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Betty Friedan: Her Life

Judith Hennessee, Random House, New York, 1999. xvii+330pp. ISBN 0-679-43203-5 (cloth), $27.95.


Betty Friedan and the Making of "The Feminine Mystique": The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism

Daniel Horowitz, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1998. viii+355pp. ISBN 1-55849-168-6 (cloth), $29.95.

From: AWM Newsletter, September/October 1999.

Reviewed by: Marge Murray, Book Review Editor, Department of Mathematics, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061-0123; email:

I am writing this column from the comfort of my air-conditioned office in Virginia, during the hot, sultry midsummer, just days after the United States women's soccer team's victory over China in the Women's World Cup. For the past several weeks, the airwaves have been filled with the exploits of the American soccer players. In particular, newspapers, radio, TV, and the Internet extol this generation of women athletes as the "Title IX generation." Soccer star Mia Hamm is said to be the quintessential member of this generation; at twenty-seven, she is precisely the same age as Title IX, and she grew up as the beneficiary of programs in sports for girls and women which were initiated under its auspices.

What is Title IX? If the reports of the news media are to be believed, Title IX is a piece of legislation from the early 1970s which ensures that women have equal opportunity to engage in sports activities in America's publicly-supported high schools, colleges, and universities. In this case, however, the news media reports are not to be believed. Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972 was intended to prohibit sex discrimination in all programs administered by federally funded institutions of higher education. The connection of Title IX with sports has persisted largely because it is in the area of athletics that Title IX has been least effective in providing women equal access to programs and facilities.

Title IX was the culmination of over ten years of women's rights activism. In the minds of many, this wave of feminist activism (which began in the 1960s and continued into the 1970s) was inspired by the publication of one unusually influential book: The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, first published in 1963. In terms of its revolutionary impact, Friedan's book has been compared to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), which went a long way toward launching the environmental movement of the sixties and seventies. But, in the view of Judith Hennessee, The Feminine Mystique was even more dramatic in its impact: "it was The Feminine Mystique," writes Hennessee, "that became the opening salvo in the most far-reaching social revolution of the century" (Hennessee, 79).

In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan wrote from the point of view of the white, American, middle-class suburban housewife of the 1950s, brainwashed by the culture into the belief that a woman's greatest fulfillment can be found in caring for home, husband, and children. In compelling, often relentless prose, Friedan demonstrated that women have a right to education, to fulfillment in the wider world --- in other words, women must stand up for their rights and claim "an identity of their own." In the words of Judith Hennessee, "Although the book took as its example the suburban housewife (and was severely criticized for that limitation), the attitudes it described were universal" (Hennessee, 81). Friedan's passionate book was a call to arms for the women's liberation movement of the sixties, and found a wide audience, not only in the United States but in many other Western countries as well.

The two books under review offer distinct, complementary views of The Feminine Mystique and its mercurial author, Betty Friedan. The book by Daniel Horowitz is the more scholarly, and in many ways the more intriguing, of the two. Horowitz aims to trace the origins of The Feminist Mystique to progressive social movements of the 1930s and 1940s (and even earlier), and to point out the stark contradictions between the early life of Betty Friedan and the suburban housewife persona she adopted in writing the book. Hennessee's book is the more accessible --- and gossipy --- of the two; if anything, Hennessee is more concerned with what happened to Friedan after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, as Friedan came to be recognized as a charismatic (and combative) spokeswoman for the women's movement.

Friedan was born in Peoria, Illinois in 1921. Her parents came to the United States as part of the great wave of Jewish emigrants who came to this country in response to antisemitic persecution in Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. Her father, very much a self-made man, developed a successful jewelry business in Peoria and, in time, her family numbered among the wealthiest in town. While Friedan's childhood was financially secure, she experienced several disappointments which had a far-reaching impact upon her later life. As a young woman, she was not considered particularly attractive, and grew up in the shadow of a mother and sister who were much more conventionally pretty than she. Moreover, as a member of the Jewish minority in a predominantly white, Protestant midwestern town, she experienced many antisemitic social slights, the most painful of which was her exclusion from participating in the local high school sorority. What set Betty apart from her peers was her incisive intelligence, her sharp wit, and her skill as a writer and organizer.

