In six days we lost three stellar women: Betty Friedan, Coretta Scott King, Wendy Wasserstein. At Coretta Scott King’s funeral, heads of state and regular folks paid their respects in a very public way. Celebrating the lives (and mourning the loss) of Betty Friedan and Wendy Wasserstein, we’re still penning appraisals, eulogies, reminiscences.
These two Jewish women, born 30 years apart, shared a gift. Each had the power to see, and then to name. Friedan labeled the constricted life smart women were condemned to lead “the feminine mystique.” Wasserstein—out loud in her women’s onstage voices, and in her own voice in her wry confessional essays—enunciated the complications that ensue for women in the generations after Friedan. But what fascinates, in the end, is how these two lived their own lives.
Betty Friedan spoke (rather obliquely) about cooking for the new man in her life, and then about the shifts when a child took on strict Jewish religious practice. (In Lilith’s 1976 premier issue, Friedan revealed why she speaks out as a woman and a Jew. You can read that landmark piece—”Friedan at 55″—on our website, Lilith.org.) Wendy Wasserstein, when she decided to bear and raise a daughter as an unmarried, unpartnered working woman, wrote revealingly about what this choice actually felt like.
Most of us learn more from personal anecdote than from polemics. That’s the power of memoir You’ll read in this issue three cut-to-the-bone memoirs, in a tradition of truth-telling recently under fire not from the category-bending nonfiction novel (google “Capote”) but from the new genre of fictionalized truth (google “Frey”). A determined Harvard-educated, stay-at-home mom; the middle-aged daughter of Holocaust survivors; and the bereaved (think “bereft”) sister of a cancer victim each expose a moment in their lives, and we are the privileged witnesses.
The personal is political, but the obverse is what’s more worrisome. Right now politics is a powerful vector bearing down on the personal lives of women. In this same season as we mourn the loss of Betty Friedan, founder of the National Organization for Women, the state legislature in South Dakota has outlawed abortion.
The last time Betty and I talked, a few years back, was in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington. My younger daughter, Yael, and I were part of a reproductive rights demonstration. Betty was resting on a low concrete bench, but when we spoke it was clear that she was as feisty as ever, righteously angry at the forces keeping women down. Friedan is remembered as a person who was ready, almost to the end, to put her own body on the march to drive change. What would she say now?
Though it’s right there when we consult an atlas, for most people this state is off the map. I once lived for a year in South Dakota, on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian reservation in the tiny town of Eagle Butte (pop. 500). I know first hand that the state is vast and the small settlements isolated. The distance between towns is great, winter driving often a hazard, and the lives of many women there can be harsh: teen pregnancy, suicide, entrenched poverty, a parched future.
July 1, abortion will be illegal in South Dakota, except if the mother’s life is endangered by the pregnancy. No exception. Not even when the woman or girl is pregnant as a result of rape or incest.
Forced pregnancy. The lack of compassion on the part of lawmakers— and the so-called pro-life organizations that support them—is stunning and terrifying. And yet I found little recognition of what this means when I polled, informally, Jewish women I encountered randomly at parents’ meetings or intermission at the theater. One told me nonchalantly, “Look, women will always find some way to get an abortion.” Are you kidding me? Access to abortion already excruciatingly challenging if you are a poor and/or young woman in South Dakota. No money to travel to another state. No one to care for the children at home even if you could manage to get to Minnesota. And now the additional horror and stigma of believing you are committing an illegal act. If the law criminalizing abortion stands, anyone in South Dakota—physician or friend— who assists a woman to obtain an abortion may face fines and jail time too.
Betty Friedan once said—astringently, not facetiously—that no one likes abortion, just as no one likes dental work, but both are sometimes necessary. Keep in mind how awful those days (and years) were before abortion became safe and legal in the U.S. The back-alley abortions. The brave women of the organization “Jane” who performed safe and illegal abortions for thousands of women in the 1960s and early 1970s. Don’t imagine that those days are history. A blogger has now put onto her website a message to women in South Dakota with careful instructions on how to perform an abortion. My God.