Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir’s Conflicting Ideas on Women’s Empowerment

Betty Friedan is often credited with founding second wave feminism, what is today sometimes mockingly referred to as ‘white, middle-class feminism’ or ‘bourgeois feminism.’ Beyond whatever rhetorical value can be found in such phrases, what do they mean? What is the implication of Friedan’s work in relation to other outstanding social relations besides gender? More importantly, how can she be compared to more radical, gender-based views on social issues, notably those of her predecessor, Simone de Beauvoir?

The seminal works of both Friedan (The Feminine Mystique, 1963) and de Beauvoir (The Second Sex, 1949) relate to women’s empowerment but in different manners and contexts. Betty Friedan refers solely to a subject of a specific social background: predominantly white middle-class women in the United States. From this perspective, empowerment is sought in a narrow context, at the expense of wider struggles against oppression and at the expense of oppressed peoples generally. On the other hand, while Simone de Beauvoir uses the French woman as a focal point for her work, the ideas in The Second Sex are broad and transcend single identities and social contexts. Through her existentialism, a wider philosophy she subscribed to, herself being one of its more radical proponents, de Beauvoir constructs a notion regarding gender that is relatable and at times analogous to wider forms of prevalent social inequality and oppression.

It is hard to critically understand the ideas espoused by Friedan without understanding the history of social relations from which her work sprang and found relevance. Particularly, the United States by the early 1960’s had emerged as the world’s preeminent empire. Prior to that, the United States was a settler nation/state which widely utilized slavery and the labor of oppressed nations. Quite a bit of research has been conducted on topics like slavery, land theft and modern imperialism, yet usually its focus has been exclusively on effects such practices have had on oppressed people. Often overlooked is the social, cultural and political effect these practices have had on beneficiary populations.

What has been revealed in studies on the effects on the beneficiary subject of such phenomena is that it had a unifying impact. Land theft, genocide, slavery, and imperialism have created for the United States a level of cohesion amongst its accepted members (i.e., historically whites), widespread social and political acquiescence, and support for their own leaders’ wider supremacy. To draw an analogy from Friedan, white Amerikans are historically the housewives in a family which draws its income largely through the extorted tribute of others.

None of this is to say that antagonisms and long-term contradictions are entirely absent amongst whites or within the United States. However, in the context of rent drawn from oppressed people, these contradictions are more easily smoothed over with minimal struggle and minor reforms. While these reforms may be progressive in some sense, more often than not they leave intact and are in fact reliant on wider systemic oppressions.

It is in this particular context which Friedan is situated. Her efforts primarily were focused at generating system-friendly national reforms, specifically in areas of ideas, culture, and most importantly, education. Beyond whatever willful neglect Friedan may have committed towards women of color, those who hadn’t made it to the suburbs during the 50’s and 60’s, or people oppressed by patriarchal Amerikan society (the US was in between invading Korea and Vietnam during the period), the feminism Friedan espoused was part of a movement which integrated white Amerikan women into higher positions within existing powers structures, namely those directly related to global disparities in wealth and status as well as in regards to the violent enforcement of this social arrangement. Thus, one could say that Friedan was part of a movement which attained for white and Amerikan women, alongside their men, the right to dominate other people; eventually opening doors for females such as Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and Hilary Clinton to oversee and even direct aggression and oppression of Third World peoples. As well, Friedan was as part of a movement which allowed for greater inclusion and empowerment for females as part of the ‘middle class.’ The significance of this later resultant facet should not be understated.

Middle class is a fairly accurate description of the social composition of Friedan’s politics, but the term itself deserves further explanation.

The term middle class is often prone to misinterpretation. While it is correct to note the concept of middle class as a group existing between two extremes, the idea that the middle class connotes either those who occupy a socially average position or otherwise is a group which is numerically predominant is false. Originally, the term was reserved for the emergent bourgeoisie during the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries, which for a time inhabited a social space between the hereditary aristocracy and small producers (peasants, handicraft workers, and those dislocated and thrown into the ranks of the classical proletariat). Today, the term refers to not more than 20% of the global population who are socially favored under an extant global socio-economic system. Whereas the middle class is said to represent a larger percentage in countries such as the United States, this simply implicates the favoredness which such groups have historically enjoyed. Today, we can say the middle class exists as part of bureaucratic and tertiary sectors of global economics and maintains itself quite literally at the expense of the much larger working class.

In this regard, the middle class is and has been a parasitic element. Different methods of accounting have arrived at this conclusion. According to kind of analysis, the middle class consumes a far greater share of ecological resources, and in the regard, if everyone lived as part of the middle class, several planets such as Earth would be needed to maintain the natural resource requirements of such widespread consumption-based material living standards. More poignantly, the middle class could be defined through its uneven trade in labor, whereby it is provided with more labor resources than itself expends with the difference made up through that appropriated from those of significantly lower social and economic power. In effect, through its relationship to outstanding class relations (i.e., between capital and a global working class), the middle class is ‘transcendent’ in regards to its agency vis a vis a largely Third World-centered modern proletariat and ecological limits. Stated another way, the middle class could be described as a group as immanent exploiters: largely restricted from transcendent agency yet functional exploiters of those excluded from its ranks.

