family dynamics. In the political unconscious of the women's movement, the mothers, beset by anxieties about age and the fate of their boldest dreams, fret at their offspring's backsliding ways. And the young bridle at the old guard's faith that a politics devised thirty years ago retains its potency today. Every so often, some writer designated (or self-designated) as the voice of the rising generation bursts into print denouncing the older generation's dowdiness and prudery, and the press proclaims feminism's demise. The mothers, ensconced in their own magazines, foundations, law practices, and universities, haughtily dismiss the fuss; the more dutiful of the daughters rush to their defense; and the matrophobe is banished from the ranks.
Antipathy between generations runs across the culture. Radical sophistication, whether political or cultural, demands not just a critical attitude toward predecessors but also toward its own repudiation. The generational cycles have been so ratcheted up that to hold a place in the limelight for any time demands a vehement show of singularity within a minutely segmented moment of the "now." So it is interesting to find a book that tries to spring loose from the sequence by connecting an up-to-the-moment female sensibility to a tradition dating back 150 years. At once slapdash, silly, ardent, and perceptive, Manifesta represents an imaginative achievement within feminist writing, a charming and useful book.
Manifesta wants to give voice to a distinct generational sensibility and (the authors' hope) a plan that can revive a movement that, despite its origins in the youth culture of the 1960s, seems awash in old-time religion. The book describes an incipient "everyday feminism" that permeates the lives of young women but does not reach the level of explicit affiliation. Richards and Baumgardner argue that this limitation is partly due to the reluctance of twenty-something women to associate themselves with a movement that they see as dull, unfashionable, and irrelevant: many of feminism's biggest battles have been won, however provisionally (legal abortion), and those that remain (the Equal Rights Amendment) no longer seem compelling. But it is also comes from the refusal of older feminists to give the young women's brand of politics—bohemian, light-hearted, idiosyncratic—enough credence.
manifesta culminates with its own manifesto, and with appendices devoted to the nuts and bolts of voter registration and political organization, but the political plan of action is actually a minor strain of the book. What interests Baumgardner and Richards is the political psychology of feminism: its elaborate youthful expressions and the rifts that underlie its avowals of unity. Most of all, they are exercised by the face-offs between indignant mothers and acting-out daughters, each waving a flag of women's emancipation.
THE BOOK TAKES stock of a movement whose very successes seem to render it obsolete. Baumgardner and Richards, both turning thirty as they finish the book, speak for a generation for whom "feminism is like fluoride. We scarcely notice that we have it—it's simply in the water." The very ubiquity of feminism gives rise to a languorous detachment: "'I'm not a feminist, but...," the authors' friends protest. These are the girls who grew up benefiting from the great gains of the 1960s and 1970s: legalized abortion, access to contraception, laws prohibiting sexual discrimination in public facilities and on the job, the prying open of business and the professions to female aspirants, and the enforcement of equity in school and college sports. "Girls can do anything boys can!" someone, somewhere, urged them. In the 1950s and 1960s, their mothers played forlorn games of half-court basketball, school policy having deemed full-court games too strenuous; but in the 1970s and 1980s, the daughters played in competitive leagues, the best of them before college coaches scouting for prospects.
Baumgardner and Richards are on to a subject about which few feminist writers, ironically, have been able to write: the extraordinary expansion of choice and desire for girls and young women. True, the benefits have been unevenly diffused across regions and classes, and so have the results. In my wealthy suburb, parents, teachers, and coaches train the girls like prize fillies for college and careers, but an eleven-year-old still confides that when she says she wants to be an architect, people warn her that it is too hard. Elsewhere, one suspects, most girls are not led to the starting gate, and there are few thrilled onlookers to watch them prance.
Yet across the country you glimpse a species given to flashes of stunning composure, at once physical, sexual, and professional: the tarted-up working woman swaggering down a city street, skirt hitched up, belly bare; the teenager in shorts and jersey shooting baskets, late in the evening, on an ill-lit court in a rough neighborhood; the horse wrangler bringing in a big herd at dawn on a Colorado ranch. Baumgardner and Richards situate themselves within this generational collectivily, sketching a gallery of East Coast friends who serve as its emblems: professionally successful, financially independent, sexually extravagant, and given to strenuous hobbies such as belly-dancing and martial arts. Far from being the self-seeking floozies that their elders believe them to be, they are tough practitioners of an "everyday feminism" which, if varied and individualistic, might also revive the women's movement.
