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Feminism: Heading to the women's conference, the author of "The Feminine Mystique" argues that sexual politics have become diversionary

By Betty Friedan

This article originally appeared in Newsweek Magazine, September 4, 1995

OVER AND OVER AGAIN IN CHINA, women would say to me with a smile, men with a smirk: "Women hold up half the sky." It's a ritual Chinese saying, somehow putting an end to further serious discussion. The woman knows the man doesn't mean it; she's not supposed to take it seriously. But as the word spread that 40,000 women from other countries were coming to Beijing in September for the U.N. World Conference on Women, and that these women objected when the Chinese government shunted their Non-Governmental Organizations Forum out to a resort under the Great Wall - that these women expected to be taken seriously - nervous Chinese men joked, "You women want to hold up more than half the sky now?"

The world's women now converging on Beijing suddenly loom as a great force at the very moment when deadly new games of violence and greed seem to be taking over the entire world. Are women irrelevant to those power players? They may think so; they may wish women would just stop talking about values, human rights, about the concerns of children and the environment, the old and the poor, the whole social agenda that men now seizing power in many lands want to reverse. But where are we heading?

I came to China in June at the request of the United States Information Agency to talk to women in five cities about the U.S. women's movement. I accepted because of my own concern over what message the Beijing meeting could offer at this moment about the future of the women's movement.

At the first World Conference on Women, in Mexico in 1975, most of the official delegates were men, or the wives or secretaries of male politicians. The real action took place at the NGO forum - the assembly of nongovernmental organizations traditionally held adjacent to the big U.N. conferences. When it became clear that various powers - Communist and Muslim, Vatican and fundamentalists, dictators and demagogues from Third World nations - did not want their women infected with ideas about equality and women's rights, we marched. And a global network of women was born.

Now, in 1995, ideas about the equality of women with men, about our right to participate in society, to earn fair pay, to control our own bodies, to speak with our own voice in political decisions, are taken for granted by most women in the United States (and increasingly in the world). But sexual politics - reifying women's oppression and victimization by men - has come to dominate women's studies and feminist thought.

Meanwhile, a growing resentment against women threatens our economic and political empowerment in ways that sexual politics can't solve - and may even exacerbate. I saw the "angry white male" backlash coming, even before the 1994 election, in new data on the fall-in-income in the last five years of college-educated white men. They have been the real targets of job downsizing. Their frustration is building - and talk-radio hosts, the religious right and the new leaders in Congress are manipulating that economic insecurity into rage against women and minorities. Increased violence against women, the political war on welfare mothers and children, and the new attack on affirmative action may be symptoms of that rage. Growing unemployment and the resultant backlash against women can also be seen worldwide. In Muslim countries, women have been pushed back under the veil. With the end of communism, women in the former Soviet countries are being told to go home again and losing political voice.

So I've wondered how, at this time of global economic insecurity, women could even maintain their gains, much less continue to advance. And I've realized that they can't - not as long as they focus on women's issues alone or on women versus men. The problems in our fast-changing world require a new paradigm of social policy, transcending all "identity politics" - women, blacks, gays, the disabled. Pursuing the separate interests of women isn't adequate and is even diversionary. Instead, there has to be some new vision of community. We need to reframe the concept of success. We need to campaign - men and women, whites and blacks - for a shorter workweek, a higher minimum wage, an end to the war against social-welfare programs. "Women's issues" are symptoms of problems that affect everyone.

The women's movement is not going to fade away, but should become part of a mosaic, bridging the polarization. We must confront the backlash realistically; we must not allow ourselves to become part of the politics of hate. The basis of women's empowerment is economic - that's what is in danger now. And it can't be saved by countering the hatred of women with a hatred of men.

So, yes, I am concerned - but I'm optimistic, too, from talking to women from Russia, Brazil, India, Spain, Japan, Africa and others at the U.N. preparatory conference in New York. They were working to draft the document that will be adopted at Beijing. It contains every possible item of women's unfinished business of equality, the elimination of all forms of violence against women, from wife beating and the dowry system to genital mutilation, from the measurement of women's unpaid work, to new arrangements of work that will permit more of a partnership of men with women in nurturing children. It includes affirmative action for women in employment and in their representation in political leadership - including in the United Nations itself, proportionally to their numbers in the population. It gives women new control of their health, not only in their reproductive years but throughout the life cycle. The Vatican wants to change the word "woman" wherever possible to "mother". To define women as mothers in the face of the reality of an 80-year life span in which motherhood can occupy only a few years would be a paradox indeed.

In fact, the very holding of this conference in China seems a paradox. There is no women's movement in China, though they have equal rights - on paper. When I landed in Beijing in June, the nervousness about the coming meeting was palpable. I learned that the Chinese delegations to Cairo and the Copenhagen social summit had been shocked by the assertiveness of the women's caucuses there. Women like Madame Chiang Kai-shek and Mao's wife had terrifying power. Ever since Tiananmen Square, things have been too tense here to permit any kind of democratic demonstration. So the 40,000 women at the NGO conference must get their business done at workshops and plenary sessions. They may have fantasies of demonstrating in Tiananmen Square, but I do not fancy the thought of American feminists ending up in Chinese prisons.

The message from Beijing must be a reverberating vow that women will not be held down, put back or marginalized by any new government, political or religious power.

On Aug. 26, 1970, the 50th anniversary of American women's gaining the right to vote, I led 50,000 women down Fifth Avenue in a Women's Strike for Equality - the explosion of the modern women's movement. This year, on the 75th anniversary, I leave for Beijing. Our job now is to move beyond polarization to a vision of community that can unite us as decent people. Are women strong enough to join or even lead men in finding that new vision? We won't stop talking about human values. But women, after all, cannot hold up more than half the sky.




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