Can There Be a Moderate Feminism?

A genuinely moderate feminism must begin with an acknowledgement of the goodness in human love, human community, and responsibility, not with a radical embrace of independence and self-created identities. It must acknowledge and respect some differences between the sexes and see them as part of human being.

Feminism is the most influential and successful political movement of the past sixty years. And Betty Friedan was America’s most famous and influential feminist, as I show in my essay “Betty Friedan and the Birth of Modern Feminism.” Friedan’s theoretical starting points made the moderate feminism she sometimes seemed to embrace untenable. As a result, her radical sisters have defined the Women’s Movement.

The goals of self-proclaimed radical feminists like Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone, and Simone de Beauvoir gave rise to an ongoing revolution in human life. Radical feminists stand for the proposition that differences between men and women are socially constructed, and that lingering disparities between the two sexes are traceable to discrimination. The object of radical feminist reform, therefore, is to deconstruct the world of patriarchy (including ending marriage and abolishing the family) so that a world of self-determination can arise.

Friedan’s Feminine Mystique (1963), her founding of the National Organization of Women (NOW), and her abortion rights activism testify to her radical commitments. In practice, however, she shied away from pushing her radical principles to their logical conclusion, counseling a moderate-sounding approach to advancing feminist ideals. But Friedan never abandoned her radical principles, and her calls for moderation were overwhelmed by those who more consistently and honestly fought for self-determination and the elimination of gender. A workable moderate feminism must respect some sex differences and recognize the importance of human limits—two things that Friedan never seemed to do completely.

Friedan’s Radical Feminism

According to Friedan, women must have careers outside the home in order to be fulfilled, fully human, and have a healthy identity. In the past, women had lived according to the “feminine mystique,” a set of beliefs and opinions that directed women toward fulfillment in family life and the caring professions. “The only kind of work,” Friedan writes, that permits a woman “to realize her abilities fully, to achieve identity in society” is “the lifelong commitment to an art or science, to politics or profession.” Motherhood may still be chosen, for Friedan, but only after women become fully human by pursuing career ambitions, independence, and struggling in creative work of her own.

Friedan’s more radical sisters took her case against motherhood and in favor of womanly self-determination and independence to its logical conclusion. Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970), the most radical book from the radical feminists, followed Friedan’s logic and inspiration to the abolition of the family. After reading Firestone’s book, Simone de Beauvoir, the founding mother of radical feminism and the inspiration for Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, was persuaded that her Second Sex (1949) had not gone far enough. “I now think that the family must be abolished,” Beauvoir wrote in 1972.

Firestone identified the sources that had relegated women to what she took to be second-class citizenship. This led her and her radical sisters to criticisms of love and sex. Love, Firestone wrote, was the “pivot of women’s oppression,” because it implied dependence of women on men. The “heart of woman’s oppression” is her role in “child-bearing and child-rearing.” Emancipation from the moral ideal of love and the biological realities of sex culminating in motherhood is necessary to free women.

Firestone did not shrink from what this meant. Reproduction would have to occur outside the body (i.e., with cloning) for women to be free. Child-rearing would have to be collectivized for women to finally be free from the imperatives of motherhood. Sex would have to be freed from procreation, engaged in solely for pleasure. Sex would have to be divorced from a dependent love as well.

The foundations for Firestone’s aims are in Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. Men did not love needy women, and women who loved fell into a trap. A woman’s “human existence is in danger, even though she has found fulfillment, according to the tenets of the feminine mystique, as a wife and mother.” A life centered on motherhood is, for women, “continued infantilizing,” “a living death,” and “a terror,” wherein the mother and wife is “committing a kind of suicide.” The role is “burying millions of American women alive.” Friedan goes so far as to claim that “women who ‘adjust’ as housewives, who grow up wanting to be ‘just a housewife,’ are in the same danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps—and the millions more who refused to believe that the concentration camps existed.”

The Feminine Mystique was a radical, revolutionary book. Friedan embraced, in one form or another, the three prongs of what Kate Millett in Sexual Politics (1970) labels the sexual revolution. Friedan sought to (1) bring an end to patriarchal socialization and build an androgynous world; (2) establish the complete economic and emotional independence of women (and perhaps children) from the family; and (3) end sexual taboos.

Friedan’s Moderation Feminism

Less than five years after writing The Feminine Mystique, Friedan began to focus on bringing about the revolution in practice. When she helped found NOW, Friedan penned a series of articles criticizing the radical feminism of Firestone, Millett, and others. As she noted, they would lead the movement into a dead end on matters of reproduction, sexuality, and marriage. This led her to embrace two forms of moderate feminism: a “not yet” form and a trimming form. Neither was sustainable.