Manifesta describes an early socialization in sexual equity that produced a playful attitude to conventional femininity and to feminist imperatives. The daughters whom Baumgardner and Richards celebrate were toughs on the athletic fields, but they also played with Barbie dolls, defying their mothers' distaste. As teenagers, they painted their nails and slathered on make-up and tottered around on the killer heels that older women despised. ("American Foot Binding: Stamp Out High Heels" exhorts a street poster ofthe 1970s, reprinted in Linda Gordon and Rosalind Baxandall's evocative collection of manifestos, ultimatums, poetry, and graphics from the early, high-flying days of radical feminism.) Over the last decade, the subversions coalesced in the cultural politics of "Girlie," a parodic, hyperbolic style of femininity which taps allegiances to female rockers, "chickclick" websites. Wonder Woman comics, the WNBA, and pin-up models—all in the name of women's freedom. "Girlie says we're not broken, and our desires aren't simply booby traps set by the patriarchy. Girlie encompasses the tabooed symbols of women's feminine enculturation—Barbie dolls, makeup, fashion magazines, high heels—and says doing so isn't shorthand for 'we've been duped.'"
For the middle-aged reader—for anyone past thirty, in fact—the book's descriptions of Girlie life will be an ethnographic expedition into exotic territory, like a quick, furtive turn around some college graduate's new studio apartment. The sophisticated may be able to identify a few emblems of female empowerment, such as the better-known movie stars and rockers; but the totemic qualities of Dirty Plotte comics or Bust magazine, treated at length, will be mysterious, as will the political significance of the Los Angeles journalist and author of The Butt who "shakes her own world when she dons a pair of tight jeans." You are bemused and ironic, the dubious onlooker squashed in the back of the Merry Pranksters bus, the wry, patronizing person you vowed you would never become.
But Baumgardner and Richards escort you with such amiability and pride into their Big Tent of feminism that you cannot help but be drawn in. They never fall into the smug self-regard that has long been a trademark ofthe youth manifesto, circling up the wagons into a cozy generational encampment. Exuberant and generous, Manifesta seeks to explain and to popularize, rather than to separate sleek insiders from dowdy outsiders. The book tries to forge an open-minded, big-hearted relationship between the Girlies and the women, tbe daughters and the mothers, the doubters and the zealots. It wills into being a "we"—a feminist collectivity— from an end-of-the-century ragbag's collection of scraps: me-too, bohemia, punk, do-me, get-rich-quick, and some tag ends of American civic ideals.
This is very much a feminism of fin- de-siecle hip New York. The Girlies are "culture babes" in another guise, and the scenes of struggle are the magazines and the publishing houses that employ them. We meet them chatting about lovers, sexually transmitted diseases, and bisexuality at a dinner party that the authors give to talk about "how feminism invigorates our lives." It is a hotly politicized milieu—but in an odd way, with Ms. magazine as the old-line Second International and Gloria Steinem playing a version of the kindly Eugene Debs. Political clashes take tbe form of screaming matches at feminist literary readings, and the struggle over the means of production means fighting to place feature articles sympathetic to feminism. This focus on the media is reminiscent of Friedan's The Feminine Mystique of 1963, which was primarily a polemic against the women's magazines rather than an analysis of the social position of women. But the outraged Friedan battered away at the towering unreasonableness of prejudice against women, while Baumgardner and Richards proceed from a happier sense of an infinitely malleable world.
