It’s startling to be reminded, in 2017, that as of the mid 1960s the nascent feminist movement was centered on the concerns of typical, middle-of-the-road women: married ones, with children. How did feminism come to be so closely associated instead with abortion, lesbianism, and a kind of neo-Marxist attempt to frame women as the new proletarian class, angry and destined to seize history’s reins? How did a woman who said marriage should be abolished, comparing it to slavery, stake her claim to speak for women in general? How did “housewife” become a condescending term, indeed an insult, among feminists, while minorities claiming “intersectional” status became the cynosures of the movement?
The personal history behind all of this has received so little attention in the media over the last 50 years that a lean, tense, contrarian new play on the subject, The Fight by Jonathan Leaf, causes a sharp intake of breath. Can this really be what happened? And yet Leaf’s take on two defining personalities of second-wave feminism — Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan — makes sense. This is a vital play, one that goes on a dogged search into an obscure corner of our cultural history and comes back with abundant reasons to be skeptical about the official story of feminism.
The play’s antagonists, Doris (a steely Judith Hawking) and Phyllis (played as a woman very aware of her beauty by Fleur Alys Dobbins) are lightly disguised stand-ins for Friedan and Steinem respectively. It’s the early 1990s as the play opens, and Doris is explaining, to a grad student named Caitlyn (Laura Bozzone) writing a paper on second-wave feminism, her long, increasingly bitter acquaintance with Phyllis, beginning in college at Smith. The real pair split bitterly after Friedan, the author of The Feminine Mystique and the co-founder of the National Organization for Women, suspected Steinem of rigging an election at a convention to elect delegates to the National Women’s Political Caucus. Doris believed that many ballots with her name on them were buried, and she thought Phyllis was behind this, just as in reality Friedan suspected Steinem of similar skullduggery. The charge is unproven, but how much of a stretch of the imagination is required to believe that one liberal Democrat might have sabotaged another’s chances of winning an election?
Leaf (whom I count as a friend) explores the two women’s falling out through Doris/Friedan’s version of events, and consequently Phyllis/Steinem comes off looking shifty. But the Steinem legend is overdue for an appraisal. There is a lot about her in the play that I didn’t know. Phyllis, we observe in a flashback to her childhood, was devastated by her mother’s mental illness and the resulting rupture of her family when her mother had to be institutionalized. She had a strong disposition against marriage from the start, and The Fight makes a convincing psychological case that what underlay Steinem’s revulsion with motherhood was the fear that any child she had would be afflicted with the mental disorder from which her mother, like Phyllis’s, suffered. Phyllis, like Steinem, had an abortion at a young age and made “reproductive freedom,” as she styled it, central to the feminist agenda, which she also expanded greatly to encompass Third World concerns even as Friedan, a mother of three, represented married Western women to whom easier access to child care was far more pressing.
In another flashback, again filtered through Friedan’s recollection in simple, clear direction by Peter Dobbins, we drop in on Phyllis and her then-boyfriend, a plutocratic media mogul (Mark Quiles, who also plays three other roles). He resembles Mort Zuckerman, the longtime owner of the New York Daily News who repeatedly bailed out Steinem’s perpetually money-losing Ms. Magazine. Though Phyllis disdained any frivolity in her magazine (called Woman in the play), she is only too happy to take infusions of cash generated by the owner of a newspaper that prints fashion spreads and horoscopes and gossip, but the more compelling nuance of her interactions with men is that she repeatedly draws away from any who seem to be steering her toward making a family. (Steinem waited until she was 66 to marry; her husband David Bale died three years later.)
Running under two hours, Leaf’s concise play (at the off-off Broadway venue Grand Hall through November 18) doesn’t waste a moment as it shifts back and forth in time to build a picture of loathing between the two women as well as a certain ambiguity about what really happened. Through the audience’s surrogate figure, the inquisitive grad student trying to sort out the truth, we wonder: Is Doris merely settling scores because her plain looks and abrasive manner (Hawking spits out her words like bullets) proved less appealing to the public than Phyllis’s long, sultry hair and luminous smile? The play would be inconclusive, hence frustrating, were it not for a late revelation that arrives in the classic theatrical form: a damning piece of paper brandished like an explosive device by one of the combatants. The play was written before news broke last month of widespread sexual abuse, and an attendant conspiracy of silence, in Hollywood and the media, but the topical resonance is unmistakable. Leaf’s play is perfectly timed, expertly crafted drama that functions as an important cultural corrective.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.