The Fight is over, for now. I hope it will continue, however, in a bigger stadium.
Which is to say another theatre a little less way-off Broadway than The Storm, which rages in the basement of St. Mary’s Church, on Grand Street near Chinatown. The Fight is Jonathan Leaf’s new play based on the decades-old feud between the late Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Leaf has fictionalized their names—Friedan is “Doris Margolies” and Steinem is “Phyllis Feinberg”—but not their personalities or politics. He has set the main action in the early 1990s, when their feud is cold but far from over. And the Storm Theatre under the direction of Peter Dobbins has mounted a tight, vivid, and compelling depiction of how the two doyennes of American feminism faced off.
In the role of Friedan/Margolies, Judith Hawking is brassy, exasperated, and take-charge: an altogether believable architect of Second Wave feminism. Her commitment to the importance of family is strong enough to make her stick with a marriage despite black eyes and bruises. As Steinem/Feinberg, Fleur Alys Dobbins is clever, manipulative, cold-hearted, and devoted to her cause, no matter what corners must be cut. She is delicate (like a barracuda) in her maneuvers around the third main character in Leaf’s drama, a graduate student who is writing her dissertation about the moment in 1973 when Margolies lost an election for the presidency of a national feminist association to a rival supported by Feinberg.
Margolies believes the election was stolen from her by Feinberg. The graduate student, Caitlin Schultz (Laura Bozzon), tries to draw both Margolies and Feinberg out from behind their masks. Caitlin herself emerges as a woman of questionable though complicated judgment. Her thesis advisor is also the father of her son, and she is desperate to write the kind of thesis that will become a commercially successful book. To that end, she isn’t above some deception of her own, as she plays off the mutual resentments of the two protagonists.
The plot turns on whether Margolies’s accusation that Feinberg burned the ballots is right. Margolies has to explain, to her own satisfaction, why Feinberg would do such a thing, giving the play a structure like the peeling-back of layers of an onion one by one. Meanwhile, Feinberg attempts to divert Caitlin down various blind alleys. The stakes may seem small. We may be tempted to ask, What difference does it make which feminist helmed the organization that stands in for the National Organization of Women (NOW)?
Leaf makes the Friedan/Steinem dispute feel urgent. It is urgent because it foregrounds the question of whether we would have been better off with a women’s movement that respected the family, the complementarity of men and women, and the satisfactions of having and raising children—or, alternatively, with a form of feminism that derides men as oppressors and champions alternate sexualities. Steinem’s memorable quip, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” is transformed in Feinberg to the clunkier, “A woman needs a man like an armadillo needs roller skates.” But we get the point: In gaining control of the “movement,” Steinem/Feinberg gave feminism its still prevailing character of misandry. She derogated marriage and sneered, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”
The outcome of the Steinem-Friedan election arguably set the trajectory of the women’s movement for the next nearly fifty years. Champions of Steinem’s ideology probably will not like The Fight, which is, after all, a male playwright’s re-imagining of wrangling between two feminist icons. But Leaf’s play leaves open the possibility of admiring Steinem/Feinberg for precisely the stands she took (and continues to take). Her weaponized style of feminist advocacy dominates in Women’s Studies programs and has become an essential ingredient in the effort to legitimate gay marriage and transgenderism. If we approve the tenor of contemporary American culture, we are inescapably approving Steinem’s legacy, which is written into that culture.
That said, Leaf has reminded us of an important “What if?” What if the Freidan supporters had prevailed back in 1973? What if radical feminism had been stymied by a mainstream women’s movement that embraced equal opportunity without savaging marriage, the family, and normative sexuality? The Fight appropriately offers no answer to those speculative questions, but it memorably plants them.
Leaf is a playwright who has repeatedly dared to offer intellectually powered plots about key makers of contemporary culture. The Storm produced his last play as well, Deconstruction, about the affair between Mary McCarthy and Paul de Man. Leaf appears willing to sacrifice the chance for mass appeal in order to dig down to the taproots of the secular cynicism of our age. His plays reveal things about our culture that most Americans probably would prefer not to know. We no longer flinch from staged vulgarity and even depravity, but we do flinch from reminders that we became who we are through some fateful and very bad choices. The Fight, however, is never really over.
Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars.