Betty Friedan

Smith College Commencement Address – May 24, 1981

Betty Friedan
May 24, 1981— Northampton, Massachusetts
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Women, persons, family of Smith.

I'm glad to be able to speak to you today, that you've invited me to speak to you today.

This is a very crucial time. I thought to myself, in middle of the night, thinking, "You know, you have to give a cheerful speech at commencement." How can I possibly give you a cheerful, hopeful, optimistic speech today?

And you know, you're in a very curious place in a curious time. There are those who think you take it all for granted – all the rights, all the marvelous choices, all the options that you enjoy. That you think that they are your due, that the world is your oyster, that your own exceptional ability has won you those things, that nothing further has to be done and you don't even realize that they come to you not from your own ability alone – as great as that may be – but because of the many years of battle, the centuries-long line of women's movement preceded you.

I don't think that's true.

There are those that say you will be super women. You will be a new breed of women and you're going to go on and be corporation presidents, and before the century is up we're going to have a woman as president and no problems.

And then there are those who think that the women's movement is over, that the nation has turned in reaction, and although we can't quite figure out how it happened in another few years you'll be home again and it will all be a dream.

None of these things is true. Your situation is much more complex.

I believe that we indeed have come to the end of the beginning, that you must move into the second stage, that the first stage of the sex-role revolution that has changed the lives and the possibilities of lives of women culminated in the modern women's movement.

For me, the seeds of it were probably planted here, nearly 40 years ago. In my 15th reunion in 1957, appalled at what I later came to call The Feminine Mystique that was working against the very seriousness and truth of education that the women were receiving here, what ended for me in the women's movement began.

We have had now 20 years of women's movement, but we cannot continue in the next few years…you cannot continue to live in the terms that we fought in the first stage of modern feminism, the modern women's movement.

I don't have to tell you that you are facing a period of reaction without. You know indeed that the Equal Rights Amendment in little more than a year will be over for this century and not just a symbol but as the constitutional underpinning of the very opportunities that you have enjoyed and expect to enjoy in the future.

And you know that the very laws that already embody some parts of the principles of equal opportunity are themselves already under threat, as hearings are held in the Senate, for instance, to abolish affirmative action.

And while indeed you do have many more choices, it seems, some of those choices are not real and some are more complex than anyone realizes. And the very multiplicity of choices is a problem. And your very choice to have a child is not real and the safe legal medical access to birth control and abortion has just been threatened in an active reaction that is terrible in its overtones of punishment of woman, of violence against woman, and of the life, the human life that is woman. [applause]

But I do not think that we can fight this reaction from abroad, this reaction at large in the country and those who are, if you will, misusing the issues of women's equality, misusing the very choices that we have begun to want, misusing sexual issues and sexual politics, if you will, as a diversion from the real problems threatening the securities of American families today.

We cannot fight this reaction unless we transcend the first stage – the premises, the terms, the rubrics – and transcend the remnant of feminists' reaction and false feminist polarization that still afflicts our consciousness.

There is..we must in our thinking, because this is a place of thought and it's very important that we begin to ask some new questions, even if we don't have the answers, even if those answers seemed inconceivable. In our thinking, we have to distinguish between a false polarization. We have to transcend certain polarizations that happened in the first stage but that are going to lead us indeed to dead ends.

Further, the degree of equality of opportunity we've won and that you expect to enjoy will not be able to be preserved and you will not be able to live it unless we get on to these new questions.

Above all – and I say this flat out and I do not want it misunderstood so it's very important that you understand what I mean – we must transcend the seeming and false polarization between feminism and the family. We must understand that women's rights, equality of opportunity for women in education, employment, finance and the rest and the Equal Rights Amendment – the absolutely essential constitutional underpinning of these rights – is essential today for the survival of families. [applause]

Now I don't want anyone leaving here to say, Betty Friedan is saying we must go back to the family, we must retreat to the family. I am NOT saying that at all. I must say we must move on. We must move on to come to new terms with a dynamic, evolving family that our own equality makes possible. And we must do that in order to live in joy and defend and preserve this equality.

I am NOT saying that we can or would ever dream of returning to the family of The Feminine Mystique, choosing the sort of the role of the passive, dependent housewife which was a denigration and an insult to the intelligent women, for instance, even while they were writing "housewife" on the census blank, which I did in my time, and who knows if you will not in some years of your time.

The reality of intelligent Smith women that were housewives was very different from that denigrating image, but there is no way that women today, for reasons of economic survival of families if nothing else, can return to even play-acting a dependent, subservient, passive role of housewife, where woman is quote-unquote "just a housewife," where she is defined in terms solely as man's wife, children's mother, server of physical needs of husband, children and home. That image that defined and confined our image, our possibilities, our potential energies, nearly twenty years ago when I gave it the term The Feminine Mystique.

But we have to beware of being locked in a reactionary feminist mystique. Feminism – the gut reality of mainstream feminism – has opened life and the possibility of life for women, men and children, but the reality of feminism in no way is opposed to the family.

In the first stage, the very ability of women to work outside the home and get a decent wage and get access to professions – whether women were housewives, whether women were working outside the home – was held back by that image of woman, the feminine mystique, that defined women solely in terms of the passive, subservient housewife role in the family.

Our thrust in the first stage of feminism had to be on the personhood of women and on breaking through the barriers, the simple barriers if you will, of sex discrimination in the society as well as those barriers as we interjected them in our own consciousness that kept us from moving as people in our own right and fully demanding the equality of opportunity that was our human birthright, our American birthright.

That feminine mystique – we had to get rid of it, we had to break through it, we had to break through the limitation to affirm our personhood of woman. And the thrust was on the things that we did as individuals, as individuals, in professions, in all that field outside the home that had been called and defined "man's world" and where women moved only as exceptions and freaks did the menial housework.

We had to make ourselves visible out of that world. We had to break through the barriers. We had to uncover all the buried history, the double standards that existed when women were invisible as people in that world.

But there was a danger. There was a slight danger and the media exaggerated it, but some of our own ideological mistakes in our own rhetoric carried the danger, too, of a reaction so strong against the feminine mystique that, if you will, that there was a tendency to throw out some of the baby off with the bathwater – just throw out a little bit. That from being defined solely in terms of an obsolete, narrow definition of woman's role that wasn't really possible to live in the new 80-year lifespan and in the new economic demands of society.

Even if we were still living in terms of families facing choices and decisions about children in existing marriages or facing questions about marriages, our consciousness – the part of it that we termed as feminism – focused on these other questions.

And then there came to be the image that somehow feminism against the family, as if a narrow definition of feminism, family didn't belong. And then this played into reaction. For reaction took some ideological mistake or ideological oversimplification that seemed right for awhile. They sounded revolutionary. They expressed our anger.

Women had a right to feel angry if they were put down, they were put down as they were in the office, in the classroom, even in some subtle ways in this very university, although this college was less guilty than most. Nevertheless it couldn't be completely immune from what was in the culture. There was paternalism here. There was even some instances, probably, of sex discrimination, unconscious, even though the basic thrust of Smith always was to take women seriously as people when nobody else did, when it wasn't fashionable, when even feminism had been buried in consciousness.

But the anger that women, like all dependent people, had been taking out on their own bodies and in self-hatred and self-denigration and malaise that the doctors got rich not curing and then to take it out covertly on husbands and children – now this anger was out in the open and in the political idiom of the 60s it was easy to make kind of a sexual politics out of the basic movement for the personhood and the equality of women until it began to seem of war of woman as a class oppressed down with man as the class of oppressors, down with family, down with motherhood, down with marriage, down with everything women had ever done to attract man, down with everything that men – the patriarchs, the male chauvinist pigs – had ever done.

And you know the excesses of this. They were probably before your time, but they gave what I consider a bit of a false image to, well, woman's lib – a term that I don't use because I think it's imbued with that image. The thrust of the woman's movement was the personhood of woman and was the equality of opportunity that was essential.

Today, I am concerned with our ability – with your ability – to live that equality and to preserve it. We have to realize that if we replace a feminine mystique which denied, ignored, did not allow us to think in terms of the aspirations and the potentials of women which are not defined by her role as wife and mother, if we replace that by a feminist mystique that denies the aspects and attributes of the personhood of women that through the ages have been expressed in nurture – our own needs to love and be loved, the realities of family which are the human nutrient for us all – we shortchange ourselves, our potential, our personhood as women.

The task for you is to put it all together. Am i saying then that I expect you all to be superwoman? I expect you to get out of that trap of being superwoman.

You see what we've had today. We are not yet transcending that awful either/or split, that pendulum swing from feminism to feminine mystique, back and forth, back and forth, which in effect brought the first century-long struggle for women's rights to a halt after the vote was won in 1920 because those first feminists – the suffragettes, our foremothers – did not confront the realities of the family. There is no way that you can live and preserve the equality that you want, you deserve, that we have fought for and the degree of which we have now though it is endangered – you cannot live this without coming to new terms about the family.

The next stage of feminism, the next stage of the sex role revolution of which the women's movement was only the first stage, cannot be seen in terms of women alone and certainly not in terms of women against men. [applause] Nor can it be lived in superwoman terms.

What are you going to do? Are you going to follow the example of Dress for Success – get your Mark Ross briefcase and all the rest of it and your suit and a fedora hat or whatever the thing to be worn this year – and strive for success – law partner, doctor, senator, what have you – competing as you cannot compete in the world of business and professions, competing according to standards of success based on the life patterns of men who had wives to take care of all the details of life [applause] and secretaries to send out to buy their wives presents, right? Standards of success set in terms of men whose whole identity was based on beating the competitive rat race and at the same time meet the standards of home and family set in terms of the lives of women who had to find their whole identity, their whole status, their whole power in society in terms of the perfectly controlled home, the perfectly controlled family and who had all the time in the world to do it because she wasn't expected to do anything else.

And then are you going to try to do this more docilely even than the men in the work world because you're good girls – you're achievers, your success, you got all A's in school and you're not very confident of your ability to do it so you're gonna try to do it better, more docilely in a way than the men and being just as sort of passive. of could be, if you follow that superwoman image, just as passive in your service and success as the old feminine mystique housewife image was supposed to be passive in her selfless service of children in home.

Even the men are saying no to that image, which is killing them, which is making them die ten years younger than the women their age.

Are you going to give up what I do believe are the feminine strengths, the strengths that we had as women, whether or not they're in our DNA and RNA? I don't know, I'm not a biologist – but they are somewhere there in our socialization that has made us sensitive to the needs of a life and to feelings and to our own needs and to certain aspects of human experience that the men were sheltered from and didn't conceptualize. Will we give up those strengths – our own evolutionary strengths – for their heart attacks and strokes? I hope not.

But then we have to ask some new questions and set some new standards. For instance, what about the choice to have children? Do you see? I know that some of you and I've talked to some of you – you observe the fatigue, shall we say, and the pressure and the stress of your superwoman older sisters, and you say, "Well, I don't know that I can have children, because I mean, how can I have children? I mean I'm not gonna have children to hand them over to somebody else to raise. And you know, I mean I think you have to be a perfect mother and what kind of a life and I really am interested in my work," or "I don't want to even think about this. Don't talk to me about equal rights with men because if I think about equality too much I'll have to think about some of these other questions and I frankly don't see how I can put it all together," or "I don't want to be like my mother, but who do I want to be like?"

