Betty Friedan Comes to Workshop
Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique was a hugely influential text in Second Wave Feminist thought--and Alan Cheuse was an integral member of the Literature faculty from 1970-1978 (before he became a critic on NPR).
Both Betty Friedan and Alan Cheuse were highly respected public intellectuals, but this new discovered photo from the Bennington College archive has a warm, intimate feel to it. This is interesting because Friedan has a larger-than-life persona as a feminist. In this picture, she looks friendly and approachable--like the sweet old lady on the airplane reading The Socialist Worker.
I admire the ideas behind Friedan’s most famous book, The Feminine Mystique. In this groundbreaking work of second-wave Feminism from 1963, Friedan wasn’t playing the role of a victim or complaining about how terrible men are; rather, she was arguing for a woman’s right to live an independent life and pursue education and a career, while also raising a family if she choses. These were radical ideas when the book came out in 1963, a time when women were expected to be no more than housewives.
What I also admire about Friedan is that she did not try to be likeable. She even said once, “The truth is that I’ve always been a bad-tempered bitch.” While some may argue that she was too harsh or extreme, I think in some cases you have to be vocal and even offensive if you want to make yourself heard. In order to compete in a man's world, Friedan had to take on aggressive, masculine behavior.
This photo was taken in 1980, right before Friedan’s book The Second Stage was published to glowing acclaim--and controversy. In this book, Friedan claimed that half the battle of the Women's movement had been won; women had much more freedom than they’d had in the 1960s, but they still needed help when it came to managing the demands of raising a family while also holding a career. Friedan proposed that men and women work together in a sort of partnership to find solutions, and this photograph seems to embody it.
Alan Cheuse was a fiction writer, literature professor, and NPR book critic. At the time that this photo was taken, he was a Bennington faculty member. I admire him because he’s succeeded at both fiction and nonfiction, which is a goal of mine as well.
Cheuse did not limit himself in terms of genre or subject matter either, both in his fiction and his book reviews. For NPR, he reviewed everything from sci-fi to a thriller about the Mexican drug cartel to a World War II novel. His own writing shows the same diversity; he wrote about everything from the Communist poet and journalist John Reed to Georgia O’Keefe to a photographer of Native American tribes to a true story about his father, a fighter pilot.
As I reflected on the lives of Cheuse and Friedan, which seem very different on the surface (aside from them both being writers), I noticed a common theme. Both of them wrote about many different subjects during their lifetime and did not feel tied down to one particular topic or idea.
People love to divide things into neat categories, whether it is a political movement like Feminism or even the act of writing. When I tell people I write, they always ask me, “Do you write fiction or nonfiction?” Or “What genre do you write?” I don’t think I should feel inhibited by this restrictive way of thinking. I hope to write about many different themes and subjects during my life, just as Cheuse did.
Similarly, Friedan wasn’t afraid to change her mind when it came to her views on feminism and to adjust her thinking in order to be more relevant to the present moment. I think we should all adopt this flexibility and be willing to constantly grow and change.