Was the feminist movement hijacked by the sexual revolution? It remains a hotly contested question and an important one for millions of men and women around the world – because the impact of feminist thinking has a huge effect on the lifestyle choices of each new generation. So is feminism fundamentally a good thing to be salvaged from sexual excess, or has it always been revolutionary in its demands for sexual liberation?
A brand new book by Ignatius Press promises to reveal the truth – by someone at the forefront of the 1960s feminist and sexual movements.
A Tale of Two Stories
Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women’s Movement, by former Cosmopolitan journalist Sue Ellen Browder, recounts two stories. One is the tale of a young Browder landing her dream job at Cosmopolitan – selling the Cosmo-girl lifestyle. She reveals in detail the deception churned out to the masses, under the guidance of Cosmo boss, Helen Gurley Brown, herself a sexual revolutionary with an agenda. Browder also shares the emptiness of appearing as an ‘expert’ on Oprah, and the joys and challenges of being a freelance writer.
The injustice she faces being sacked for telling her boss she was pregnant, much like one of the book’s protagonists – Betty Friedan – plays a pivotal role in her signing-up to the re-nascent movement that would bring havoc to millions of men and women, including herself. Friedan (1921-2006) was a graduate, a middle-class wife and mother with a tumultuous home-life, a journalist for leftist trade unions, a communist, author of The Feminine Mystique, and leader of what is commonly known as second wave feminism,
Browder’s married life was a blissful one, with a devoted husband and two children, but is tragically punctuated when they decide to abort their third child. The book concludes with the providential conversion of her and her husband to Catholicism, and her husband’s sad death to cancer eight days after Christmas. They had been married for 40 years. It’s beautifully retold and provides Browder with an important contrast to the other story in the book.
The Modern ‘Fathers’ of the Revolution
The other story is Browder’s expose of how the second-wave feminist movement was hijacked by men, intent on sexual revolution and abortion, who achieved their ends by money, guile and cunning. That’s how Browder seems to see it, at least.
Subverted certainly helps us better understand the worst of our contemporary Western culture. As Ariel Levy writes in Female Chauvinist Pigs, commenting on today’s contemporary feminism: “A woman-backed trash culture is a rebellion against their [1960s revolutionary] values of feminism, egalitarianism, and anti-materialism. But even though this new world of beer and babes feels foreign to sixties revolutionaries, it is actually also a repercussion of the very forces they put in motion – they are the ones who started it.”
There’s no doubt that some men played a very influential role in the sexual revolution and the second-wave feminist movement. We could mention Alfred C. Kinsey and his quack sexology research, the porn empire of Hugh Hefner and the money he funnelled to abortion campaigns, and the political scheming of Larry Lander – an often unknown yet highly influential leader of the campaign to legalize abortion in America. Part of his strategy was to single-out the Catholic hierarchy as public enemy number one. His book on abortion also played a pivotal role in the Roe v Wade court decision, which Browder reveals in fascinating detail.
In an ironic twist, his campaign partner, the abortionist Dr Bernard Nathanson, would turn his back on abortion, convert to the Catholicism, and spend the rest of his life trying to undo the harm he had done.
If you’re talking about a specific set of feminists, in a specific country, at a specific moment in time – 1960s America – then you might be able, like Browder, to argue the feminist rights movement was subverted.
But there are some serious challenges to this thesis.
The Truth About Betty Friedan
Browder’s personal sympathy for Friedan is apparent. Both were journalists. Both got fired for being pregnant. Both spoke about the joy of motherhood. Browder makes great boast of that fact that the first edition of The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963 and authored by Friedan, made no mention of contraception or abortion. In later interviews, Friedan seems to regret some of the direction the movement took, and says so in her book The Second Stage. Browder writes, “I loved the 1960s’ women’s movement as it was originally conceived.”
However, to what extent can she claim that Betty Friedan was really tricked? She was a grown woman, and clearly someone who had the personality and capabilities to lead a movement. Arguing that cunning rich men like Larry Lander, Dr. Bernard Nathanson and Hugh Hefner are somehow really to blame, would be to infantilise Friedan as if she were a naïve child – not exactly a feminist way to look at things. Indeed, Browder recognises some of the affinities between Lander and Friedan – both signed the Humanist manifesto II in 1979, for example.