All of this kind of question – the choice to have children. I am worried about women today who are coming up against the biological clock – 35, 38, 40, 42 – and have not a really good choice to have children. I fought for the choice to have children. I was the one that first said in the women's movement, we must confront the personhood of women requires that we have safe, legal, medical access to all forms of birth control, up to and including at this stage of technological development, safe legal medical access to abortion. And this must be confronted in terms of the personhood of women. [applause]

But the choice to have children goes much further than safe legal access to all kinds of birth control. The choice to have children is a positive value. Do you have the choice to have children when your paycheck is needed for the couple's survival, for the couple's good standard of living and you are locked into a profession that you're maybe lucky to be in but where in fact there is no good provision for paternity and maternity leave and where you are not sure that the job or the opening, the residency, the chance of partnership will not be forgone if you take some leave. Or even if you could work out the leasing where the hours of work seems so inflexible that they cannot be combined with child rearing and then who is going to take care of the child and even if he is willing to do more than help, to really sign with blood and equal parenting partnership contract, he's also locked into the same hours of work and he is just beginning to think that he might ask for a paternity leave.

Now we are not going to get the flexible hours, the flexible benefits, the flexible leaves and the child care aides and options we need in terms of women alone. It is not going to be won or achieved – forget for a moment the political reaction – even without it, it could not be won or achieved in terms of women alone.

The second stage – there has to be an equal partnership with men. There has to be a new sex role for men as a basic element of the thing. The choice to have children – I am NOT saying that every woman has to have a child to fulfill ourselves. We are going to find much more out in the second stage of ways that we can be generative through an 80-year lifespan other than having children and after having children and before having children. But the choice to have children is a positive value, a value that has reverence through the ages, that is the mystery, the 'ah."

The reverence of motherhood is more than a mystique, is more than a mystique. It is liberated to be a truly human, joyous, responsible, chosen motherhood by the safe, legal access to birth control and abortion as a last resort.

But we must transcend some of our own political mistakes in the abortion battle to fight the hypocrisy and the demagogic thing that we are getting from outside. But there is something questionable as you know, as I don't have to tell you about groups that use the word life and say they are for life but seem only to be concerned with life in the nine months before it moves on the earth [applause] and who want to take away the protections of children against beating and women against violence and abuse, and men then to say women must even pay a penalty and be punished after they've already been punished by rape and incest.

There is a questionable nature, and I refuse to let them and you must refuse to let them preempt that term "for life." We are for life. [applause] We are for life. A woman's life is a human life. A child's life is a human life. The ability to choose when and whether to have a child and to bring only a wanted child into the earth – this is essential to life.

Our reverence for life, traditional for women, is part of our strength of women. But if we do not say that this should be specialized to women any more, men will have this nurtured in themselves as they share the child-rearing.

But I think that we should never let ourselves be put in a position where we are for abortion against those who are for life. We are for the choice to have children and that has to be a choice. And at this stage of the game when the pill, when the IUD can have unforeseen bad consequence sometimes on a woman's health and with a myriad of other aspects of the current stage of technological development, that choice to have children requires safe, legal, medical access to abortion as a last resort.

And we know realistically, as they know, that women will continue to have abortions whether they make it illegal or not, but if they make it illegal those women will endanger their lives – poor women especially – their lives and their future choice to have children by butcher coat hanger abortion. [applause]

But in fighting for the choice to have children, we must also with new alliances of men of labor, men of business, men of professions, men across a political spectrum who put the interests of life first, we must also move for the restructuring of work, the restructuring of jobs, for flex time and leave benefits that do not now exist. These are not impossible to see at a time when inflation is making the value of even wage increases almost worthless as soon as they're won. It is going to be more and more feasible to get union cooperation, business cooperation, in getting some of the quality of life and the quality of work-life issues into union contract, into professional standards.

But again, not in terms of women alone, only an excuse not to give women a job, only use to add cost26:17 another thing, and not certainly in terms of women against men.

Because the men of your generation can be just as interested in these things – of more control over their life, of more time for family and other values – as you are. The quiet movement of American men is the other half of what has been happening in the last 20 years. [applause]

The man are saying – in my new book which I just finished last week, "The Second Stage," so you're getting a preview – a man said to me, "All I've heard for the last ten years is woman, woman, woman, woman. Woman. What does it mean to be a woman? How do I fulfill myself as a woman? They even make men talk about women. Well, what about me?" he says. "All I have as my job and it isn't a very good job either."

