A Different Look at Betty Friedan's Legacy

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Betty Friedan
(1921–2006) died
last Saturday
at the age of 85. Eulogies have stacked up quickly
for the feminist icon:

Friedan founded
modern feminism; she rescued women from the ’50s; she pioneered
the brave ‘new woman’ who now strides through society.

I disagree
with those eulogies about the content of Friedan’s legacy. The disagreement
contains no malice; however, because Friedan is a public and now-historical
figure, an accurate view of her social impact is simply necessary.

Accuracy may
be especially important as the impact of her death is already being
used (or abused) by various political organizations and groups to
promote their agendas. For example, the press
from the National Organization for Women, which Friedan
was instrumental in founding in 1966, reads like a fundraiser. At
the other end of the spectrum, some “masculinist”
“rejoice in the fact that her hateful voice is now silenced.”

A starting
point of consensus on Friedan is possible, even among extremes.
She was a remarkable woman who deeply influenced the culture of
her time. But for better or worse? – that’s where battle engages.

Some of the
‘facts’ and assumptions about her life advanced in the eulogies
demand closer examination.

One: Friedan was an apolitical housewife who had an ‘aha’ moment.

The New
York Times
sums up its eulogy with the observation that
Friedan will “be forever known as the suburban housewife who started
a revolution with The
Feminine Mystique
,” her best-selling book published in 1963.

Although The
Feminine Mystique capitalized upon, and thus acknowledged, Friedan’s
ivy-league education, it also presented her as a basically apolitical
homemaker who stumbled across political truth through viewing her
own domestic circumstances. This is myth.

In his award-winning
1998 book “Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminist Mystique:
The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism,” Professor
Daniel Horowitz of Smith College documented
Friedan’s ideological roots. From her college days through to her
mid-30s, Friedan was a consistent and committed Marxist. She was
a veteran labor journalist and union activist/pamphleteer with extensive
publishing savvy.

Rather than
suddenly drawing political conclusions from her domestic experience,
Friedan clearly brought prior conclusions to her experience, which
she interpreted through them.

Two: Friedan was representative of American women.

The Feminine
Mystique argued that Friedan’s reported experience of being
caged in the oppressive, dehumanizing role of mother and housewife
was shared by millions of American women. In the book’s preface,
Friedan stated, “Gradually, without seeing it clearly for quite
a while, I came to realize that something is very wrong with the
way American women are trying to lives their lives today.”

The very history
of her book refutes the claim that Friedan’s experiences were representative.

As part of
her 15th reunion at Smith College, Friedan conducted a survey of
graduates, in which she asked them about their satisfaction with
their lives. The resulting article, which focused on the dissatisfaction
of those who became homemakers, was widely rejected by editors.
Friedan eventually expanded the article into The Feminine Mystique.

Thus, the book
reflected the subjective evaluation of an elite class of women.
Indeed, Friedan employed a full-time
to pursue her career as a writer. As Rosemarie Tong remarked
in Feminist
(1998), “Friedan seemed oblivious to any other perspectives
than those of white, middle-class, heterosexual, educated women
who found the traditional roles of wife and mother unsatisfying.”

More recent
scholarship questions whether Friedan even accurately represented
the domesticity of upper or middle-class white women. (See Joanne
Meyerowitz’s “Rewriting
Postwar Women’s History 1945–1960.”

Although The
Feminine Mystique clearly inspired women who wanted more independence,
this is not to say that Friedan’s life was representative. In the
’60s, everyone seemed to demand “more”; everyone blamed society.
And men may have been equally unhappy with their role as sole provider.

Three: Friedan was a moderate within feminism.

Friedan’s reputation
as a moderate springs largely from her rejection of anti-male rhetoric
and of lesbianism as a feminist issue. She believed both would
feminism’s mainstream appeal. Friedan’s stand against “the
bra-burning, anti-man, politics-of-orgasm school” led other prominent
feminists like Susan Brownmiller to denounce her. But neither her
rejection of lesbianism nor the criticism of colleagues makes Friedan

The Feminine
Mystique does not contain the Marxist rhetoric that characterizes
later gender feminist writing but its message is no less radical.
The chapter entitled “Progressive Dehumanization” draws a lengthy
and explicit parallel between housewives and prisoners in Nazi concentration
camps, both of whom are “walking corpses.”

Friedan’s assessment
of the housewife may well have been instrumental in the decades-long
devaluation of women who chose that option. She wrote, “Housewives
are mindless and thing-hungry…Housework is peculiarly suited to
the capabilities of feeble-minded girls; it can hardly use the abilities
of a woman of average or normal human intelligence.”

As writer and
professor Carol
remarked, for Friedan, “submitting to the traditional
feminine role was nothing less than an embrace of nonbeing.”

Four: Friedan was crucial to sparking a revolution in women’s status.

Without access
to parallel realities as a basis of comparison, who knows how feminism
might have evolved without The Feminine Mystique?

I believe "women’s
liberation" was an idea whose time had come. I think it sprang
from a combination: the economic freedom women acquired during World
War II; a post-war prosperity that encouraged personal growth; and,
the unwillingness of a new generation to accept old values. A surge
of feminism would have occurred with or without any particular individual.

But, as an
individual, Friedan did influence the direction of that surge. For
doing so, many offer eulogies. All I can say with honesty is “rest
in peace.”

10, 2006

McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

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