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Betty Friedan Reflects On 1992, The Year Of The Woman

Peter Kramer/Getty Images

"Our Party"

October 5, 1992

The American writer and feminist Betty Friedan, who died in 2006, was born on this day in 1921. In 1992, she traveled to the Democratic National Convention and reflected on the successes of the so-called "Year of the Woman," in which four female U.S. Senators were elected, including Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein and Carol Moseley Braun.

Women and the Democrats.

Is it real, the year of the woman in American politics? Is it a sound bite, a cosmetic illusion? Or is it a shift in American politics and in the women's movement? Ever since we started the movement, I've been going to the political conventions. In the late '60s and early '70s, as the first president of the fledgling National Organization for Women, I took reporting assignments just to get through the doors. I was one of the few women there, and virtually the only person talking about such things as the Equal Rights Amendment or the right to choose. The women at both the Republican and Democratic conventions were mainly wives of delegates, a few lowly county clerks, and members of ladies' auxiliaries who addressed envelopes and served coffee at local party functions. Mostly the women attended fashion shows.

Just twenty years ago, organizing the National Women's Political Caucus ("To Make Policy, Not Coffee") was an ambitious, daring dream. In 1972, the year Shirley Chisholm briefly ran for president, it was considered an act of courage for women like Liz Carpenter, who had behind-the-scenes clout as Lady Bird Johnson's top aide in the Johnson White House, to support the feminist cause. What few caucuses we assembled were assigned remote parlors in the convention hotels; it took enormous effort to get high party officials even to meet with us. When the Democratic Party reluctantly passed a rule requiring that women make up half of the convention's delegates at the 1976 convention, party officials tapped their wives and secretaries to fill the positions. It became clear that many of even those supposedly "safe" wives or clerks, talking with me in corners, were secret supporters of the women's movement. But it was a subversive support.

How different the Democratic convention was this year. This time we did not have to fight for more priority to be accorded women's rights, abortion, child care, parental leave—all the "women's issues" that party leaders had shunned before. Instead, Clinton staffers, women and men, came to us asking for advice on how best to word the speeches. Indeed, from the first night at Madison Square Garden it was clear that "women's issues" are now primary political issues. The women's caucus was held in the Grand Ballroom, and at the first of the daily meetings, nearly 1,000 campaign and party officials and respected women leaders came. It was the only caucus that Bill and Hillary Clinton attended before his nomination.

On the convention floor, there seemed to be almost as many men as women wearing "Pro-Change Is Pro-Choice" armbands. "Keep Abortion Legal Now" signs sprouted from delegations all over the floor. Senator Barbara Mikulski invoked a "new heart, a new spirit, a new way of doing business," as she introduced the women running for Senate this year—Carol Moseley Braun, Lynn Yeakel, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, and others. "We speak in a different voice," she intoned.

Tuesday, the second day of the convention, was virtually given over to women. Pat Schroeder of Colorado introduced more women running for Congress than all who were ever elected. "We don't just need a new generation of leadership, we need a new gender of leadership," Clinton told the women's caucus. "Building up women does not diminish men."

Even the political ads the Democrats showed us featured our concerns. Mandy Grunwald, the Democratic counterpart to Republican P.R. guru Roger Ailes, produces spots that rely heavily on her experience as a woman. "We're the ones who bring to the table a real sense of everyday life," she told the women's caucus. "People sense women know what's really happening, day by day."

And yet even twelve years ago I could not have foreseen the changes this political year has brought. Ronald Reagan's election ushered in a decade of setbacks for women. The Equal Rights Amendment was defeated. Pro-choice congressional candidates were targeted for defeat. And, as the culture of greed took over in the '80s and "liberalism" and "feminism" became dirty words, even the Democrats began to soft-pedal their support for women's rights. In 1988 women in my think tank for the evolution of feminist thought at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles wanted to put out a series of T.V. spots warning women of the Supreme Court dangers of Bush's anti-choice position on abortion. Though Cher had agreed to narrate and we'd been promised studio space, the Dukakis campaign refused to let us do it. Back in New York, Ronnie Eldridge, Bella Abzug, Sarah Kovner, and others wanted to make a similar appeal to women on Eleanor Roosevelt's birthday; the Democratic campaign bosses first decreed that we must not even use the word "choice," and then refused to let us make an appeal to women altogether. We lost heart, and were not surprised that by November 1988 Dukakis had lost the gender gap that the Democrats enjoyed at the beginning of that campaign. By 1992 now and radical feminists, disgusted with both parties, were simply absenting themselves from presidential politics and calling for a third party.

Even feminist leaders did not realize the extent to which the movement we started had become the mainstream of society: all of those daughters graduating from law school and MBA programs, fighting the glass ceiling in the corporations, starting their own businesses, organizing nurses, coming to leadership in African American and Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic organizations, were registering to vote in record numbers: 10 million more women than men. Catalyzed by Anita Hill, in raising the money and having the nerve to challenge and defeat seemingly invincible senators—Braun's primary victory over Allen Dixon in Illinois, Yeakel's challenge to Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, Boxer's and Feinstein's primary victories for Senate in California—we made visible our own power, not as a special interest group, but as a true moral majority in society.

Feminists can't relax their guard. Clinton's top brain trust on economics and foreign policy is a men's-only club. As we become truly part of the political process, we must help to restructure it and revitalize it. The eighteen women now running for Senate, sixteen of them Democrats, and the ninety-five Democrat and fifty-nine Republican women running for the House are bound to make that difference. Women are more likely than men not just to give priority to women's rights but to push for health care legislation, child care, parental leave, and for laws protecting the environment, education, housing, and the elderly.

The media didn't get the "woman thing" at the Democratic convention. Throughout the convention, reporters complained it was a dull affair, insisted there was no breaking story. But for the 51 percent of the delegates who were women—and for many of the men, too—there was a thrill of excitement, watching those women who are running for the Senate and the House called onto the stage by Ann Richards. But, of course, by the time the women came on, the networks had turned off. Prime time had been used up by the last gasps of Paul Tsongas, Jesse Jackson, and Jerry Brown.

The media's cynicism reflects the political blind spot about women up till now. In a Freedom Forum lunch session on "Privacy and Politics: Has the Press Gone Too Far?" eminent newspaper and broadcast executives, in effect, defended their obsession with candidates' sexual "character." Only the women present—Schroeder and Representative Louise Slaughter, Barbara Reynolds of USA Today, and some of the rest of us—insisted they were behind the times, focusing on women mainly as sex objects whereas in 1992 the real political story is women as the main actors of change. It was pointed out that as long as the political press corps was largely male, the sexual behavior of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, while known, was not reported. But for women, "character" in 1992 is not sex, but the cynical manipulation of people's frustrations over the crisis in our cities and the crumbling of the economy into more hatred, sexual backlash, polarization, and violence.

During the convention, reporters repeatedly asked to interview me about the feminist response to the campaign's "softening" of Hillary Clinton's image. They didn't understand that the woman story at the Democratic convention was no longer the First Lady (though it's interesting how that image is evolving). The story is that women are no longer on the political sidelines, but taking center stage as senators and governors and campaign managers, defining the issue themselves. As Schroeder put it: "It's clearly the new, active voice of women that accounts for the fact that there's a lot more soul to this convention."

In the year of the woman, women can also be seen fighting for their own power as much as any power-hungry men. We must not let feminism be co-opted as a mask for cynical corruption by women or by men. We must resist that polarization of "us" against "them" (women against other women, even women against men) with our own new vision of community that puts first the real needs of people in life: real jobs and real health insurance for all of our real American families.