Betty Friedan and Wendy Wasserstein died five days apart. The conventional wisdom is that feminism is dead, and reading their obituaries, it felt true. Friedan built a movement of her friends and neighbors, changing everything they knew about the world of women. Wasserstein wrote eloquently about the choices and challenges facing her generation as they navigated a world for which they did not know the rules. Reading about their lives in the past tense, it was easy to feel that the conventional wisdom was right. The battles were won; society had come far enough. Feminism had lost two icons in one week, both destined for the history books. Perhaps that was where feminism belonged as well.
The conventional wisdom is that feminism is dead, but Betty Friedan and Wendy Wasserstein spent their lives questioning conventional wisdom. The two were markedly different, separated by a generation. Wasserstein was the consummate New Yorker, known for wit and warmth. Friedan was a mid-westerner, infamous for being stubborn and impolitic. But the women shared more than feminism. They both made careers out of ordinary life. They were women no different than countless others, women who cared for their children and paid bills and tried to please their bosses. Their feminism was not radical or out of touch – words often used to discredit a movement that is, at its core, about the most basic everyday fairness. They were feminists because they were women, because they had friends and daughters and jobs and lovers. They were feminists because they looked at the world around them and thought, “We can do better.”
Betty Friedan was born one year after women were granted the right to vote. By the time her fifteenth college reunion rolled around, she was a wife and mother with a house in the suburbs. She was bored. A survey of her Smith classmates confirmed her suspicions. Other women felt trapped making beds and driving children to school. They felt the “nameless, aching dissatisfaction” that prompted Friedan to write The Feminine Mystique. Her book, which gave voice to the “problem that has no name” facing millions of women, changed the course of history. Friedan founded the National Organization for Women; she led marches and gave speeches. She fought for the right to work outside the home, to receive equal pay, to control one’s own body. She fought even when she was criticized for leaving her husband, even when pundits called Gloria Steinem “the pretty one.” She had lives to change, and she started with her own.
Wendy Wasserstein graduated from Mount Holyoke College thirty years after Betty Friedan left Smith. She was a member of the first generation of women who were told they could be anything they wanted to be and believed it. Her friends and classmates took jobs as doctors and lawyers; they considered futures that did not require an M.R.S. degree. They wondered if putting off children meant never being mothers, if getting married would ruin their careers. They wondered if they really could have it all. Wendy Wasserstein wrote it down, recording the trials and tribulations of the “uncommon women” who populated her plays. Her characters had conversations one might overhear in a ladies room or a coffee shop; her essays read like wittier, more insightful phone conversations one might have with a friend. When Wendy Wasserstein died, my mother and I cried. We had never met her, but we felt like we had lost someone we knew. Wasserstein asked questions for the women who saw her plays and read her books. She assured them no one knew the answers, that they were not alone. She gave us all something special.
Wendy Wasserstein and Betty Friedan both gave American women their life’s work, no small donation in either case. We owe them the realization that though they have died, feminism has not. Women of our generation often avoid being tagged as feminists. They do not like the label. But feminism is merely the ability to look around, to analyze, to ask questions. Feminism is the ability to say, “We can do better.”
The women of this university are smart. We see the problems that still face our friends and classmates, that still face us all. We see that there are fewer of us in the sciences, that sexual violence is sometimes swept under the rug. We see that the workplaces we are headed to are designed for men with wives at home to cook and clean and care for the children. We see that all too often it is the women who are told they cannot balance work and family, the women who worry about getting a promotion and getting dinner on the table. Surely, we can do better.
Betty Friedan and Wendy Wasserstein believed that we could. Feminists changed history by changing the everyday, and women like Friedan and Wasserstein led the way. We could be the next generation of leaders, the next group to alter the fabric of society for the better, if only we would embrace their legacy, if only we could recognize that the labels don’t matter but the sentiments do. Betty Friedan and Wendy Wasserstein died five days apart. Feminism is alive and well.