They are ready to move, a lot of them. Sure some of them are resistant, some or hostile. So are some women. But all of the polls show – and the polls don't lie – that some of the basic life issues and changes here are shared by the real majority, the real moral majority.

Did you know in America…child care, child care…how on earth, you going to say to me, how on earth can you have any hope that we can get anywhere on child care when in fact all the services, the social services, for the young and the old and all growing living things are being cut out in this Reagan budget? [applause] And I have to tell you, frankly, that it doesn't seem conceivable in the near future that we are going to get massive public federal funding of programs for child care. But we are going to have to innovate new terms of community-controlled, community-oriented, parent-controlled, parent-oriented child care in order to live our dreams of equality in our economic necessities in the years ahead.

A report recently released by the Ford Foundation says that by 1990, only one out of four young mothers will be able to afford to stay home with children full time. I would like that to be a real choice for a woman or a man in children's early years. I would like to see some form of a child allowance or tax rebate or voucher system which could be used to put the value on the work that is involved in child care on whoever takes primary responsibility to it if the family is going to make a decision for those years in those terms.

Then if they decide that they are going to share the responsibility for child care and of the breadwinning, then let them use the voucher system to help pay for child care from a multiplicity, a pluralistic range of outside sources –church, college, company, union, unused school buildings of a local school system – there's a lot of ways of doing it, there's a lot of ways of giving tax incentives for it.

If we could have felt with some despair a few weeks ago that this government may have become completely unresponsive to the needs and the will of the people, at least the Senate vote recently, 96 to 0, turning back them cutting down the drastic slashing in old age Social Security should give us some hope. There is a way that we can make our needs and desires felt as women or as the young parents that you will be. There is a way.

One of the ways we'll begin this month, for the Equal Rights Amendment we are going to start the kind of countdown they did the hostages. On June 30 there will be 365 days to go before the dream of equal rights is over for our constitution for this century.

And your energies will have to be spent on the top of the problems of your families, of your work, which already takes superwoman energies and make some women wish they could forget the whole thing and go home again, except to where and who's going to pay for it all? On top of that, you're going to have to spend energies fighting fighting fighting just to stay in place as you keep getting pushed backward and backward from where we've already won, of the rights we’ve already won.

So where is the hope, then, that you can fight reaction? How are you going to do this? How are you going to save the rights, to say win the Equal Rights Amendment to bring about a political miracle and a political change in the face of the reaction today?

Well, I'm going to call you to something that is very much a part of the Smith tradition. This education that you and I have shared that is more important to the movement of women in the largest case did two things to us – to me and I think to you.

Because it took me seriously as a person, as a woman, it made me take myself seriously and it made me believe that it was my responsibility and my possibility to affect my society. In the words of the Hebrew prophet, ancestor of my people, "If I am NOT for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I?" The tradition of social responsibility is the part of the uniqueness of Smith education. It probably is not an accident that so many of those who have helped carry this wonderful life-affirming movement, the women's movement, have come out of Smith.

But what about the next stage? There is nothing guaranteed about it. It has gone so far before and been turned back. It has gone so far before and been turned back. One of the reasons that perhaps there isn't enough energy being put to Equal Rights Amendment today or to save the right of choice in childbirth is that women are so burdened, are so burdened with double burden of that workplace under obsolete standards and the home without changing the standards, without restructuring the job, without restructuring the home.

Now I want to tell you something. I want to share a new part of the buried history with you. You know that the first wave of the battle for women's rights was turned back after 1920 because of not confronting the concrete problems of family, of combining family and work. The rights on paper didn't mean much. The legal right, the political right to vote didn't mean much when women didn't have the economic right. And what happened was that a few women had careers, implicitly forgoing marriage or at least motherhood, and the majority of American women continued to marry, have families, have children, and the implicit assumption was that they would not go into serious professional careers. And then we had the fertile soil for the feminine mystique.

