Editor’s Note: Doris Grumbach, a longtime contributor to Commonweal and author of fourteen books, died on November 4 at the age of 104. For nearly thirty years, Grumbach wrote extensively and fearlessly in these pages about motherhood, marriage, feminism, literature, and the Catholic Church. To mark her passing, we’re republishing her December 11, 1970 article—a report on what is surely the only conference in history to have featured both Betty Friedan and Dorothy Day.
She is seventy-two years old, slightly stooped, and her scanty, yellow-white braid is wound about her head in the same way it always has been. Her eyes are red-rimmed from straining to see and sometimes tear-filled from disappointment at what is being said, and her head turns slightly as she strains to hear. She wears a blue wool suit whose skirt reaches her calves. Her cane is on the floor under her seat. All around her are seated sprightly, smartly suited nuns and laywomen and men with elegant hairstyles, and nattily dressed priests. There are 250 persons in this room whose windows look out over the hills of Garrison, New York, waiting, laughing, greeting each other, mostly on the young side, fresh faced and white, prosperous and well fed, and she seems an island among them, silent and eternal. A few well-pressed Graymoor priests hover around the edges of the meeting. The craggy-faced lady waits for the speakers to arrive. She is here to listen to a description of a new battle, alter the long loneliness of all her other battles during more than fifty years of her life. Her name is Dorothy Day. She is perhaps the oldest person in the room, the most personally courageous, in action and practice already the most liberated.
The conference was to be interconfessional, and to a small extent it was. A large majority of the participants were Catholic, but on the first afternoon the two speakers—Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale and Betty Friedan of NOW—were not. Except for Dr. Pelikan, all the speakers on both days were women, and women were the major portion of the listening and participating audience. Everyone there was, a priori, dedicated to the proposition that the position of women in the world and in the Church was now untenable. They were there to establish this conviction historically and with contemporary reference. So the temper of the gathering, to start with, was uniform and united.
Dr. Pelikan started by sounding some solid scholarly notes. He described Eve and Mary’s images as the defining ones for women’s role in the Church. Eve who was created second and sinned first becomes the basis of the theological theory of women’s inferiority, and Mary is the model of perfect obedience: “Be it done unto me.” Dr. Pelikan discounted the view that under Christ and early Christianity there was a period of equality for women, to be disturbed by the great villain of the woman-place, St. Paul; not at all, he said, the evidence seems to indicate that the Church historically “has always adjusted to the contemporary situation,” which is to say, has reflected in its theory and practices the way society at the time regarded women, and then found theological justification for it. In reply to a query he proceeded to delight his audience by his ability to quote the title of John Knox’s treatise, “A Trumpet Blast Against the Monstrous Legion of Women,” and by pointing out that the discovery of the doctrine of evolution has enabled Christian doctrine to articulate a view of the action of God in the world that fulfills the deepest insights of the biblical story.
Betty Friedan was humorous, fluent, off-the-cuff, challenging. She said the things she has been saying and writing in and since The Feminine Mystique. More intelligent than the TV coverage has ever shown her to be (“The media enjoy all the jokes about bra-burning in order to avoid taking the issue seriously”), she used a shotgun approach to the central issue: every institution of Western society has been structured for the supremacy of men. Women have never been seen as human persons, a situation to be remedied only by restructuring those institutions (including the Church).
Mrs. Friedan described what she thought the direction of the present revolution in women’s rights would take. Motherhood will no longer be the defining factor in women’s lives; women, by virtue of the technological revolution, will lose their household-chore function; as a result of media publicity for all kinds of social revolutions, women will begin to apply “revolution” to their own condition (“she will no longer, by virtue of her sex, be an invisible person”); the character of their revolution will not be a bedroom war, and not a joke, and it will end only when women, with the help of men, are able to effect a change in society; no longer will questions concerning the bodies of women be determined by men, politicians, priests, governors, representatives of the state.
Most important, and after all “the foolishness of making rag dolls out of dish-towels to sell to one another and the cooking of church suppers” are behind them, women will get down to the business of freedom for both sexes, for the present hostility between the sexes, Mrs. Friedan felt sure, is caused by the impotent rage, the dehumanizing sexual repression of women and the equally dehumanizing necessity men feel to be Hemingway-males, to assert and prove their supremacy.