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Women As Public Intellectuals: The Legacies of Jane Jacobs, Rachel Carson and Betty Friedan

A much shorter version of these remarks was given on November 8, 2011 at the 2011 Jane Jacobs Forum, hosted by the Municipal Arts Society at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. The Forum was titled “Women As Public Intellectuals” and featured me, Roberta Brandes Gratz, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Sally Helgesen. The moderator was Robin Pogebrin.

In considering the legacies of Jane Jacobs, Betty Friedan and Rachel Carson we might start with a political analysis of three threshold concepts: public, intellectual and woman. But it is the word “as” in the title of tonight’s program that interests me most: women as public intellectuals.

As is a powerful little word. Commonly, it is used to suggest equivalence, to say that one thing is like or similar to another – this food is as good; or women as men are intellectuals. Often it is used to connect two startlingly different concepts, to show a link not readily apparent – Food as Art, Republican as Compassionate, Women as Intellectuals. At yet other times, the word as evokes a temporality, a moment or state of being that is passing– as we were walking into this hall, we ran into someone we knew. Or As women intellectuals, Jacobs, Carson and Friedan shook things up.

In which sense is it intended here? To imply that women like men can be intellectuals? That even a woman can be a mover and shaker of ideas? That inhabiting the idea of intellectual is possible even for women? Why not just title the session Jacobs, Carson, Friedan: Women Public Intellectuals, with no “as” in the mix? Because the “as” is always assumed when a woman precedes it: A woman performing a role other than mother or wife, once and perhaps still, needs a modifying term to comprehend.

What are the conditions that determine when something is public or important enough to influence the public sphere? When and why is an idea and its originator deemed intellectual, as having real heft, and when is it just called amusing or dumb? Who gets to weigh in to debates and inform them, who has the authority, credibility and clout to influence? These questions lie at the heart of the obstacles with which women public intellectuals must contend.

Three structural conditions favored Jane Jacobs, Rachel Carson and Betty Friedan, and these conditions continue to operate to disfavor or favor women in the public sphere today. The first is access to media and backers in the media who allow your ideas to reach the public. The second is class and race, and how that impacts ones access to being regarded as smart or significant. And the third condition that favored these women, is that each in some way was gender non-conforming. These structural conditions operate independently of the content or merit of their ideas. Context as much as content affect what ideas are promoted and what ideas sidelined.

Jacobs, Carson and Friedan each worked as reporters or for publications long before they wrote their signature books. Their books benefit from this experience– they were all skilled writers, evocative and powerful at making an argument; they understood how to reach and inform an audience; and they had access to, and credibility within, powerful media institutions. For example, Carson’s Silent Spring was serialized first in the New Yorker, then published as a book by Random House, and then was the subject of a CBS News special in 1962 called The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson.

Women thinkers and activists writing heretical ideas today must operate in a much more centralized and homogenous corporate media environment. Controversial ideas – especially ones that threaten corporate sponsors, foundation donors, or political benefactors – are NOT given much airspace in the mainstream TV, Publishing, magazine or even news media. Until Rachel Maddow came along, critical thinking was never shown on television. Today’s women intellectuals are more likely to be published in an academic press or a small independent press like the Feminist Press or Verso than by Norton or Simon and Schuster.

In addition, because of today’s fractured media environment thinkers and activists working today have a tough time reaching the kind of mass audience that Carson or Friedan reached. They would have to settle for partial publics, because it is so hard to break through to the general public sphere without backing.

Todays’ women intellectuals still encounter sizeable gender disparities in the environments in which they work and publish – despite 50 years of legal progress, women still make 78 cents on the dollar for the same work; and women are still starkly under-represented at tables of power (in every context). Media studies continue to show that journalists use male experts more heavily than female experts. For example, a 2004 study by MSU professors of 9 major dailies noted that male experts 14 times more likely to be used in coverage than women. (See, Jeffrey Joe Pe-Aguirre, Studies: Media use more male experts, The State News, (June 5, 2006).Even progressive think tanks remain male dominated (see, e.g. the think tank Demos (about 1/3 women to 2/3 men in its fellows) or the Center for American Progress (where some 13 out of nearly 60 scholars are women).

A second structural reality that benefitted Jacobs, Carson and Friedan is that they were each upper middle class and white. Class is intimately connected to who gets to be named an intellectual – indeed the classism of the word is what has always made me distrust people who say they want to be one. I accept and am thrilled by intellect – smart people are like clean country air – refreshing and invigorating. But intellectual implies elite, and elite generally means that one has is part of the club or has been somehow sanctioned by and let into the clubby institutions that are elite in our society – certain universities, foundations, fortune 500 sponsored ventures. It could be argued that the feature that distinguishes a public intellectual from a private one is that the work of the former is accessible to a mass audience while the ideas of the latter remain cloistered inside the academy or a government agency or a think tank. But class still operates in both environments – informing who is designated as intellectual and who is not, who is championed and who is not, and who is made accessible and who is not.

When I saw the names in the title of this forum I was struck by the absence of women intellectuals of color. That absence is also structural. Women intellectuals with public stature of any stature were rare in the early 1960’s. Race, like gender, matters. It still affects the deference, respect and power given to a voice. The emergence of large numbers of women of color intellectuals, writers, artists in the public sphere in the US did not come about until the late 1960’s and 1970’s. But there were women of color intellectuals working in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, women who made as massive a difference as the three women we consider tonight. I think of Constance Baker Motely, an African American attorney, and later a Federal Judge, who wrote the actual complaint in the Brown v. Board of Education case, and who was the first black woman to argue a case before the US Supreme Court in 1962, when she successfully represented James Meredith in his attempt to desegregate the University of Mississippi. I think of the extremely influential Ella Baker who co-founded SNCC, and brought about a form of politics into social justice organizations that one can still see being expressed in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations – democratic, consensus based, suspicious of flashy leaders. I think of Delores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers Union in 1962 with Cesar Chavez.

