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When Sue Ellen Browder was a college student, the women's movement was just gaining steam. In those days, a woman could be fired for being pregnant, she couldn't apply for credit in her own name if she was married, and a number of medical and law schools were off-limits to her.
Sue Ellen herself was fired mere months into her first job at the LA-area South Bay Daily Breeze after "accidentally" getting pregnant (she'd been on the Pill). In 1969, this was consistent with corporate policy in many American offices.
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Shortly before their son Dustin was born, then, she and her husband Walter moved across the country to New York. Together they decided that Walter would stay home and pursue his dream of writing his first novel, while she pursued hers at a national magazine. And none held more potential to move her toward her dream than Cosmopolitan.
By this time, chief editor Helen Gurley Brown had thoroughly retooled the long-running periodical to serve the spirit of her 1962 book, Sex and the Single Girl. To Helen, the way for a smart woman to have the "good life" was to work hard, use contraceptives, and in the event of contraceptive failure, have an abortion. "Hard work and sex will set you free," was her message—as long as you don't have children. And so, when Sue Ellen interviewed with Cosmopolitan, she carefully omitted mention of the baby at home and got the job.
After about fifteen years, though, the fashion, beauty, and charm emanating from those glossy magazine covers no longer held her heart. She appeared once on Oprah as a "relationship expert," but turned down a follow-up invitation. She really just preferred to be with Walter and the children (they now had two).
In her recent book, Subverted: How I Helped the Sexual Revolution Hijack the Women's Movement, she retraces the long and winding road by which she got sucked into, and then made her way out of, the sexual-revolution looking glass. Despite the subtitle, Subverted is not so much mea culpa or even autobiography as it is good, old-fashioned journalism. Within the narrative of her own story, Subverted untangles some of the twisted threads by which sexual revolutionary designs were accomplished. Here are a few:
Fake News & Fabricated Stories
Freshly graduated from the prestigious University of Missouri Journalism school, Sue Ellen learned right away at the Daily Breeze the new "insider reality." In the "real world," all that cornball ethics stuff was, well, yesterday's news. (When you go to make up a source, a fellow reporter told her, for example, the best name to use is Johnson; it's common enough to complicate fact-checking, but not so common as to sound overtly fake.) Part of her found it appalling, but the rest of her drank it in. After all, lying was a lot easier than telling the truth, and from what she saw around her, making things up didn't appear to hurt, but rather was more apt to boost, one's career potential.
By the time she moved on to Cosmo then, there were no pesky qualms to hinder writing about the sexually "free" woman who didn't exist. Sue Ellen would write and rewrite her articles, not for the sake of clarity or accuracy, but to attain the just-right, breezy but intimate tone of a big sister taking little sis under her wing. Anecdotes could be made up, as could experts to endorse whatever factoids needed validating. Helen's guidelines for Cosmo writers said it was fine. Cosmo had one on-staff "fact-checker" who doubled as a file clerk and occasionally looked up a statistic in the World Almanac. Keep in mind, this was long before today's fake-news internet age, when anybody with a computer or smart phone can publish virtually anything.
Betty Friedan, NOW & Abortion
Here is where Sue Ellen put her journalistic prowess to work: Early feminism and the sexual revolution had started out as separate movements. How did they get joined together? That was the question she set out to answer when she undertook to write this book. Tracing the solution to that puzzle took her back to a cold November weekend in 1967, one year after the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW). At the posh Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., a hundred or so lawyers, labor union organizers, suffragists, student radicals, and other NOW delegates convened at NOW's second national conference.
Seated at the head table was NOW's mercurial, combative cofounder and president, Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique (1963), which is widely regarded as the launchpad of modern feminism. Everyone in the room agreed that American women should have equal rights under the law, and the meeting ran fairly smoothly until Friedan brought her final resolution to the floor. To the utter shock of nearly everyone, it called for full repeal of all abortion laws.
The meeting descended into chaos. Students started shouting slogans, while more level heads pressed for delay so that the subject could be studied. A long, draining battle ensued, and some delegates ultimately walked out. When the conference finally adjourned at around 11:00 p.m., the resolution had passed by a vote of 57–14, and NOW had become the first national organization to endorse full legalization of abortion.