The optimism has limits. Although Manifesta claims to speak for an entire generation, none of its subjects—who are largely writers—have undergone boot camp in the professions that historically have been more hostile to women: medicine, law, business, film-making. Indeed, they work in a city where the media, at all levels, has been softened up and modernized by feminist pressures, beginning with women journalists' class-action suits in the 1970s against some of the big magazines and newspapers. And few of Baumgardner and Richards's friends have yet enrolled in the hard school of marriage and motherhood. Still, the prospects for settling down, with female lovers or with male husbands, seem promising. The shadowy, affable partners who do appear in the book seem to pick up their share of the housework without complaining, and the pleasant employers do not seem to be the kind who would scowl if a woman dashed home to care for a sick child. (Sick children, indeed, are in short supply in this world.) The perfidious man of 1960s feminism has all but vanished, receding into misty abstractions such as "corporate America" and "the patriarchy." Individual men—bosses, fathers, lovers, husbands—receive an astonishingly clean bill of health. "Most men certainly respect the women in their lives," Baumgardner and Richards serenely propose, bypassing a grievance central to feminist discourse since Mary Wollstonecraft.
WHATEVER THE SOCIOLOGICAL constraints, though, the protagonists' cheerful confidence breaks with powerful conventions of representing the feminist protagonist, which is an achievement in itself The paradigmatic heroine ofthe feminist plot, valiant and beleaguered—the foremother who fought against impossible odds—gives way in Manifesta to a new cast of screw-ball heroines, a little ditzy but endowed with indefatigable audaciousness and a Rosalind Russell-like ability to dismiss opposition with an imperious sniff. The dinner-party guests—whose combined experience is the touchstone of the book—unabashedly mull over sexual opportunity, sexual play, and sexual charm: "As with many feminist conversations we have witnessed, all threads eventually led back to food, sex, and hair." Solutions to sexism can literally be plucked from a handbag, as Richards does for friends and correspondents to her online feminist advice column, retrieving useful information from her oversized purse ("scraps of paper I rip out of magazines or newsletters and deliver to friends and colleagues daily; a coffee-stained computer printout with interesting prison statistics; and the business card of a woman I met in Cairo in 1994"). Work is pretty good. These young women are well paid and successful: they direct marketing campaigns, snag big advances for their books, and produce network news and talk shows. The portrait is encouraging.
But the same cannot be said of the politics. When Baumgardner and Richards do get down to the particulars of youthful feminism, they are either derivative or fuzzy. Their thirteen-point manifesto is actually reminiscent of liberal-left women's campaigns long in progress. A lovely declaration of intent prefaces the agenda, patterned on the sonorous prologue to the very first women's rights manifesto produced at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848: "When in the course of thirty years of uninterrupted feminism ... it becomes evident that a single generation can only go so far, it behooves the next generation to pick up the reins." But once the girlies pick up the reins, they continue down familiar roads.
Baumgardner and Richards's agenda reiterates the importance of defending reproductive rights and expanding access to abortion, contraception, and health care across class lines, ending the sexual double standard in health care and insurance policies, augmenting feminist teaching within the schools and universities, abolishing discrimination against women in the military, strengthening women's presence in electoral politics, and so forth. These are hardly new ideas; and the new ideas (freeing adolescents from harassment and listless teachers) are misty or ("practice 'autokeonony"') hippie-mystical.
The strength of Manifesta is really its effort to understand the suspicion between two generations that flows beneath the surface of this immensely hopeful moment, this sea-change in the lives of girls and women. The shrewdest sections of the book analyze the current feminist fascination with the plight of early adolescent girls as an expression of deeper tensions between the mothers and the twenty-somethings. Baumgardner and Richards trace the feminist-inflected history of a melodrama of endangered innocents that has developed in the last ten years, focussed not on the children of poverty, who are traditionally the object of social concern, but on the daughters of affluence.
The depiction of preteens and very young teenagers (nine to twelve seems to be the favorite age group, since teenagers insist on going their own headstrong way) was popularized in 1994 by Mary Pipher's sensationalistic Reviving Ophelia, and given intellectual credence by the Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan's mournful accounts of adolescents' "voicelessness," and perpetrated by a commercial boom in uplifting "healthy" books and magazines for girls (which parents gobbled up like chicken soup, Baumgardner and Richards wryly observe) filled with hortatory stories of exemplary girls' triumphs over peril. Stories of the dire plight of adolescent girls seep into the views of liberal educators and the studies of social scientists, and then into the popular press; the villains are sexist teachers, nasty boys, and (more perplexing) girls' own supposed "loss of self." Mothers fret about the ubiquity of eating disorders and (most recently) the news that twelve-and thirteen-year-olds are performing oral sex on boys. Take Our Daughters to Work Day, initially a mildmannered holiday to acquaint girls with vocational choices, has become in some places an occasion to exhort eleven- and twelve-year-olds to discuss, under adult supervision, how "girls' lives [would] be different if they could hold on to their true selves."
