The Way She Was

by Emily Eakin

BETTY FRIEDAN: HER LIFE • by Judith Hennessee • Random House • 320 pp • $26.95 • April 1999

BETTY FRIEDAN AND THE MAKING OF THE Feminine Mystique: THE AMERICAN LEFT, THE COLD WAR, AND MODERN F • by Daniel Horowitz • University of Massachusetts Press • 355 pp • $29.95 • 1998

The winter of 1969 was a typical one for Betty Friedan. In January, she helped organize an Intersession on Women at Cornell University, where she lectured student radicals on the struggle for female equality. In mid-February, she was back home in New York City, where she helped the local chapter of her National Organization for Women (NOW) celebrate Public Accom modations Week by storming the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel, a suit-and-tie only, power-lunch establishment where unescorted women were routinely denied entry. Wrapped in furs and followed by television cameras, Friedan and her colleagues occupied a round table in the middle of the dining room, where they sat impassively until four waiters picked up their table and carted it away. Two days later, Friedan was in Chicago to speak at the inaugural meeting of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL).

And so it went. Crusading feminist, author of the best-selling Feminine Mystique, and founder and president of NOW, Betty Friedan was, by February 1969, a household name and constantly in demand, zigzagging across the country from policy meeting to political demonstration to speaking engagement.

But that February was a typical month for Friedan in another, more surprising way as well. On the day of the Oak Room sit-in, she arrived an hour late and with a black eye: Her husband, Carl, an advertising executive, had punched her in the face. "She was very matter-of-fact," recalls a NOW member who was summoned to Friedan's apartment to put makeup on the bruises. "She said nonchalantly that Carl had hit her because he thought it would keep her from going on TV. I patched her up. In the cab we talked about what we were going to say in interviews."

According to Judith Hennessee, a journalist and the author of a revelatory new biography, Betty Friedan: Her Life, this scenario was altogether routine. "There was always a fight going on, like a persistent, low-grade infection," she writes of the Friedans' marriage. Their feuds were often violent, a fact which the presence of friends did nothing to alter. At a dinner party they threw in 1956, Carl demonstrated his objection to the fish his wife had prepared by throwing it at her in front of the assembled guests. (Friedan calmly scraped the fish off the wall and carried on as if nothing had happened.) So predictable were the brawls between husband and wife that their son Jonathan would invite a friend to attend "the Friday night fight."

Friedan's public success, first with The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and then with NOW, which she founded three years later, failed to improve her marriage. "Carl had no use for feminism," Hennessee writes. "His idea of a wife was someone who took care of the house and left the competition to men. In her worst moments Betty even considered dropping NOW. Carl would come eleven o'clock at night to find a NOW meeting in progress and yell, 'Get the fuck out!' and they would scramble to leave. He taunted Betty with being a lesbian, an unspeakably insulting word then, perhaps the worst thing anyone could call a woman."

Betty Friedan, second-wave feminist leader and battered wife? This, after all, was the woman who had explained in exhaustive detail over four hundred pages how nearly every facet of postwar American life--from psychoanalysis (Freud, Friedan scoffed, depicted women as "childlike dolls, who existed in terms only of man's love") to the media (to Friedan's disgust, The New York Times ascribed America's unhappy-housewife problem to "incompetent appliance repairmen")--conspired to keep members of her sex imprisoned in what she called, provocatively, "the comfortable concentration camp" of domesticity. How could a woman who understood sooner and better than anyone else that her culture "did not permit women to accept or gratify their basic need to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings" go home at night to a husband who hit her?

Yet Friedan did go home--a fact, her biographer insists, ultimately no more or less astonishing than any of the other incongruities that characterized her life. She "was a woman of profound contradictions," Hennessee writes. "A woman who yearned for a happy marriage and family life, yet urged others to fulfill themselves outside the family. A conventional woman who shook male-female relationships to the core. A reformer who started a revolution. A revolutionary who wanted to be part of the Establishment. An elitist who fought for working women; a class snob who fought for equality; a humanitarian who treated individuals, particularly women, badly. She was a feminist who preferred men, became girlish and flirtatious in their company, and deferred to them--and did not even like most women." Even the indeterminate status of Hennessee's book--an unauthorized biography that became semi-authorized when, halfway through the research process, Friedan suddenly agreed to be interviewed--testifies to its subject's fickle temperament.