A little-known fact, though, is that Betty Friedan was not a proponent of abortion. On the contrary, writes Sue Ellen, the mother of three had always insisted that the women's movement speak for mainstream women who wanted children. "Ideologically, I was never for abortion," Friedan wrote in 2000, six years before her death at age 85. "Motherhood is a value to me, and even today abortion is not." The first edition of The Feminine Mystique didn't even mention abortion or contraceptives.
So what caused her to create an uproar over it and railroad it into NOW's platform? Ironically, the solution to that puzzle traces back a bit further, to a small coterie of abortion-minded men. For those who keep track of political agendas according to identity politics, they were all white, upper-class, New York elites.
The real driver was Lawrence (Larry) Lader. Like his friend Betty, Lader was a Jewish atheist with Marxist leanings and a writer. The admiring biographer of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, "the greatest influence" in his life, Lader saw pregnancy as "the ultimate punishment [for] sex" and abortion as the remedy and means to sexual freedom. According to Sue Ellen, Lader tried for years to persuade Betty to see abortion his way, but she remained unconvinced.
In the 1960s, Lader was also working with Bernard Nathanson, a New York City abortionist, to establish NARAL, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. (It was later renamed the National Abortion Rights Action League, and then again to NARAL Pro-Choice America.) Lader discussed his plan to recruit the feminists to their cause, but Nathanson disagreed. At the time, most abortion advocates were white, upper- and middle-class men. Nathanson was afraid that a throng of radical women would turn public opinion against them.
But Lader remained undeterred. In 1966, he published Abortion: The First Authoritative and Documented Report on the Laws and Practices Governing Abortion in the U.S. and around the World, and How—for the Sake of Women Everywhere—They Can and Must Be Reformed. As the pretentiously bloated subtitle indicates, the book claimed to contain documented history. But much of the history had been fabricated with the help of Cyril Means, a New York Law School professor who later became a NARAL attorney. And many of Abortion's statistics had been invented out of thin air, as Nathanson later confessed. Nevertheless, upon publication, excerpts from Abortion hit the wire services and were repeated all over the country as received fact.
In addition to being a bald-faced liar, Lader was also a skilled propagandist. In Abortion, he likened pregnancy to slavery and the abortion legalization campaign to a civil rights movement. It was clearly a false analogy, but given the mood of the times, it was crafty rhetoric for recruiting the emotionally manipulable. Lader was the brain behind the slogan still in use today, "No women can call herself free who does not control her own body."
All this fell neatly enough into the Marxist categories of class struggle and liberation through which Betty interpreted incoming ideas. After reading Abortion, she was on board. She endorsed the book, and in the following year she iron-fisted abortion into the NOW platform. Joseph Stalin himself could not have played her more perfectly.
The fake historical and legal background supplied by Lader and his cohorts, combined with the appearance of feminist support supplied by Betty Friedan and 57 NOW delegates, set the stage for seven men in black robes to strike down abortion laws across America in 1973, women and children be damned.
As for Sue Ellen, ironically, she never actually lived the Cosmo life. Nor did most of her Cosmo colleagues. Like her, most of them were married, many happily so. To her, raising children with Walter was sheer delight. "Our children were not a block to the adventure," she wrote; "they helped give meaning to the adventure." Indeed, in many ways, they were the catalyst for her rescue out of the alternate reality.
One morning, after their two children were grown, Walter and Sue Ellen were discussing over coffee the way many people seemed to live according to whatever "reality" they had made up in their own heads.
"I want to know God's Reality," Walter suddenly declared.
Exactly! thought Sue Ellen, in full agreement. No more living Helen Gurley Brown's reality, or Betty Friedan's reality, and certainly not Oprah's. After all, God's is the only reality that actually exists.
And so, although they'd been long-time members of the Episcopal Church, Walter and Sue Ellen began to engage more deeply with Scripture and prayer. Eventually, they joined the Catholic Church, where they found not only a surpassingly more satisfying "good life," but also healing from the deepest sorrow both had been carrying for years, the abortion of their third child.
Sue Ellen's message for women today is this: "Sort out who's telling you the truth and who's not, especially in the media culture we now have. Don't get sucked into all the slogans. Try to sort out the truth." And most importantly,
Stay attached to Christ. Propaganda is half-truth, selected truth, and truth out of context, and we swim in a sea of it. Christ is the truth in person. If you stay attached to Christ, you will be able to sort out all the propaganda because Christ is the whole truth. Stay attached to him. •
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