"Girls are being labeled victims of society," Baumgardner and Richards write, "by implication, passive dupes—whether or not they themselves feel this way." They suggest that the image comes from an unacknowledged desire of the older generation to hold onto power: the champions of the girls movement find it easier to recreate themselves as protectors of those too young to practice politics than to accept young women as their coequals. "The movement is not just led by adult women, in the tradition of Scout leaders ... it is, in many ways, for adult women." It is both a way to stretch out a generation's "shelf life," and "an excuse to overlook the young women who are making strides right beside them."
The interpretation is perceptive, but it is also superficial. The narrative of rescue, whereby older, wiser, politically prescient women come to the aid of those weaker than themselves, has a long lineage within feminism: female slaves, prostitutes, and ill-paid working women have all been cast in the victim's role by different generations of activists. It is a story that feminists have told and told and told. The forlorn girl-child, damaged by a patriarchal world's cruelty or negligence, can play a part in the tale; but the twenty-some-thing screwball does not suit the role.
Of course adolescents need help, and girls experience particular sufferings that can be addressed and alleviated. The problem is that none of the spokeswomen ask how so many of these purportedly languishing girls come to be, within a short time, robust college students and then accomplished young working women. Watching young girls closely, you sometimes feel as if the ancient rites are suspended, the passing-on from one generation to the next of the talismans of resentment of what is and wistfulness for what might have been, the oblique lessons in the arts of pleasing and mollifying, the prohibitions on anger and boastfulness. For the moment, it seems as if the daughters will not need all of these lessons, as if we could call a halt to the mysteries; or so, reading the excited prose of Manifesta, you would think.
But this heady world in which the screwball heroines strut their stuff is a very small world. In actuality, ambitious women flourish in colleges and in entry-level jobs, and then get shut out as they enter their thirties, marry, and have children. The prognosis is chastening. Women head only a handful of Fortune 500 companies. Congress is overwhelmingly male, and at this pace it will take five hundred years before women achieve proportional representation. In most job categories, men still earn significantly more than women. While nearly fifty percent of mothers with small children work in full-time jobs outside the home, they function in workplaces where their responsibilities for children, if not kept firmly in check, relegate them to the slow track. Baumgardner and Richards would not deny these facts. What they do suggest is that the success of young single women has ramifications more profound than feminists are willing to concede.
THE BLOCKAGE IN the women's movement that Manifesta describes—the old guard ignoring the young comers—is unwittingly borne out in memoirs by Betty Friedan and Brenda Feigen. Friedan, of course, has been an icon ofthe second wave of feminism since the publication of The Feminine Mystique. Feigen, a pioneering women's rights lawyer, was a leader ofthe National Organization for Women (NOW) in the early 1970s. Firmly in command of past and present, of personal travails and political fallout, these writers are living now amid the satisfactions of high middle age, and the better impulses to set the historical record straight mingle with the self-inflating desires to tell all, even when the "all" that is elevated to confessional significance is unexceptional.
Indeed, the feminist political memoir is becoming something of a genre—Susan Brownmiller and Robin Morgan, two other principals of the women's movement of the 1960s, have also delivered new books—and as a genre it is new. The women's movement of the nineteenth century produced a magisterial history, the six- volume History of Woman Suffrage, co- edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and other leaders, between 1881 and 1922, but only a single memoir of note, Stanton's adamantine Eighty Years and More, which appeared in 1898. Stanton wrote her story at the very end of a long life, fifty years of which had teemed with political activity and intellectual production. She had at her disposal a surfeit of material, a writer's craftiness, and a passion for ideas and politics unabated in old age.
At eighty years and more, Stanton still had a lot to say. Today, by contrast, American publishers are so avid for personal material that editors scour the field for worthy rememberers and create memoirists from people who really, all things considered, could more profitably have been doing something else. The commercial conviction that a protagonist's life must be interesting substitutes for a writer's internal drive to make sense of her life. Friedan and Feigen are, rightly, satisfied with themselves and proud of their achievements, but they have, in truth, little to say to young women such as Baumgardner and Richards.
