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Review of: BETTY FRIEDAN: Her Life
The Washington Post
By Cathy Young | May 09, 1999
May 09, 1999, Sunday, Final Edition
SECTION: BOOK WORLD
Review of: BETTY FRIEDAN: Her Life, By Judith Hennessee. Random House. 330 pp. $ 26.95
BETTY FRIEDAN AND THE MAKING OF THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE: The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism, By Daniel Horowitz; Univ. of Mass. 354 pp. $ 29.95
Betty Friedan's 1963 bestseller The Feminine Mystiqu is widely credited with (or blamed for, depending on whom you talk to) ushering in the modern phase of the women's movement. More than three decades later, Friedan remains a larger-than-life figure to both friend and foe: a heroic feminist matriarch or a false prophetess who led American women out of their happy homes. Now, two books -- Betty Friedan: Her Life, by writer Judith Hennessee, and Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique, by Smith College professor Daniel Horowitz -- offer a new and often startling look at the woman behind the icon, while also putting her contributions in historical context.
Hennessee, who became involved in the women's movement in the heady days of the early 1970s, makes it clear that she views Friedan's achievements with admiration and gratitude. Still, her book, which follows Friedan from a smart, headstrong, rebellious Peoria schoolgirl to the "lioness in winter" of the present day, is anything but hagiography. Indeed, it offers such a wealth of mortifying details that one is moved to resolve never to do anything to merit a biography.
Hennessee unsparingly chronicles Friedan's stormy and mutually violent marriage, her rudeness and flares of temper (alternating with genuine warmth and kindness), her tyrannical treatment of her mostly female assistants, and her do-you-know-who-I-am prima donna ways. In 1970, when Friedan was president of the National Organization for Women, her secretary -- and NOW executive director -- Dolores Alexander finally had enough of being bullied and blew up at her; furious, Friedan insisted that the board of NOW fire her.
From the start, Hennessee admits that her subject is "a woman of profound contradictions." Some of the contradictions -- "a woman who yearned for a happy marriage and family life, yet urged others to fulfil themselves outside the family," a feminist who relished the company and the attention of men -- seem contradictory only because of the limiting ways in which traditional and feminist ideologies have defined women. The paradox of "a humanitarian who treated individuals, particularly women, badly" is a more fundamental one; but it makes Friedan one of many notable public figures whose love of humanity in general was not matched by goodwill toward individual humans.
In public life, Friedan was an inspiration to millions of women, and many men, around the world. Yet by the late 1970s she was marginalized by the very movement she had helped found -- a movement whose turbulent early years are vividly recounted by Hennessee. Some of the conflicts were ideological: Friedan was appalled by the rise of anti-family, anti-male extremism and by the focus on women's victimization by men. (Those of us who share these concerns may find some of Hennessee's criticisms baffling: thus, she believes that Friedan failed to grasp "the revolutionary depths" of a 1969 event in which some women had all their hair cut off on stage, and that her dismay at the National Organization for Women's defense of Valerie Solanas -- who shot Andy Warhol and penned a manifesto calling for the extermination of all men -- was an "overreaction.") But there is no doubt that Friedan's ego, and her tendency to demonize those who disagreed with her -- for instance, trying to portray Gloria Steinem as a CIA plant -- contributed to her isolation in the movement, probably to the detriment of the sensible ideas she championed.
Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique -- intellectually by far the meatier work -- is mainly an account of Friedan's earlier years, with the post-1963 period summed up in a brief final chapter. It has created something of a stir by revealing that the pre-Feminine Mystique Friedan was not, as she presented herself in her book, an apolitical writer-turned-housewife but a labor journalist active in left-wing causes. "Again and again," writes Horowitz, "what I discovered about Friedan's life convinced me that she emerged out of the Old Left as someone who, in response to poverty, racial discrimination, and sexism, developed a commitment to social justice for idealistic reasons."
Actually, this isn't quite a revelation: Friedan disclosed her radical past in a 1974 magazine essay, though she downplayed the extent of her activism and erased any link between it and her feminism. Both Horowitz and Hennessee dispute Friedan's claim, meant to establish her kinship to the average woman, that she had a feminist epiphany in the late 1950s while a captive of suburban domesticity. Fifteen years earlier, as college student Betty Goldstein, she had declared her belief in sex equality and her anger at the inequities women faced. Her writings for the labor press between 1943 and 1952 often dealt with issues of women's employment and sex discrimination. In the early 1950s, while working for UE News -- published by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, "one of the most radical American unions in the postwar period" -- she authored a pamphlet entitled "UE Fights for Women Workers" and another called "Women Fight for a Better Life!"
Horowitz believes that by filling in the blanks, his book "gives feminism and Friedan, both long under attack for a lack of interest in working-class and African-American women, a pre-1963 past of which they should be proud." Given Friedan's association with the communist-controlled wing of union activism, this might be seen as a dubious source of pride. (While Horowitz occasionally acknowledges that the far left in America engaged in "rationalizations for Stalin's slaughter of millions," he mostly treats this as a regrettable but minor blemish.)
Nor, however, does it mean that American feminism was a communist plot. Horowitz makes it clear that The Feminine Mystique was shaped by Friedan's shift from Marxism to "humanistic psychology," in part as a result of her own experience of suburban motherhood and of "self-realization and discovery through therapy"; she would later assail those who wanted to pattern feminism on "obsolete or irrelevant ideologies of class warfare." He also convincingly argues that, while the book undoubtedly played a vital role in the feminist revival, many of its ideas were already being widely discussed by the time it was out: "There is plenty of evidence that Friedan's readers, from professional women to housewives, found what she had to say either familiar or less than shocking." Even the women's magazines that Friedan blasted for promoting the happy housewife myth reflected the tensions between the ideal of domesticity and women's interests outside the home far more than she admitted. (While Hennessee repeats Friedan's claim that she had to uphold the domestic ideology in her own articles for those magazines, Horowitz shows that most of her stories celebrated independent women engaged in non-domestic pursuits.)
Friedan may have exaggerated the feminine mystique's grip on American culture and women (including herself), and may have taken too much credit for shattering it. These correctives could be seen as diminishing her stature. However, they also confirm that her feminism was not foisted on women but came as a response to their aspirations and drew on already existing trends. Most of the social change that followed would have happened with or without Friedan. But she was able to crystallize the spirit of that change in a way that had unique popular appeal. She has had her share of excesses and dubious ideas. Yet one can only hope that after all the battles between gender-war feminists and anti-feminists still pining for the feminine mystique, her vision of feminism as an equal partnership between men and women is the one that endures.