In 1938, she turned her back on the provincial world of Peoria and enrolled as a freshman at Smith College. In those days, she asserted, "I want to do something with my life --- to have an absorbing interest. . . . I want success and fame" (Horowitz: 32). At Smith, she developed an intense fascination with the field of psychology. At the same time, she became deeply involved in both theater and journalism. But, in Horowitz' view, the most important development during Friedan's years at Smith was her increasing involvement in radical politics. Coming from a privileged background, Friedan's increasing interest in pacificism, labor union activism, and rapproachment with the Soviet regime seems somewhat paradoxical. Yet it was in the political arena that her skills as a writer and speaker found their most impassioned expression.

Upon graduation from Smith in 1942, Friedan went on to graduate school in psychology at Berkeley, where she continued her political activism and won a prestigious scholarship that would have fully funded her dissertation research. Yet, after just one year at Berkeley, she dropped out of graduate school, never to return. Hennessee asserts that Friedan left Berkeley in frustration over her inability to find a satisfying balance between personal and professional life. Although she had had many boyfriends and lovers, Friedan believed that increasing intellectual achievement would diminish her chances for marriage. Horowitz, by contrast, believes that Betty left Berkeley because she could not abide the strong disjunction between the cool academic world of psychology and the passionate allure of radical political activism.

Whatever the reason for her departure, Friedan moved from Berkeley to New York City, where she worked for several years as a trade union journalist and where, in 1947, she met and married Carl Friedan. Horowitz is fascinated by her involvement, during the years 1946 to 1952, as a writer for the UE News, the official organ of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America. Writing under her maiden name, Betty Goldstein, she participated in political activism on specific issues, including racial equality, access to health care, and the needs of working women. As the Cold War and McCarthyism gathered momentum, her social and professional contacts brought her dangerously close to the Communist party. Indeed, largely because she had not written under the name Betty Friedan, she never became a major target for McCarthyist redbaiting in the 1950s. She left the UE News at about the same time as the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Horowitz speculates that Friedan was, perhaps, "relieved to quit the world of radical labor journalism [because] it was getting too hot there" (Horowitz, 152).

Horowitz regards The Feminine Mystique as the culmination of a lengthy period of metamorphosis, during which Friedan turned her attention from the wider world of labor activism to the private world of marriage and family. In particular, Horowitz argues that Friedan, frustrated by the widespread sexism of progressive movements in the 1940s, at last found an effective way to air the concerns of women. In writing The Feminine Mystique, Friedan adopted the persona of the suburban housewife, devoted entirely to home and family, who did not work outside the home. But this was not the reality of Friedan's life in the 1950s. Although she did, indeed, live in the New York suburbs during the 1950s, she worked as a freelance journalist for women's magazines --- some of the same magazines she criticized in her book --- and as a community organizer in a variety of settings. Much of the book was written in the legendary Allen Room for writers at the New York Public Library, in the company of "important male writers working on important male books" (Hennessee, 74).

Hennessee is far more interested than Horowitz in chronicling what happened to Friedan --- the collapse of her marriage, her involvement in the founding and early years of the National Organization for Women --- in the aftermath of the book's publication. Hennessee is intensely preoccupied with the personality clashes and behind-the-scenes struggles that marked the early years of the women's movement. Here, Hennessee --- not unlike the popular press of the sixties and seventies --- comes dangerously close to describing the leaders of a serious social movement as a group of women involved in a catfight. None of the leading personalities --- including Friedan, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Florynce Kennedy, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Rita Mae Brown, and many others --- are portrayed in a particularly sympathetic light. A sense of the power and impact of the women's movement seems to be lost in Hennessee's fascination with Friedan's personal travails and struggle for power.

Taken together, however, these two books provide considerable insight into the historical, social, personal, and political factors that inspired the women's movement of the late twentieth century --- and ultimately gave rise to Title IX.

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