Under these circumstances, Hennessee's interpretive restraint is all the more admirable. Hers is no sentimental tale of feminism's coming-of-age, nor one of female victim turned feminist avenger. (The several available Friedan biographies for children develop these conceits to mawkish perfection: The bowlegged little Jewish girl from Peoria, Illinois, overcomes physical defects and small-town prejudice to found the modern women's movement and liberate her sex.) No, Hennessee's Friedan is infinitely more believable: a fiercely intelligent, overweeningly ambitious, passionate, self-centered, spiteful, impatient, bossy, and insecure woman in whom wildly conflicting impulses are almost always at war. Without apology or judgment, Hennessee submits these contradictions to our consideration, content to let Friedan's story speak for itself.

Daniel Horowitz, on the other hand, does no such thing. To Horowitz, a professor of American studies at Smith College and the author of Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique: The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism, the contradictions of Friedan's life story amount to a deliberate and unfortunate deception. Horowitz stumbled onto his project accidentally, while researching a book on American consumer culture after 1940. For such a voluble public figure, Horowitz discovered, Friedan had been surprisingly reticent about entire decades of her adult life. In particular, for the period between the spring of 1943, when she left graduate school, and 1963, when she published The Feminine Mystique--years crucial to Horowitz's research--the record was virtually silent. Friedan's few published remarks about her past were vague and tended to suggest that she, too, had been just another Stepford wife, albeit one who wrote the occasional freelance article "on breastfeeding and the like for Redbook and the Ladies' Home Journal." Friedan insisted she "wasn't even conscious of the woman problem" until she started writing The Feminine Mystique: "Locked as we all were then in that mystique, which kept us passive and apart, and kept us from seeing our real problems and possibilities, I, like other women, thought there was something wrong with me because I didn't have an orgasm waxing the kitchen floor."

Convinced there was more to Friedan's past than breast-feeding and floor waxing, Horowitz consulted papers she had deposited at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library. What he found there caused him to abandon his book on consumer culture and write one on Friedan instead. At the Schlesinger, Friedan the miserable suburban housewife was nowhere in evidence. Instead, the papers suggested, she had been a political progressive, a Popular Front activist--and a professional one at that, with nearly a decade's experience as a labor journalist, first for Federated Press and then for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), one of the country's most radical labor unions. (One historian of the period has labeled UE "the largest Communist-led institution of any kind in the United States.")

In his introduction, Horowitz enumerates the smoking guns: "papers Friedan had written in an undergraduate course on socialism and workers, an FBI report concerning her alleged activity in the early 1940s, scores of articles in the labor press in the 1940s and 1950s signed by Betty Goldstein (Friedan's maiden name), and evidence of Friedan's participation in a rent strike in the early 1950s." Of her work as a labor union journalist, he singles out a thirty-nine-page pamphlet from 1952 titled UE Fights for Women Workers, in which Friedan attacked sex and race discrimination against women, demanded equal pay for equal work, and provided a blueprint for a gender-blind workplace. The pamphlet, he reports, enjoyed a reputation outside the factory: Eleanor Flexner, a feminist and early historian of American women, put it on the syllabus for her class on the woman question at the Jefferson School of Social Science in New York in 1953--1954.

Horowitz decided he had unearthed explosive material. On the one hand, he was troubled: The history of modern feminism was apparently founded on, well, if not a lie exactly, at the very least an incomplete and misleading set of facts. "In public, with few exceptions," he writes in his introduction, "Friedan has avoided, denied, minimized, or obscured her progressive political convictions of the 1940s and 1950s." On the other hand, he believed, his documents gave second-wave feminism a much more glorious pedigree than anyone had previously suspected. Where Friedan's book seemed addressed exclusively to white, middle-class suburban women, her earlier work as a labor journalist proved that she had once been aware of the problems faced by working-class and African American women as well.