I discovered in the course of my research for the second stage that in the 1920s, here at Smith, right where we are now, just before that first wave came to a standstill, there was an Institute for the restructuring of work and home. The very sort of thing that I discovered – inventing the wheel all over again, that we must move on now for the second stage – a woman named Ethel Puffer Howes, who was one of the leaders of the battle to win the vote, and she married in her late 30s and had her children in her early 40s, and she knew that the vote – that winning those rights on paper – meant nothing for women unless they are going to be able to combine professions in the world and home and family.

With the blessings of the Smith faculty and the Board of Trustees, an institute for – I don't think they called it restructure of work at home then but that's what it dealt with – work and family was started at Smith and lasted for eight years here. It had pilot projects. It used the best of social scientists, biological scientists, scientists to address their minds and the knowledge of which this place was a repository to these problems. Child care – the Smith nursery is an offshoot of that, the child care pilot project. Pilot projects in new ways of food preparation, communal food preparation, that were easier to combine with work world. Whole research projects on the restructuring of work – part-time careers, for instance.

At that point I don't think that she could see in terms of part-time or flex-time for women and men, and women and men sharing the housework as we see today further on in the sexual revolution, but at least they began to address these problems.

And then do you know what happened? A real wave of reaction took place, and reactionary economic forces in this country – the same kind of groups that are financing the moral majority now, in the false name of the family – brought to a halt the research that was being done on the possibilities of the evolving dynamic family that equality could have brought about. In acquiescence to this reaction, the Smith faculty and the Board of Trustees closed the institute, in the name of the family, whereas this was what was going to make possible a family that really used and that could use the education that Smith could provide.

At the same time, while Marxism, while communism had a more blind spot about women than capitalism, the Russian Revolution and the end of World War I made a kind of general political reaction where it was discovered – brilliant economic discovery – that by keeping all those women at home, buying appliances and by saddling the worker with mortgage for a lot of individual houses, you could keep a kind of a conservativism that you could keep it at an easy-to-see product for goods. And supposedly the Red Scare – all the women's organizations were on a list, like red channels, even organizations like League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women, women's temperance – they were all red-baited along with the feminist organizations.

The Smith institute was closed by the time I was in Smith in the forties. Nobody had even, I mean I didn't know it existed until I happened to read some archives here. It could all be wiped out.

On the other hand, we are not in the same place that we were in 1920. There is the possibility for a dynamic, large, new political alliance in the service of life that you can be part of. I am not calling you to a single-issue kind of feminist politics that seemed to be our mode in the first stage that was really not our mode. We were much more than a single issue. But in the next stage, it cannot be single issue. It cannot be single issue.

I am calling you to a new, passionate volunteerism, the kind of passion of political activism in the service of life that got a bad name as volunteerism as a part of feminist reaction to the exploitation of women in volunteer activity and the denigration of women in volunteer activity as they had been denigrated in domestic working in the family. Not the old kind, a kind of a do-good volunteerism, where the women that were housewives who could do sometimes even busy work or work in the service of life that nobody else would do, but the serious, committed volunteerism that in fact Smith graduates have always done and the kind of real communal political activism that the mainstream political parties have not elicited in your generation – or mine – in recent years because they have not dealt with the needs of the interests of life.

I am saying that we cannot rely on federal government agencies, we cannot rely on Congress or the courts in the foreseeable future to deliver the services we need in life. We are not going to get them by women doing them, like rolling bandages again, either, because women now have the double burden of family and of work. But women and men must come to a new, passionate political activism, a humanist political activism of passionate volunteerism that we have not seen in recent years for ourselves, for our families, and as the hope, the hope for a new politics in America that can transcend this current moment of reaction, that can transcend it and restore this country to the services of life which are our concern, your concern.

You have the strength to do this. You must do this. You must ask these new questions, even though you either you nor I can see the answers. [applause]

Audio of speech available at