Adding lawyers, policy advocates, organizers and activists to our conversation of public intellectuals raises another sense in which the term public intellectual is freighted with the elitism of academic credentialing. Would women like Huerta, Baker or any number of terrific women leaders we could name even be considered intellectuals by the arbiters of such things?

The idea that women public intellectuals are in some way gender nonconforming might seem terribly modern or queer of me to assert, but it’s really nothing more than a statement of fact. Carson, Jacobs and Friedan did not conform key norms for women raised in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. Public criticism and philosophy, the world of politics and contestation, claiming space as a public voice and thinker – are heavily masculinized spaces. To succeed, a woman must consciously and constantly cross gender-boundaries that norm her behavior. Jacobs, Carson and Friedan all did that. Gender non-conformity is a key to being able to be public as a woman. I am aware of the irony that I, a lesbian, am praising Friedan as gender nonconforming – her homophobia in The Feminine Mystique, and in her leadership of NOW was intense and deplorable. She ultimately came around to supporting gay rights but its hard to get beyond sentences like “homosexuality spreading like a murky smog over the American scene.”

Having spent some time on some structural conditions that enable or inhibit women public intellectuals, I want to reflect a moment on the importance of content to the characterization of someone as a “public intellectual.” Is there something special or unique about some ideas that makes them qualify as being important? That lets us regard its bearer as an intellectual? Certainly an idea’s bravery, rigor, startling insight, beauty, originality, the fresh view it provides on an old scene, the fact that it might invent a new form to convey itself – are all examples of content innovations that cause us to sit up and take notice of that idea. Each of these women identified problems others had not named as clearly and accessibly before. Each did so forcefully. Each of their books had a huge impact. Yet, the context of each of these books mattered as much as their content.

Some critics – like the chemical industry – have argued that Carson overstated her case against DDT; while others argue that she did not go far enough to call for controls on chemical corporations themselves. Some have compared Carson’s book with another book by the anarchist Murray Bookchin that came out a few months earlier – and was much more critical of industrialization although less critical of science than Carson’s.

Friedan’s book has been criticized for its nearly exclusive focus on suburban, upper class white women – its arguments do not take into account the conditions of women of color or poor women except in passing. One very interesting review by Sandra Dijkstra argues that Friedan in a sense narrowed and popularized De Beauvoir’s central premise in The Second Sex, from “One is not born but rather one becomes woman”– to the concept of enforced femininity, or what Friedan called “the problem with no name.” While de Beauvoir said “It is civilization as a whole which produces these creatures,” Friedan critiqued women’s magazines, media, and women’s own choices. (See Sandra Dijkstra, “Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan: The Politics of Omission,” Feminist Studies, Volume 6, Number 2, Summer 1980).

Historian Joanne Meyerowitz suggests in that Friedan’s books success was a function of her conformity to postwar popular discourse rather than to her radicalism. Studying stories about women in mass market magazine in the Journal of American History from 1946-1958, Meyerowitz shows that a majority were actually stories of nondomestic women, which focused on individual women’s public achievements. Meyerowitz suggests that Friedan’s success came because her ideas resonated with these mass market understandings, “Like other postwar journalists, Friedan did not question women’s responsibility for home and children. She encouraged marriage and femininity, disparaged homosexuality, and expressed fears that neurotic, overbearing mothers mined their children. Also like other postwar journalists, Friedan embraced liberal individualism and validated women’s public participation. She saw women’s achievements outside the home as a source of both personal fulfillment and public service, and she presented domesticity as a problem.” (See, Joanne Meyerowitz, “Beyond the Feminine Mystique: A Reassessment of Postwar Mass Culture , 1946-1958,” Journal of American History, 79 No. 4 (March 1993), p. 1455-1283, at p. 1482).

Jacobs book is amazing, but despite her lifelong interest in economic and insight into how cities drive economic success, Jacobs does not analyze the role of private commercial interests and wealthy beneficiaries on urban re-development and city planning – even the chapter on gradual financing and cataclysmic financing in Death and Life has an easier time critiquing public development than talking of the harms of private development.

The silences in these books suggest the truth of the Marxist adage that the ruling ideas of each times are the ideas of the ruling class. Though these books challenged some dominant frames, they benefitted from others, and left still others intact. But their silences also illustrate a persistent tension in those engaged in critical thinking about public issues – even disturbing ideas are often domesticated in some fatal manner by our own attachment to comfort, security, order, continuity and legibility.

The content of a work matters, but its context, history, structure or form matter as much as what is being said. In this thought I am indebted to another New York intellectual, the late Susan Sontag, who criticized the primacy given to content in the consideration of works of art. In her essay Against Interpretation (published in 1964) she writes “Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all. The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.”

Carson, Friedan and Jacobs produced work that mattered in large part because they changed how we saw the forms that we had taken for granted.


  1. […] Women As Public Intellectuals: The Legacies of Jane Jacobs … What are the conditions that determine when something is public or important enough to influence the public sphere? When and why is an idea and its originator deemed intellectual, as having real heft, and when is it just … Source: […]

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