Second-wave feminism, Horowitz is delighted to announce, did not emerge ex nihilo from a kitchen in Rockland County but had been profoundly influenced by Old Left ideals. Indeed, viewed in the proper perspective, second-wave feminism was the missing link between the Old Left and the New, the logical perpetuation of the heroic Popular Front struggle for social justice. "The significance of what I discovered gradually dawned on me," Horowitz writes dramatically in his introduction. "Though most women's historians have argued that 1960s feminism emerged in response to the suburban captivity of white middle-class women during the 1950s, the material in Friedan's papers suggested additional origins--anti-fascism, radicalism, and labor union activism of the 1940s." Together, he insists, these revelations made Friedan "a more significant, heroic, and interesting figure in American history than her own story allowed. After all, I was arguing that Friedan's life, in connecting the 1960s and the Old Left, gave second-wave feminism a richer heritage, one of which both Friedan and American feminists should be proud."

Horowitz has brought to light important facts about Friedan's life that were hitherto unknown. But what one makes of these facts is another matter. As Horowitz himself points out, evidence for Friedan's ideological commitment to the Old Left is thin. While Friedan's FBI file claims she attempted to join the Communist Party when she was a graduate student at Berkeley in 1943 (only to be turned away on the grounds that "there already were too many intellectuals in the labor movement"), the file contains numerous factual errors. Horowitz calls it "a document of problematic reliability but nonetheless one that has to be reckoned with." Even granting its accuracy, if Friedan was really determined to keep her past well hidden, why would she deposit the file--or any other document she thought was compromising--in a public archive?

Horowitz's official position is one of sympathy for Friedan's alleged predicament. "The most important moral of this story is not about Friedan's association with people, movements, and positions on which some observers would look askance," he declares. "Nor is my book meant to condemn her for rewriting her story for complex and not always knowable reasons. Rather, I wish to highlight the damage McCarthyism did to progressive social movements of the 1940s and early 1950s, and especially to feminism, which it forced underground, but could not destroy." Yet his disappointment with Friedan is frequently on display--to the detriment of his case. "Why," he asks irritably, "did Friedan, who had spent so much energy advocating political solutions in the 1940s and early 1950s, focus in her book largely on adult education and self-realization and turn social problems into psychological ones? How did a woman who had fought to improve the lives of African Americans, Latinas, and working-class women end up writing a book that saw the problems of America in terms of affluent, suburban white women?" Worse, his irritation often gives way to righteousness. Even as he speculates that McCarthyism caused many 1960s feminists, including Friedan, to downplay their connections to Popular Front radicalism, he can't help adding that "others, like [Gerda] Lerner and [Eleanor] Flexner, displayed considerable continuity in their commitments when, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they paid attention, as Friedan did not in The Feminine Mystique, to working-class and African American women."

In the end, Horowitz's resentment betrays him, a sign, surely, that he has overplayed his hand. His folly was to pin his hopes for recovering feminism's noble past on the movement's notoriously fickle protagonist. To the historian insistent on virtue, the ease with which Friedan appears to exchange the factory floor for the suburbs and radical politics for the psychology of self-help can only signify intellectual dishonesty or a failure of nerve. "Redbaiting," Horowitz concludes, "still very much alive in the early 1960s, caused her to be vague about her radical past, and in the process she deprived her readers and the women's movement of the depth and wisdom that historical consciousness provides." (Elsewhere he seems to imply that Friedan's motives were mercenary: By doctoring her story, she "made it possible for white suburban women readers to identify with its author and thereby enhanced the book's appeal.") But how important was Friedan's commitment to Old Left ideals in the first place? No doubt Friedan was a radical: a woman who experienced a political awakening and wanted to change society as a result. It just wasn't the kind of political awakening that fits very easily into the Marxist-socialist paradigms of the Old Left.

