Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique

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Daniel Horowitz. Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminist Mystique: The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998. 355 pp. $24.95, ISBN 1-55849-168-6.



In his unauthorized biography of Betty Friedan, Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminist Mystique, historian Daniel Horowitz contradicts Friedan’s assertion that prior to authoring The Feminine Mystique she was disconnected from women’s rights. Instead, born of an awareness of anti-Semitism and class differences in her hometown of Peoria, IL fostered during her years as a young scholar and journalist at Smith College and through a number of years as a labor journalist, Friedan was involved in political radicalism. Instead of suddenly becoming aware of and being able to articulate the gender limitations of suburban post-war America, Friedan brought the benefit of a lifetime of involvement with Popular Front feminism and labor activism to her critique. Simply stated, as has been argued of the civil rights movement “Friedan’s life underscores the fact that the other significant social movement of the 1960s—feminism—also had important origins in the two preceding decades” (5).

Beyond her youth in Peoria, Friedan’s (then Goldstein) development as a labor radical emerged from her years at Smith College where she was a top student, college-wide and within the psychology department, and editor of the student newspaper. These designations gave Friedan a very public, if at times unpopular, position on campus to espouse her views on anti-fascism, social justice, and labor. Specifically, her often controversial editorials revealed Friedan’s belief that “almost every issue—at Smith, in the nation, and abroad—involved the struggle for democracy, freedom, and social justice” (76). As evidenced further by other prodigious contributions to the literary publications at Smith, her coursework, and indeed, Horowitz argues, the professors with whom she worked as an undergraduate, illustrate how her commitment to “anti-fascism was becoming the bridge to her commitment to labor unions that would in turn flower into a passion for women’s issues” during her self-proclaimed formative years (49).

After a single year pursuing a Ph.D. at Berkeley and renouncing a coveted fellowship that would have seen her through the duration of the program, Friedan relocated to New York City to begin her nine year career as a Popular Front labor journalist. Between 1943 and 1946 at the Federated Press, Friedan “wrote articles that revealed not only her ability to capture a dramatic moment but also showed considerable continuity with the ideology she had developed at Smith and Berkeley” (106) by portraying class and race struggle via precise, concrete examples rather than abstract principle. After losing her position at Federated Press due to a combination of sex prejudice, a considerable source of her later disillusionment and denial of her radical background, and criticized strident radicalism, Friedan joined the UE News (United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America) for seven years. In addition to matters of labor, Friedan admits that at this period she became more aware of race and gender, especially as they tied into labor. Within the UE News experience “In the world of progressive and labor feminism familiar to Friedan in the late 1940s and early 1950s…women’s issues were widely debated, providing key concepts, language, and tools of analysis that would shape what she wrote in The Feminine Mystique” (127).

Friedan left the radical press after the birth of her first child, and also under the threat of McCarthyism in America, and began a different phase of her activist and journalist life. As editor of her community newspaper, the Parkway Villager, Friedan “promoted the value of a cooperative, racially integrated international community, and one to which women could contribute across national lines” as well as career women working in tandem with their husbands to build democratic households (156). Further, her years in Parkway Village marked her growing awareness of herself and her ambitions, personally and politically, via therapy; an experience that she later claimed enabled her to write The Feminine Mystique. A few years later in 1956, Friedan and her family moved to Rockland County where she embarked on the creation and leadership of the Community Resources Pool, while continuing to write. The Pool encouraged teenagers, most especially girls, to realize their potential by helping them hone their notion of selfhood and direct that to career ambitions and other functions to help them take themselves more seriously (174). Concurrently, Friedan was industriously building a career as a freelance writer for major national publications. Through her examination of the Cold War, atomic America, and suburbia, Horowitz argues that Friedan combined her experiences and “articulated middle-class women’s discontents as profoundly sociological, something that sprang from the specifics of their situation in America and that could be remedied by changes in family and work” (196).

As Horowitz concludes, these many influences and impulses came to a head in The Feminist Mystique published in 1963 after a number of years and countless strenuously researched drafts. Recalling her Smith education and building on further reading of philosophy and psychology, Friedan argued as the central thesis of her book “that women would achieve emancipation only when they entered the paid work force” (210), thereby taking themselves seriously, building on their education and experience to realize self-fulfillment without the strictures of housewifery. At the same time, Friedan’s politically watered-down argument trivialized the experience of working-class women and African American women by focusing on negative images of the middle class women’s lives. Following the success of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan became the President of the National Organization of Women (1966) where soon she stirred controversy among allies and enemies alike as feminism of the 1960s and 1970s transformed into one that “‘makes a woman apologize for loving her husband and children’” (235). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Friedan continued to hope for a labor movement that would unite individuals beyond politics and feminism to fight for democracy and social humanity, continuing to believe as she did during her years in Popular Front activism that “a coalition inspired by the labor movement held out promise for a better America” (255).


Amy Lechner, Fall 2007

As a biography, Betty Friedan and the Feminine Mystique reveals as much America’s social and political climate as it does about Friedan’s life. In particular, of course, is the role of McCarthyism and its implications for gender. As Horowitz suggests, compulsory domesticity for all women, including those with higher education and career aspirations, was a main consequence of 1950s McCarthyism. Another result was that like Betty Friedan, “many left-wing feminists had to go underground…[and] later emerged as second-wave feminists, some of them, like Friedan, minimizing any connection to 1940s radicalism (11). Horowitz’s argument here is really reaching the heart of the issue of Friedan’s life. Instead of debating her motives for reinventing herself so drastically, it is more useful to view her within the context of women hiding and reemerging as more mature, experienced individuals.

Understanding Horowitz’s concerns as voiced in the introduction and from his lack of access to Friedan’s private papers, it is indeed understandable that he would have to tread carefully and connect points with some absent evidence. Even so, however, at times the tone shifts too far into reconciliation and overstatement to draw conclusions. For example, when describing Friedan’s experience one summer during college at the Highlander Folk School in Appalachia to learn more about labor, race, and class, Horowitz suggests that while this experience opened her mind to new forms of political radicalism, it also made her “feel how her class and regional position marginalized her” (71). While this education likely brought a valuable perspective to her journalistic endeavors, one hopes that the experience helped Freidan understand the greater marginalization of others, as opposed to herself. Given the lack of evidence, it would be impossible for Horowitz to guess what Freidan did in fact internalize, but it is safe to say that it was not everything Horowitz suggests. To do so in many ways minimizes her own powers of logic and creative thinking.

Anne Ladyem McDivitt, Spring 2015

Although Horowitz's work is primarily a biography, and a particularly well-written and researched one at that, it also has interesting historical analysis of feminism and social movements in the 1940s into the 1960s. The Feminine Mystique written by Friedan discussed white, middle class, educated, and unemployed women who lived in suburbs and why these women were unhappy in their lives, which sparked a feminist movement amongst these women. Friedan tried to paint herself as one of them, but Horowitz's book argues that Friedan had roots as a journalist with interest in social movements in the 1940s and 1950s, fighting against anti-Semitism and anti-fascism. Horowitz argues the importance of the 1950s McCarthyism and psychotherapy as to why Friedan remade herself. He compares Friedan's description of herself as an "unhappy housewife" to the narrative that Rosa Parks did not give up her seat because her feet hurt, demonstrating that there were narratives used to sell their politics. (224)

This work places Friedan into context of women's activism in the 1940s through the 1960s and their experiences with left-wing politics and intellectual movements, as well as exploring Betty Friedan herself and demonstrating the roots of one of the most important non-fiction works of the 20th century.

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