Friedan: More Subverter than Subverted
Browder describes at length how Friedan fragrantly and aggressively manipulated the 1967 China room meeting – the moment when the National Women’s Organisation (NOW), voted to make contraception, sex education, and the repeal of abortion laws part of its cause, because that’s what Friedan wanted. This was a pivotal moment for the future of feminism for decades to come, and in the worst of ways – legalized mass murder of the unborn. The room was strongly divided – whether from principle or pragmatics, over whether NOW should be campaigning on these issues.
Browder reveals that the number of people reported to have attended and the number of votes counted didn’t match – some 34 votes went missing. Were they 34 votes against Friedan’s pro-abortion plan? Did Friedan make those votes disappear? It certainly seems so. Browder portrays Friedan as a woman fully in control, determined, and clear about what she wants – no sight of Lander and Nathanson pulling the strings in the China Room.
Friedan the Marxist
In Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique, Smith College professor Daniel Horowitz reveals the full extent of Friedan’s communist credentials. She was educated at Smith College by Dorothy Wolff Douglas, a fully signed up member of the Communist Party who even visited Stalin in Russia. Douglas had a profound impact on young Friedan’s thinking.
Friedan spent a quarter of a century as a Marxist-inspired journalist in the communist-controlled trade unions, under the name Betty Goldstein. Her husband, Carl, also a leftist, complained that his wife, “Was in the world during the whole marriage,” had a full-time maid and “Seldom was a wife and a mother.” Friedan even tried to join the Communist party twice.
Her life was that of a middle-class woman who was far from confined to ‘domestic enslavement.’ Friedan was an experienced and educated Marxist writer and activist – unlike most of the women she claimed to speak for.
Frustratingly, Browder seems to know this, or at least some of it. On p.30 she cites another Smith professor, James Gibson, and the influence his ideas about ‘good propaganda’ had on Friedan. Browder admits the possibility of Friedan’s hidden Marxist drive, but leaves this vital part of the story hanging where it begins on p.30.
Discredited Foundations of the Mystique
The foundations on which Friedan based her book have also been heavily critiqued. Firstly, as we’ve read above, her autobiographical input turns out not to be entirely accurate. She also extrapolates the reported experience of a small section of the female population, namely, white middle-class women. No mention of ethnic minority women or the working classes, something which feminist Bell Hooks takes up in her book From Margin to Center.
There’s also the other unreliable foundations Friedan cites: the discredited research sexology of Alfred C. Kinsey, the anthropology of Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa based largely on the false answers of an embarrassed Samoan virgin, and psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s book The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age. The latter inspired Friedan to compare the situation of middle-class American housewives to Nazi concentration camps. All three experts have since been significantly discredited, and you can read all about it in Alan Wolfe’s article for The Atlantic published in 1999.
Browder also points to the atheistic humanistic worship-of-self psychological theories of Abraham Maslow as “among the most influential” on Friedan and The Feminine Mystique. The same humanistic psychology would bring havoc to seminaries and convents from the 1960s onwards.
Historical Precedents: Alexandra Kollontai and the Congress of American Women
The story of Friedan the Marxist subverter can be seen all the way back in the first years after the communist revolution. Another female Marxist subverter, Alexandra Kollontai, roused the masses of women, telling them they were oppressed and in need of liberation. How was this to come about? Vladimir Lenin would appoint her as People’s Commissar for Social Welfare of the Bolshevik Party. She then founded the Women’s Department which ushered in contraception, divorce, abortion, and took women away from family life and into the factories. Kollontai was a sexual revolutionary, albeit one who took issue with what she understood to be the bourgeois feminism of her day. She promised liberation and equality – much like Friedan and her allies would later do.
A few decades later, the US would witness the rise of the Congress of American Women (CAW), which in just a couple of years claimed to have gained 250,000 members. The US government’s House Un-American Activities Committee saw it as a front for communist subversion. CAW, refusing to register itself as a subversive group, disbanded in 1950. Interestingly enough, Friedan’s communist Smith College professor, Dorothy Wolff Douglas, was a member of CAW.
