Two movements that helped define the last half of the 20th century—feminism and environmentalism—owe much to books that celebrated 50th birthdays in the past year: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Both highly readable books also left a legacy of controversy and—critics say—massive destruction.
Take first The Feminine Mystique. The idea for the book came to Friedan when she surveyed some of her elite Smith College classmates in preparation for their 15-year class reunion in 1957. She found these mostly rich, mostly white, mostly suburban housewives to be mostly bored, and—according to Friedan—very unhappy. Friedan attributed that unhappiness to the fact that they were wives and mothers: “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.’”
Friedan ignored other forces contributing to unhappiness, including narcissism, a sense of entitlement, and the rapidly expanding secularization of American culture that colleges such as Smith helped bring about. Culture, like nature, abhors a vacuum, so the hole the departure of religion left in American life rapidly filled with ideologies such as feminism. Author Janice Shaw Crouse, who met Betty Friedan just before Friedan’s death in 2006, found her a “lovely lady” whose “ideas had terrible consequences,” including no-fault divorce and legalized abortion.
Rachel Carson’s call for ecological awareness also morphed into an ideology with terrible consequences, including a virtual ban of the pesticide DDT in 1972. Until then, 30 years of DDT spraying in North America and Europe had virtually eradicated malaria in developed countries, but Silent Spring’s dire (and largely discredited) warnings of cancer in humans and the thinning of egg shells in birds stopped U.S. production and export of the chemical.
The ban on DDT cost thousands of U.S. jobs and “may have killed 20 million children,” according to Robert Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health: That’s what he told National Geographic Magazine in 2007. Today, nearly 250 million people suffer from malaria, and nearly 1 million people a year die from this preventable disease. Almost 90 percent of malaria cases are in Africa: Paul Driessen, a senior policy analyst with the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow and the Congress of Racial Equality, notes that “this anti-DDT campaign was led by wealthy, white activists from countries that were made malaria-free in large part because of the very pesticides they now target.”
It’s telling that India and Africa have similar climates, and in the 1940s and ’50s had similar rates of malaria, but today the incidence of malaria in India is a fraction of Africa’s—in part because when DDT was banned in the United States, production and usage migrated to India, which is now the world’s largest producer and its largest user.