Concerning artificial reproduction, for instance, Friedan called it an “abstract discussion” that does “no good” because bodily transformation is not possible in the here and now. “Don’t talk to me about test tubes,” Friedan wrote in her treatment of ideological traps for the new feminists. “We must confront the fact of life—as a temporary fact of most women’s lives today—that women do give birth to children . . . and challenge the idea that it is women’s primary role to rear children.” This is not a “no” to cloning, but rather a not yet—a matter of strategy and what’s possible to help the liberation of women right now.

In Friedan’s view, the radicalism implicit in the feminist position would inhibit the building of a broader coalition to pursue women’s rights. “If we define our movement in antilove, antichild terms, we are not going to have the power of the women and the help of increasing numbers of men who can identify their liberation with women’s liberation.” Such radicalism tends to “immobilize the movement politically,” Friedan would later worry. But with more people adopting a new attitude, she implied, someday the movement could realize its more radical dreams.

In the same vein, Friedan conducted a telling, much-neglected interview with Beauvoir in the early 1970s. Beauvoir had embraced Firestone’s radicalism. “No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children,” Beauvoir contended, for fear that too many women would choose to do so. “As long as the family and the myth of the family and the myth of maternity are not destroyed . . . women will still be oppressed.”

The love-fest between the two women stopped at this point. Friedan would not endorse Beauvoir’s proposal, which seemed to require the forcible separation of mothers from their children. Some of Friedan’s objections were practical. “Politically at the moment,” Friedan worried, it would be impossible to force women away from motherhood, because “we have hardly any child-care centers in the United States.” Beauvoir’s proposal also ran afoul of the “tradition of individual freedom in America.” This is “not yet” not-so-moderate feminism.

Then, Friedan suggested that it was possible for feminism to go too far. As Friedan concluded: “I would never say that every woman must put her child in a child-care center.” Investing time and energy into motherhood could be a desirable choice for some women—so long, of course, as one’s career did not suffer. Friedan thought that “maternity is more than a myth” and that it is “neither good nor necessarily desirable to denounce all of the values of motherhood as long as one has a choice.” Maternity could be a subordinate part of a life well-lived. This is her trimming form of moderate feminism.

Later in life, she continued this trimming stance in praise of motherhood. When asked in an interview if it was permissible for women to define success solely in terms of family, Friedan said “of course it is, as long as it meets the woman’s needs as well as the family’s needs.”

Friedan was also reluctant, in her later works and in her time as an activist, to imply that the common embrace of love and children were simply benighted relics of a patriarchal age. In an interview with Social Policy magazine in 1970, Friedan criticized “sexual politics.” Her criticism was partly strategic, reflecting worries that anti-love, anti-child man-hating would alienate the broad American middle. Her worries were also seemingly principled. “I think love and sex are real and that women and men both have real needs for love and intimacy that seem most easily structured around heterosexual relationships.” Once feminism denied that intimacy and love are real human needs, Friedan spoke out against it.

These seem like moderate positions, but radicalism lurks within. Her earlier work had claimed that motherhood alone could never actually meet a woman’s needs, for instance. Friedan never, so far as I am aware, unambiguously suggested that motherhood could be the crown jewel of a life well lived. The needs of identity compromise the dependent love and sacrifice central to parenthood and marriage. Friedan’s radical principles undermine those experiences, try as she might to delay or trim them down to avoid their most shocking applications. She maintained her original principles, it seems, but refused to take them to their logical conclusion. That is not a tenable situation.

As ever more radical forms of feminism seep into the American mainstream, moderate feminism either ratchets toward radicalism with an attitude of “not yet” or it trims against its own radical principles and whispers, “thus far and no further please.”

Toward a Moderate Feminism

Today’s feminists are often silent about their radical goals, either through ignorance about them or because it is best to keep quiet about them. A truly moderate feminism must question the radical principles Friedan and her sisters used to justify feminism and build on other foundations.

A truly moderate feminism must question the radical principles Friedan and her sisters used to justify feminism and build on other foundations.

The test for genuinely moderate feminists is whether they are willing to take action against radical feminists when they threaten important human goods such as happiness, motherhood, and love; that is, whether they are willing to identify and act against enemies on their left. Judged by this standard, I think, self-described feminists will continue to disappoint, appearing to play small ball but really playing an endless long game of cultural transformation.

A genuinely moderate feminism must be grounded in seeing the desirability for women to work as a means of making a living, just as men work to make a living, but also see that making a living and making a life are two different things. It must begin with an acknowledgment of the goodness in human love, human community, and responsibility, not with a radical embrace of independence and self-created identities. It must acknowledge and respect some differences between the sexes and see them as part of human being.

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