The lack of urgency, of the need to set the record straight or to settle scores, comes in part from success. Unlike New Left memoirists, who tend to be glum and acrimonious, the feminists virite from the heart of cheerful, bustling lives. At seventy-nine, Betty Friedan still heads her own amply funded institute on family and work issues for policymakers. Brenda Feigen cuts entertainment deals in Hollywood. Talk abounds of children's accomplishments; Friedan even trundles out her grandchildren. With varying degrees of ruefulness, the writers report on the failure of early marriages, but they go on to chronicle the rebirth of love: for Feigen, in a passionate attachment to a woman; for Friedan, in a series of satisfying affairs with men. The writing neither etches the lives on glass nor wrestles lucidity from the raw. One finishes each book sated with the recognition of how well it has all turned out.
Friedan has been notably successful at stamping herself upon popular American consciousness as the preeminent American feminist of the twentieth century, the smart Smith College graduate who, becalmed in the suburbs in the 1950s, un- wittingly stumbled upon the big story— the "problem that had no name"—and sparked the rebirth of the struggle for women's rights. The appearance of The Feminine Mystique led to the formation of NOW, with its legions of members and fellow travelers, which carried on the battle through the 1960s under Friedan's leadership. The storyline, promulgated by Friedan herself for thirty years in her tub-thumping lecture tours, has a cause-and-effect simplicity tbat makes it a natural for history textbooks—which are eager, in any case, to be done quickly with the subject of feminism.
Friedan has never valued ambiguity or tbe complications of thought that come from truly engaging an opposition, and so her memoir recycles old material rather than revisits experience. The book seems in part a response to the historian Daniel Horowitz, who argued in his study of The Feminine Mystique that Friedan, far from being a suburban naif when she began the book, was a left-wing fellow traveler well-versed in political journalism from her apprenticeship in the 1940s in the labor press. But Friedan no more likes anyone messing with her biography than she liked anyone else messing with NOW in the 1960s, and Life So Far irascibly reiterates virtually the same story that she has been telling about herself for years, with a little added detail.
Here is the brainy Jevish girl from Peoria thrilling to the high-minded milieu of Smith College in the early years of World War II. Although Friedan does not say so. Smith was a seedbed of left-liberal social science; and although its championship of female education was limited, ideologically, to preparing the girls to be educated wives and mothers, there were nonetheless undertones of resistance to the status quo in the strong ethos of social conscience that the professors inculcated. After graduation, Friedan went to Berkeley on a graduate fellowship in psychology—an eccentric and dubious choice for a woman in 1942—and then returned to New York as a journalist for a left-wing union newspaper. In 1947 she married and over the next decade had three babies, all the while keeping her career alive. Fired during her first pregnancy from the union newspaper, she turned to writing for women's magazines.
A Greenwich Village apartment gave way to a series of family-friendly residences at ever farther removes from the city; and as she shuttled back and forth between New York and Westchester—between her children and her assignments, her own strained life and the chipper images of the women's magazines—she stumbled upon the problem that had no name and wrote a book about it. Provoked by a Smith College survey of her class, she uncovered what Jane Addams, seventy-five years earlier, had called "the snare of preparation," the painful paradox of a system that sent middle-class women to college to train their minds and then sent them back home to moulder.
The paperback publisher recognized a bestseller in The Feminine Mystique and organized a marketing campaign around the problem-that-has-no-name slogan. "It changed my life," gushed readers. Friedan never specifies how, exactly, the book did change lives, but then she has never been interested so much in actual women. She is much more taken up with the Zeitgeist that she believes she unleashed. In her abstract relation to women, in her view of the unitary mass that transformed itself through the direction of a prescient leader, there is perhaps more of the old left-wing fellow traveler than she would like to admit.
THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE was not a political book, in the sense that it proposed rights and remedies. It was, in 1963, almost impossible to imagine how the cultural questions raised by Friedan could be linked to politics as they were currently understood. "Woman" was an identity bleached of any political significance. Women were citizens, to be sure— though the historian Linda Kerber's fascinating account of the checkered history of that citizenship. No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies, shows, unbelievably, that they had only just been granted the right to serve on juries. But women were certainly not players in electoral politics. The woman's vote that the nineteenth-century suffragists believed would result from enfranchisement had not materialized when the Nineteenth Amendment passed in 1920; and after that everyone assumed that women simply voted along with male family members. So Friedan's book put the woman question, moribund for forty years, back into discussion.
It also introduced her to a group of aggravated Washington ladies, middle level bureaucrats with specific political ideas. Stalemated in their careers, these longtime officials had watched the decent, thoughtful recommendations of the Commission on the Status of Women, appointed by President Kennedy in 1961, peter out in incessant talk. Even the mild-mannered agitation around the Commission on the Status of Women, however, was enough to prompt a Southern senator to introduce a rider to the Civil Rights Bill in 1964—perhaps as a chivalric nod to the ladies, but probably as a joke- banning sex discrimination along with race discrimination in employment. Incredibly, there was now federal legislation—Title VII—on the books that made prejudicial hiring illegal.
Thousands of charges of sex discrimination—one-fourth of the total—flooded the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission set up to enforce the legislation, but the EEOC refused to act on the women's grievances. Although racially discriminatory want ads were now outlawed, the Commission decided to issue a waiver exempting men-only notices for jobs. The Washington underground had found its issue. In 1966, when the malcontents founded the National Organization for Women with Friedan as its president, the immediate goal was to bring the EEOC to heel. Quickly expanding its membership base, NOW became a group for savvy Washington insiders, determined working women, brilliant lawyers, and angry journalists. It revived proposals for publicly funded child care that had long lain dormant, it brought legal actions against sex-segregated bars and restaurants, and in 1967 it called for legalized abortion.
Life So Far is Friedan's great-woman rendition of this history. There is something soothing in the simplicity and the pacing of her account. Feminism over the next few years is a steady, Whiggish march of liberal achievement orchestrated by Friedan. She sees NOW's first years as feminism's good times, when a group of responsible militants, non-sectarian and sensible, tapped broad popular support and focused on attainable goals. No hot-heads yet; no Utopian visions; no embarrassing quandaries. Yet the approacb is barren of historical complexity; and it testifies to Friedan's profound lack of curiosity about the origins of the startling activity ofthe 1960s.
Thus Pauli Murray, for example, the gifted African American lawyer who first conceived of the assault on the EEOC, has only a walk-on part in Friedan's narrative. Gloria Steinem comes in for jabs for coloring her hair, but her mediating and mollifying role in keeping factions together goes unacknowledged. The civil rights movement is only a faint hum in the background, though in fact it provided NOW with its activating metaphors of prejudice and justice—along with many of its tactics. And thirty years has done nothing to help Friedan better understand the explosion of a vehement, kick-out-the-traces, radical feminism in 1969, when a cadre of young women commandeered TV viewers' attention at the Miss America pageant by tossing bras into a Freedom Trash Can. Those were New Yorkers, with a shrewdness about sensational uses of the press and the pleasures of outraging convention—a sensibility utterly foreign to the respectable Washingtonians. The new terms of invective—Womanhood as we know it must go!—recast Friedan the brave militant as Friedan the tired liberal, feminism's counterpart to Hubert Humphrey. And the new feminists soon invaded the liberals' domain. At a NOW-sponsored conference, radicals engineered a vote to ban men, whose inclusion had always been a point of pride for NOW, and commandeered the stage for a hair-cutting ritual (to shear women of the trappings of heterosexual oppression) carried out by the Red Guard of Boston's fierce Cell 16. Lesbians, waving the flag of the Lavender Menace, heckled Friedan from the floor. Although three decades have modulated what was then her take-no-prisoners response, she is still adamant that lesbians should be seen and not heard within the women's movement.
She also insists that sex was a waste of time: "The women's movement was not about sex, but about equal opportunity in jobs and all the rest of it." Friedan's blind spot has always been sex. Not sex as an enlivening force in life: her fond celebration of love affairs with married men is one of the few fetching surprises in the memoir. But she scorns sex as a point of political action. She formulates her abhorrence of gay rights as a determination to keep feminism "mainstream," but her reactions—then and now—go deeper than political practicality, to a revulsion to the sexual politics which, it turned out, would tint feminism for the rest of the century, mainstream and all.
