Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Betty Friedan and McCarthyism--What if?

I've become a regular listener to courses on tape and CD. Last week, Kathleen, who works at the library, saw a course she knew I'd love and checked it out for me. It was "American Inquisition: The Era of McCarthyism," presented by Professor Ellen Schrecker of Yeshiva University. It's part of Recorded Books' "The Modern Scholar" series.

It was one of those odd coincideces that I was listening to Schrecker's final lecture on the legacy of McCarthyism just after the death of Betty Friedan. Schrecker talks about the era's influence on the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the American Left, and feminism. And while she emphasizes that McCarthyism wasn't the only factor in changing these institutions, she makes a persuasive case that was an important one.

During the 1940s, Friedan worked for the United Electrical Workers, writing pamphlets--at least one of which dealt with the double burden of working women who had to work a full day and handle most of the household chores. The Electrical Workers were a left-wing union and a target of the anti-Communist crusade. The union, weakened by the attacks, had to lay off a number of people, including Friedan.

Schrecker points out that when Friedan emerged as the "mother of the second wave of feminism," she was writing and speaking primarily about middle-class housewives and professional women.

It's one of those perplexing "what if" questions. Had there been no McCarthyism, would the second wave of feminism have been more inclusive of working-class women? Too many of America's blue-collar workers have been seduced by the Right, religious and otherwise. Yet there was a time when progressive causes, such as feminism, civil rights, universal health insurance--the list goes on and on--were workers' causes.

It's been a long time since I read The Feminine Mystique, but I remember being impressed with her arguments--especially her comparison of popular women's literature of the 1930s versus that of the 1950s. She certainly left a strong legacy. But still, what if...

1 comment:

Peter said...

That is an interesting question. Feminism has had an intelligentsia-ish air about it at least during my lifetime.

I didn't know Recorded Books had courses. I usually go for their red packages at the library simply because they almost always have the best readers of unabridged books.