commentary (2006-06)

On the passing of women who made immense marks

Ms. King and Ms. Friedan

by Barry Henderson

Two women who were buried this week had profound effects on the civil rights movements they helped generate. They may be gone, but they surely won’t be forgotten. The marks they made haven’t faded in the slightest, and those marks promise to remain bright and bold.

Coretta Scott King’s steadfast pursuit of her and her late husband’s dream of equal treatment for persons of all races and creeds has left an indelible impression on America, a nation still learning how to apply those essential lessons.

And Betty Friedan’s pioneering proposition that gender equity was an attainable goal in America and her resolute acts in advocacy toward that goal have worked to lend women a new independence that has changed the way we all view gender roles and women’s opportunities for fulfillment outside the traditional boxes to which most females were relegated in the past.

Ms. King’s approach to The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy was one of a deep understanding and commitment to the idea that racial equality can only be achieved through persuasion and example, that attitudes can only be altered by consistent urging of right over wrong, and that militancy or violence are counterproductive to the cause. Her dignity and calm in pressing for legislation to right prior racial wrongs helped immeasurably in assuring that the fundamental American principle of genuine equality is included in what more and more Americans have come to truly believe about their country.

Likewise, Ms. Friedan, the author of the landmark tract, The Feminine Mystique , and the founder of the National Organization for Women, saw that militant male-bashing worked against the ambitions of women to secure equal treatment in our society. That she and the movement she helped drive to seek an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution failed to see such a measure ratified is hardly a failure when one views the concept for what it was: unnecessary. That Constitution, along with its earlier amendments, already guarantees equal rights, protections and treatment for all citizens, women and men alike, on its face. Friedan’s legacy is grounded in her ability to convince ever growing numbers of Americans that gender poses no dividing line between those rights and the opportunities that they offer. What she said and did opened the eyes of a whole generation of American women to their potential to function outside as well as inside the home, and her influence translated to an ever-broadening male comprehension and appreciation of that potential and its societal rewards.

What triumphs Americans have secured in the struggle toward racial and gender equity in the past half-century can be attributed broadly to the leadership shown by King and Friedan in their respective, respected positions.

Both of those ideals have transformed from the seemingly impossible to the ardently possible in their lifetimes.

It is difficult now to recall, unless one lived through it, exactly how debilitated our nation’s people were by the specter of open, legally  established aspects of racial discrimination and by the relegation of women to those narrow, established roles of wife, mother, teacher or nurse. What King and Friedan made clear and compelling was the need to get started in changing those unfortunate features of American life before the end of the 20th century.

Their steadfastness in the face of sometimes-ugly opposition, misguided rebuke and derision allowed them to live long enough to see real progress toward the realization of their aims. Be thankful for that, as well as for the many victories in the name of human rights that they accomplished.

In the end, they must be recognized as women who remained true to their principles as they advanced their causes. Their contributions to issues of fundamental human rights cannot be overstated. The tributes they are receiving as they pass on, though the rhetoric in each case is glowing, are hardly sufficient to commemorate their vast, continuing impact on American society. But those tributes aren’t just temporary.

Coretta Scott King and Betty Friedan were women who stood up and stood out in their time, and they’ll be remembered for all time.