In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan described sex as the residue of an embarrassing femininity that can best be burned away by useful work. Sexual desire, freedom, expressiveness: all smacked of women's shameful dependencies, miasmic lusts, threatening to confirm the misogynistic images of the 1950s that she had tried to beat back, bloated Woman steaming in her own juices, ready to pounce on the handyman at the door. "Sexual politics was bad business," Friedan maintains. The imbroglio over gay rights ultimately led to Friedan's ouster from the NOW leadership.
Although she made a permanent place for herself within the sedate matronly wing ofthe women's movement, she would never again play a leading role at the center. That part fell to Steinem, a woman who, for all her intellectual blandness, had the fortitude and the shrewdness to listen to both the hotheads and the housewives, and to rework a New Left politics surging up from below into a liberal coalition that ultimately created a strong feminist presence within the Democratic Party. Friedan still pictures herself as flag bearer of the "mainstream," but her agenda of "jobs and all the rest" left out the sexual issues that over the rest of the century would galvanize first liberal support and then mainstream acceptance: an end to the punitive treatment of rape victims, policies to end sexual harassment, safe and effective contraception, and gay rights.
"I'm more relaxed about the whole issue now than I was then," Friedan observes, "but I knew, and I was right, that sexual politics was not the way to go for the movement." She gripes throughout her narrative of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although the tone is more kvetching than recriminatory, there is a residue of bitterness in chapter titles such as "The Enemies Without and the Enemies Within" and "Triumph and Treachery Within the Sisterhood." And there is also a touch of malice, the animus of the self-appointed mother toward the ungrateful young who turned to her rival Steinem. It was not only the red-hot, karate-chopping Cell 16 types whom Friedan alienated; it was also the legions of young women just out of the universities who were crashing through the sex bars in the academy, medicine, and the law. "Very East Coast and hardly mainstream," Friedan judges these women.
BRENDA EEIGEN WAS one of the interlopers. She is dismissed in Life So Far as an avatar of New York radical chic. So it comes as no surprise that Feigen's own book is an antidote to Friedan's self-involved history. The memoir begins with a riveting account of feminist fights at the elite law schools, a seedbed of 1960s valor. Feigen, a star Vassar graduate, marched off to Harvard in 1966, convinced that brains and hard work would see her through. "I had planned to have a traditional—and stellar—career." The legal profession at the time—like all the others—was legally open to women (an improvement over the nine- teenth century, when the Supreme Court upheld Bradwell v. Illinois, which denied a woman the right to practice law). But the contempt for women was so extreme as to create a minefield into which few dared to wander.
A survey of twenty-five major law firms in 1967 showed not a single female partner; and, up to 1963, barely a dozen women had ever taught at any law school in the country. The system of segregation, if more genteel and cloaked than Jim Crow, was nonetheless as normalized, pervasive, and hurtful. Feigen's reiteration of the facts is mesmerizing. There were 32 women in Feigen's entering class of 565, but the faculty addressed the class as "gentlemen." A. James Casner, the property-law professor who was the model for the crusty teacher in The Paper Chase, refused to call on women in his class except on "Ladies Day," which he set aside to spar with female students. (Feigen's criminal law class spent "Ladies Day" discussing the question "how much penetration constitutes rape?") In a constitutional law class, the entire class, including the professor, burst out laughing when Feigen disagreed with the Supreme Court's reasoning upholding a Michigan statute which made it a crime for a woman to work as a barmaid, unless her father or her brother was the proprietor of the bar and present while she was working.
We do not yet have a full history of this first wave of gender integration of the professional schools and the historically male universities. Veterans of medical schools, seminaries, graduate schools, and Princeton and Yale Colleges (which admitted women in 1969, after several centuries of exclusion) all have similar stories of pluck and humiliation, worn smooth in the retelling. In Feigen's writing, indignation grown dim with time flares up in images of her "wildly beating heart" when she dared speak up in class, the snickering male classmates who turned to look up the wonnen's skirts as they entered the law school amphitheaters, and the cavalier refusal of the big law firms to interview women.
