Greetings, participants in Open Field / The Public Intellectual. This Thursday, July 8, we will meet for Part 2: Women’s Prisons, to talk about excerpts from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and The Autobiography of Angela Davis. You can download the excerpts at http://sites.google.com/site/charisseopenfield/the-public-intellectual or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For those who like a bit of filter before jumping in, I offer the following notes:
The Feminine Mystique, 1963 Chapter 2: The Happy Housewife Heroine In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan investigates “the problem that has no name”—that of acute unhappiness (depression, anxiety attacks, alcoholism, pill-popping) among the educated, middleclass women with whom she had attended college. She finds that, although many women are suffering from this syndrome, each one feels that she is the only one until Friedan initiates the conversation. This in itself speaks to the isolation and sense of guilt and shame of the post-World War Two suburban woman and of the pervasiveness of the notion that if she is unsatisfied with her role as a homemaker there must be something wrong with her.
Friedan’s accomplishment is not only to break the silence around the syndrome but also to research and explicate the creation of the mystique that held all these women in thrall. Her critique encompasses both the media of the day (women’s magazines and television) and throngs of “experts” who had bought into Freud’s theories of gender difference, according to which a woman can only achieve happiness through acceptance of her sexual passivity and suitability to the role of wife and mother.
Friedan contrasts this view of the happy housewife with the positive construction of the New Woman in women’s magazines in the 1920s through the ‘40s, when the protagonist was a career woman who was loved by her man for her independence and principles—think Katherine Hepburn piloting an airplane.
After the war, the magazines showed the influence of popular Freudianism and anxiety about the masculinization of women through education and careers. They dropped serious fiction and journalism, increased print size, and ran detailed “how-to” home and family pieces and advertisements for makeup and detergent. The remaining fiction demonized career women and “aggressive, neurotic” adventure-seekers and canonized the domestic woman; nonfiction features by “experts” opined that women who envied the prerogatives of men were destructive to their families and themselves.
As if they realized that they were handing American women a bill of goods, writers and editors hastened to reassure readers about the importance of their “careers” as nurturers, home economists, and moral guides. The veterans of the New Woman era had been through analysis and realized the error of their ways: now they just wanted to help women adjust to their role. (Friedan calls them “Uncle Toms.”) By feeding women pabulum, they and their male counterparts helped to infantilize a generation of women who—self-fulfilling prophesy—stopped expressing interest in the world outside the home or their own intellectual development.
Friedan does not blame the victims, but observes that “When a mystique is strong, it makes its own fiction of fact”—a prescient critique of the functioning of dominant social discourses. People who are brainwashed and isolated cannot expect to escape the ideology in which they are trapped: “Ideas are not like instincts of the blood that spring into the mind intact. They are communicated by education, by the printed word.”
Friedan, one of the “Frankensteins” who through her journalism helped to create the feminine mystique, recoiled in horror at the resultant image of “this smiling empty passivity”—the prototypes of The Stepford Wives. “I helped to create this image,” she writes. “I have watched American women for fifteen years try to conform to it. But I can no longer deny m own knowledge of its terrible implications. It is not a harmless image.” Herself a successful career woman with an excellent brain, Friedan, like Simone de Beauvoir before her, rebels against the doctrine that “insists that she is not a person but a ‘woman.’”
Other chapters of the book, especially those on the psychiatric treatment of women and the construction of women as consumers, are equally well-researched and insurrectionary.
The Autobiography of Angela Davis (1974)
Part 4: Flames
While her commitment to Black Liberation and all black people is unquestioned, Davis provides an intimate view of the internecine struggles among political activists. These include especially 1) the tensions between the two most influential black organizations, the Black Panther Party and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and the black caucus of the American Communist Party to which Davis ultimately belongs, 2) the tensions around sexuality and power between the worker-bee women and the male leadership, which is threatened by the emergence of women as leaders; 3) the infiltration of the groups by government stooges; and 4) the difficulty of persuading activists and people in general to act strategically toward long-term goals of racial and economic justice rather than “picking up a gun” in response to continual harassment: arrests, beatings, destruction of property, and murders. Davis and her long-time friend Franklin Alexander set the bar for radical intellectuals building a mass movement by emphasizing education, hard work, respect for the people for whom they are working, standing up for one’s convictions, confronting the authorities, and not being deflected into ego trips and pointless violence.
The parts we didn’t read:
Davis’s autobiography covers the story of her arrest, underground existence, imprisonment, trial, and acquittal. She is arrested when her gun is used (by the brother of her lover, George Jackson) to kill a judge in a prison breakout. She claims that she did not lend the gun as part of a conspiracy to commit murder, but that young Jackson picked up the gun in a house where the activits convened.
One of the best parts of the book is her organization and education of the inmates in the New York Women’s House of Detention. Initially she is placed in solitary “for her own protection,” but when she wins the right to mingle with the rest of the prison population she proves that the other inmates are not hostile towards her for being a communist.
Davis also wins her suit against the University of California, which had tried to fire her from teaching for her political beliefs.
During the course of these triumphs, however, she loses many friends to conflicts with the legal system, including George Jackson (author of Soledad Brother) and her brother-in-law. Her parents and siblings provide unstinting support throughout her ordeal.
In researching Franklin Alexander, I came across his undated obituary:
CrossRoads mourns the death of Franklin Alexander on May 26 of self-inflicted wounds at his home in Berkeley, California. He was 53.
Franklin’s 35 years of political activism included participation in civil rights struggles in the South as a national leader of the W.E.B. Du Bois Clubs. As a leader of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, he played a leading role in campaigns opposing police brutality and for prisoners’ rights during the 1960s in Southern California. Franklin joined the Communist Party, USA, in 1959, remaining a member until 1992. After he left the party he retained his commitment to socialism and democracy through membership in the Committees of Correspondence.
In 1970, Alexander was a founder and co-chair of the international Free Angela Davis campaign. He became the founding Executive Secretary of the National Anti-Imperialist Movement in solidarity with Southern African Liberation in 1973. He co-chaired the Bay Area Free South
Africa Movement and participated in organizing drives for the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union.In 1991 he helped organize and lead African Americans Against the War in the Middle East.
Franklin married Kendra Harris Alexander in 1966. Together they organized and fought for peace, equality, economic justice, and, especially, for a better future for young people, young African American men in particular. They were the proud parents of one son, Jordon, who they loved with all their heart. Kendra, a prominent radical political activist, died tragically in a fire that destroyed their home in May, 1993. We miss them both.
Friends who wish to honor the memory of Franklin with a contribution and to assist his son may send a check to Trust Account for Jordon Alexander, c/o Phyllis Willett, 1216 Delaware, Berkeley, CA 94702.