In her book The World Split Apart, Feminist historian Ruth Rosen writes that, “CAW’s agenda prefigured much of the modern women’s movement that emerged in the sixties.”
Further on, Rosen rightly points out that, “The FBI searched for signs of subversion in the women’s movement but couldn’t recognize what was truly dangerous. While they looked for communists and bombs, the women’s movement was shattering traditional ideas about work, customs, education, sexuality, and the family. Ultimately the movement would prove far more revolutionary than the FBI could ever imagine.
“Feminism would leave a legacy of disorientation, debate and disagreement, create cultural chaos and social change for millions of men and women, and, in the process, help ignite the culture wars that would polarize American society. But at the time these ideas were not what the FBI considered subversive.”
The Truth About ‘Original’ Feminism
There is no feminist bible or magisterium, no feminist constitution or supreme court. There are writers, books, thinkers, campaigners – but no central source of authority. There are only competing schools of interpretation– which makes the claim of a pure and original form of feminism untenable.
The common reply is that, “The early feminists were pro-life, and wanted the vote, they were the true feminists, that’s what women need to rescue.” That’s the line of any number of new wave, new school, anti-feminist feminists, not to mention those who opt for a Catholic-friendly version.
But take a closer look. Yes, the early feminists of the US wanted the right to vote. But they also agitated for liberalised divorce laws. Elizabeth Cady Stanton had the word ‘obey’ removed from her wedding vows, and persistently argued that Christianity and the Bible were responsible for what she saw as female subjugation. However, they also held any number of beliefs that today’s Catholic-friendly feminists would abhor.
Read the writings of Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Victoria Woodhull, and Matilda Joyce Gage and you’ll meet support for sexual promiscuity, easy divorce advocates, new-age ideas, religiously pluralistic philosophies, bizarre marital arrangements, and open anti-Christianity. We should also ask why the likes of socialist and feminist Margaret Sanger are not included in the canon of early feminists – perhaps because they would spoil the narrative.
And what about the other side of the Atlantic? England had Marie Stopes – the woman who sent love letters to Hitler, espoused racial eugenics, and led the campaign for widespread contraception. One of the largest abortion organisations in the world is named after her. France had Simone de Beauvoir, author of the The Second Sex. She had a long-term open sexual relationship with philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and numerous sexual relationships with women whom she often passed on to Sartre for his own gratification. Her book is, like The Feminine Mystique, one of the most popular feminist texts ever, filled with anti-family revolutionary ideas.
It’s truer to say that the story of a good movement gone bad, because of some crafty men, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. There are enough serious researchers who have exposed the the hidden past of Betty Freidan.
Whether it’s early feminists in the US, Sanger, England’s Stopes, France’s de Beauvoir, or the second-wave led by Friedan – we see how the private lives of the protagonists, and their public speeches, writings and actions, were inimical to the traditional and authentic understanding of the family, womanhood, and manhood. Their intellectual roots come from Marx and Engels.
Similarly, if we are honest and include Sanger, Stopes, Kollontai, de Beauvoir, and the many organisations like the CAW, we’ll see that the narrative of a pure early feminism followed by a gap for several decades, followed by an initially good second-wave of the 1960s, is a false one.
The sexual and feminist revolutions were and remain two movements with common historical and intellectual roots, despite the competing ideas within each.
Speaking about the campaign for legal abortion in America and the introduction and widespread use of the contraception pill, Ariel Levy writes: “Many of these events were counted as victories by two revolutionary movements, both of which had a tremendous impact on the reshaping of American womanhood: women’s liberation and the sexual revolution.
“In significant ways these movements overlapped. Many of the same people were involved with both causes, and initially some of their key struggles were shared.”
The book’s claim disputing the relationship between the feminist and sexual liberation movements, when challenged, is found wanting.
Subverted is nonetheless a carefully composed and interesting book, with revealing and often moving insight. The conversion of Browder and her husband is the redeeming, and arguably more essential point – embracing Christ the Way, Truth, and Life.