A Different Look at Betty Friedan's Legacy

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 release 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” groups “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.

Assumption 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.

Assumption 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 maid to pursue her career as a writer. As Rosemarie Tong remarked in Feminist Thought (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.

Assumption 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 harm 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 moderate.

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 Iannone remarked, for Friedan, “submitting to the traditional feminine role was nothing less than an embrace of nonbeing.”

Assumption 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.”

February 10, 2006