The brutal treatment of well-placed, well-heeled, and brilliant women was so extreme that, once women's liberation burst into public consciousness, a surge of daring overwhelmed the discipline of the good student and the nice girl. By 1968, when Feigen began openly to complain about Harvard's segregated eating clubs and facilities, the orderly feminism that Friedan espoused was irrelevant. The sources of contempt for women's possibilities and talents no longer seemed vague and mysterious: it was no longer "the problem that had no name." The problem did have a name—indeed, a full-blown identity: it was Professor Casner, or the irate male caretaker who shooed women from the squash courts as if they carried a communicable disease, or the male classmate leering up from his seat in the law school amphitheater.
Unfortunately, most of Feigen's memoir devolves into an I-was-there story. She was legislative vice president of NOW in the early 1970s, directing the ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. She became a feminist celebrity on the talk show circuit, known for her association with Steinem and for her participation in a marriage in which both partners publicly extolled the merits of egalitarian conjugality. She formed a law partnership with her husband Marc Fasteau and eventually moved into entertainment law. She braved the massive hostility of Hollywood—which comes off in this book as the Birmingham, Alabama, of sexism—toward feisty women by trying to produce a movie. When she delves into more idionsyncratic material—the birth of her daughter, the breakup of her marriage, her shift to entertainment law and the movie business—she lends it significance by aligning personal matters with sociological forces: the travails of motherhood, the fault lines in the best-conceived marriages, sexism in the entertainment industry.
The exception is Feigen's account of her stint at the ACLU Women's Rights Project, which she joined in 1972 as co-director with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In the early 1970s, feminist lawyers were creating a whirlwind of litigation that would result in an extraordinary transformation in the law. The Women's Rights Project was at the center. Out of the welter of cases and causes that passed through the office came Frontiero v. Richardson, a discimination suit filed by Sharon Frontiero, a married Air Force officer living on a base who had discovered she could not claim the benefits for her husband to which Air Force wives were automatically entitled. The Supreme Court had accepted the case for review, but the justices had been reluctant to subject sex discrimination to the same strict scrutiny as race discrimination. The plaintiff's lawyer, an expert in race discrimination, wanted to argue the case himself, but Feigen and Ginsburg persuaded him to let them file an amicus brief.
Feigen's writing lifts with the thrill of working with Ginsburg in what started out as an important but workaday moment, and ended up in an extraordinary triumph. In a sense, this is a vindication of the story of Harvard in the 1960s: brilliance once suppressed bursts forth in a performance in which all the capabilities of the moment are compressed. Marc Fasteau had joined the two women; the three worked together on an "excellent" brief which, revised and edited and augmented by Ginsburg, turned into a "stunning" brief Ginsburg took on the entire history of legal injustice to women: centuries of rusty British precedents, the Supreme Court's smug Victorian language in Bradwell justifying why Myra Bradwell could not be admitted to the bar, the ignominious barmaid statute that had infuriated Feigen in law school. Ginsburg dived into the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 and swooped past the early 1960s, reminding the justices of the findings of the presidential commission of 1963. Even the plaintiff's lawyer recognized that he was in the presence of something big and he ceded some of his time to Ginsburg, who delivered an oral argument before the Court that Feigen thought was probably the best the Justices had ever heard. The verdict was an 8-1 decision for the plaintiff, a landmark in subjecting sexual discrimination to strict scrutiny. And a few weeks after Frontiero v. Richardson came the decision in Roe v. Wade. This world seems as remote as antiquity, placed up against the milieu where Manifesta's well-paid girlies debate whether or not it is a feminist act to paint your fingernails at work. Yet it is important to eschew the temptation to strike a note of elegiac retrospection. Saluting the magnificent past is always, at some level, like taking a stiff drink of self-importance; it banishes the uncertainties ofthe moment. It is those uncertainties, those unresolved dilemmas, that the daughters evoke— which is why they, with their manifestas and their own studied poses of knowingness, can be at once irritating and challenging. Unfurling over time, feminism has always been a saga of unlikely heroism, and it must always stretch the imagination to encompass new protagonists. There is a dialectic, not a devolution, that connects brilliant rebels and screwball daughters.
This article originally ran in the January 15, 2001, issue of the magazine.