For feminists such as Friedan, empowerment for women has meant securing a portion of the female sex as more equal members of the group of immanent exploiters: to get white, middle-class women out of their kitchens and homes and ultimately onto a more equal position to that of their male counterparts. With its limited goals, narrow ideals, and neglect of outstanding oppression, Friedan and the feminism she espoused is marked both by its acquiescence to larger systems of oppression and its quiet yearning for equal membership in the club of oppressors.

Simone de Beauvoir’s ideas occupy a different set of feminist ideas: specifically those implicitly related to the larger systemic oppressions which are ignored in Friedan’s work. In The Second Sex, though she is dealing with gender specifically, she frequently refers to larger ideas regarding agency and power. For Beauvoir, immanence describes a state under which one’s power and agency is severely limited and expressed in petty, often symbolic ways. Transcendence describes its opposite: the result of empowerment and the state of autonomy. The notions employed by Beauvoir in The Second Sex amount to much more than these two ideas, yet this is the basic framework through which she interprets human behavior and relationships.

For de Beauvoir, the goal is not empowerment for females as part of a dominating group in society, but the expansion of positive agency, i.e. transcendence, for the sex most routinely and thoroughly stripped of it. In this regard, whereas Friedan is individualist and reformist, de Beauvoir is socialistic and politically radical.

De Beauvoir recognizes that a reorganization of social and economic life is the result of and a necessary condition for the realization of true transcendence. Her view lends itself to the conscious construction of social life from the ground up and the replacing of extant social relations, attitudes, beliefs, and reality itself on more equal terms. She herself hints of favoring Marxism. Thus, her analysis and argument is imagined in a way that is less exclusive to the interests of the women of the emergent late-20th century middle class.

Some have described de Beauvoir as detached from the women she writes about: that she seems to treat women as a subject she excludes herself from. Given this reasonable interpretation, perhaps it indicates her lack of allegiance to a single group of females, such as they are “constructed” through history in part by class and nation. While her detached view is no doubt part of her existentialist outlook, perhaps it as well implies a sort of applied philosophical internationalism. Perhaps it is such a detached perspective which allows her to analyze gender, make deductions regarding equal power relationships, and conceive of such radical goals. Herself also being from an imperialist country, France, perhaps this sort of detached philosophical internationalism aided her in avoided the missteps characteristic of Friedan.

De Beauvoir’s philosophy advocates changing the material world and its relationship and hence women’s existence. Yet her attitude regarding social relations isn’t blind to other forms of outstanding oppression. In a line which reveals both de Beauvoir’s philosophy and her attitude towards other forms of oppressions, she states, “…A colonial administrator has no possibility of acting rightly towards the native, nor a general towards his soldiers; the only solution is to be neither colonist nor military chief.” For de Beauvoir, “evil exists not in the perversity of individuals… it originates in a situation against which all individual action is powerless.” Though de Beauvoir doesn’t elaborate on any specific program for altering the social world, she does say, “A world where men and women would be equal is easy to visualize, for that is precisely what the Soviet Revolution promised….” In continuing she notes that it will take change in woman’s economic condition as the “basic factor” and further moral, social and cultural permutations to achieve such an end.

In the breadth of de Beauvoir’s ideas, she notes the narcissism, small mindedness, stunted ambitions and symbolic forms of resistance which characterize immanent behavior. These ideas are based on her observation of gender, yet they are stated broadly and in a manner that leaves them open to ambiguities. Insofar as your average person in the United States could be described as a mafia wife or immanent exploiter, these patterns can be seen in their actions as well. Narcissism and small-mindedness exists in epidemic proportions in the US. Even amongst social critics, their ideas often remain in the bounds of traditional notions regarding power. And most dramatic resistance to social ills, inequality, and oppression within the US often takes a largely symbolic form.

Both the works of Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir highlight problems to be overcome in gender relations. Yet their approach and the manner in which they ultimately view empowerment is starkly different.

Though Simone de Beauvoir is most contemporaneous to second wave feminism, and indeed her ideas overlap with authors such as Betty Friedan on certain topics, her larger existentialist philosophy places her convictions and interpretation outside the narrow limits of mainstream second wave feminist ideas, such as they were necessarily bound up with the privilege and experience of oppressor subjects. De Beauvoir’s focus on the broader aspects of empowerment opens up room for a radical analysis which advocates social action and transcends narrow identities. She seeks a women’s movement to subvert power structures entirely. By comparison, Friedan seeks for females a higher place within extant power structures and ultimately advocates an individualist, reformist politic quite in line with extant values and wider power structures themselves.