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Right-wingers of the world: Let’s not be hostile to International Women’s Day, coming up on March 8. Let’s distinguish among the feminism that lets women be all they can be, the kind that keeps men from being all they can be, and the kind that keeps millions of unborn babies from being anything at all.
First, one historical note: In the 19th and early 20th centuries, men ran large businesses, but women often led large charities and social movements. Later in the 20th century, bad charity—governmental welfare programs—replaced lots of good charity, and women who had led organizations gave way to male leaders within new bureaucracies. Opportunities to be both a mother and a nonprofit executive became rarer.
Betty Friedan became a spokeswoman for women who felt excluded and trapped. She had been editor in chief of her Smith College newspaper, then a reporter for the newspaper of the United Electrical Workers, UE News—but she lost her job when she became pregnant with her second child. Friedan eventually authored The Feminine Mystique, a 1963 bestseller from which sprang the modern feminist movement.
Life to Friedan and millions of others seemed to be either/or: be free of maternal obligations and privileges, or become a housewife. Is it just coincidence that in 1969 she both divorced her husband and helped to found NARAL, then the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, now the National Abortion Rights Action League? Friedan led the way to a feminism that was often anti-male and anti-baby.
My mother spent much of a half-century typing memos and letters of men not as smart as her.
But let’s look at the positives of International Women’s Day, which first became prominent in March 1911, as women marched with banners of purple for dignity, white for purity, and green for hope. One recent announcement said white “is no longer used due to ‘purity’ being a controversial concept,” but green still is, and that gets me to my case study: my mother—maiden name, Ida Green—born seven years after the first International Women’s Day.
She had a good brain, but no one saw it in action, in part because her father forced her to join the labor force in 1936, straight out of high school. Except for several years when I was very small, she spent much of the next half-century typing memos and letters of men not as smart as her.
For decades my mother’s cultural stimulation (and that of 12 million others nationwide, mostly female) was the Saturday afternoon Texaco-Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. I knew about them because when I turned 6, and for several years thereafter, I was a psychiatrist paid in Nestlé’s Quik and Fig Newtons. My desk: the Formica-covered table on top of the peeling linoleum in our kitchen. My patient: a deeply frustrated mother who prowled the kitchen, occasionally dusting and cleaning up but mainly complaining.
Sometimes I’d ask her what the opera story was about. She would tell me in a sentence, and it always was bad news for the principal woman. In Lucia di Lammermoor, Lucia knifes her bridegroom and dies in front of wedding guests. In Aida and Madama Butterfly, the title characters commit suicide. A hit man hired by her father kills Gilda in Rigoletto. José kills Carmen in the opera named for her. Leonara in Il Trovatore swallows poison to avoid rape. Mimi in La Bohème and Violetta in La Traviata die of tuberculosis.
I don’t know how much of this I took in, but sometimes my mother cried and I tried to amuse her by looking at a book or magazine, finding a big word I didn’t know, and trying to pronounce it, yelling out the answer like a stand-up comic desperately trying to wring smiles from a cranky audience.
Radical feminism is a problem, but when some on the right make fun of attempts to give young women opportunities, I don’t consider it a laughing matter.
(Note: Speaking of opportunities, the deadline for applying to the World Journalism Institute’s terrific May 15-30 college course is March 27: See wji.world. High-school students might check out the July 12-18 WJI Multi-Media Camp at Patrick Henry College.)