Is it really so implausible that the Betty Friedan who lectured Cornell coeds on gender equality but was too fearful to ask for a divorce could have written a pamphlet defending rights for working women but not perceive its relevance to her own life for another decade? As Judith Hennessee so effectively demonstrates, Friedan's life story resists any effort to equate the personal, the political, and the professional.

The year Betty Goldstein was hired by UE News, 1946, was the same year she met Carl Friedan, an aspiring theater director from the Boston slums. Their marriage, one year later, surprised her friends: Carl, working-class, uneducated, and apolitical, was the last person they imagined for Betty, an upper-middle-class, summa cum laude graduate of Smith College with an IQ of 180. But the relationship satisfied some basic mutual needs. For Betty, Hennessee writes, "marriage was the ultimate proof of her femininity, a public announcement that she could compete and be successful as a woman.... If she did not have a big career, she had a man." Carl, for his part, was drawn to Betty's strong personality. In a letter to his parents, Hennessee reports, Carl described his wife-to-be as nothing "much to look at" but "so bright that he would never have to worry about money." Carl insists he never loved her. "I was lonely in the city, and I moved in," he tells Hennessee. "It was comfortable, but it wasn't real love. She had an underlying warmth."

The couple fought viciously from the beginning. A radical journalist battling economic injustice by day, Friedan waged a different kind of war by night, struggling to hold her own in a relationship one writer described as "a sadomasochistic free-for-all." Though Horowitz emphasizes Friedan's attachment to radical politics, her experience at UE News was not altogether happy. While it's true that she wrote several articles in defense of working women during her time there, it's also true that she left the press--her last full-time job--under circumstances that had something to do with her gender. Friedan has said that she was fired in 1952 when the union learned she was pregnant with her second child. In fact, both Hennessee and Horowitz agree, UE was already hemorrhaging members (by 1952, it was regarded by many as too pro-communist for comfort), and that year the paper was forced to lay off half of its staff of four. Several sources say Friedan volunteered to quit, but one, UE's research director at the time, backs Friedan's claim that she was fired because she was a woman and pregnant. (The other staffer who left at the same time was also a woman.)

If she had been fired or pressured to resign, Friedan would have had almost no legal recourse for getting her job back. Only with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would sex discrimination become a prosecutable offense. And if she walked out voluntarily, it is entirely conceivable that she did so because she felt that as a woman she should be the one to go. She may have also felt guilty about leaving her children with a housekeeper while she went to work: She was the only mother she knew who maintained a full-time job.

According to Friedan's definition, the Feminine Mystique involved actively colluding in your own oppression. All it took was enough guilt and fear. In 1973, she recalled how she hit on the concept: "I was interviewing more women, psychologists, sociologists, marriage counselors, and the like, and getting more and more sure I was on the track of something. But what? I needed a name for whatever it was that kept us from using our rights, that made us feel guilty about anything we did not as our husbands' wives, our children's mothers, but as people ourselves. I needed a name to describe that guilt. Unlike the guilt women used to feel about sexual needs, the guilt they felt now was about needs that didn't fit the sexual definition of women, the mystique of feminine fulfillment--the Feminine Mystique."

Friedan's own mother, a housewife of considerable and frustrated ambition whose parents had refused to send her to Smith and who had given up her job as society editor for a Peoria newspaper when she married, was both blueprint and cautionary tale. But as Friedan discovered, it was one thing to lecture women on the factory floor about demanding decent wages, another entirely to demand equal treatment from your male co-worker, boss, or spouse. When a reporter asked why she abandoned graduate studies in psychology in 1943 after being awarded the field's most prestigious fellowship, Friedan quoted her boyfriend at the time: "He said, 'You can take that fellowship, but you know I'll never get one like it. You know what it will do to us.'... It was the kind of either/or situation that is my constant burden in life; either I pursue my career or I sublimate my wishes to a man's."

In May 1969, after nearly twenty-two years of marriage, Friedan flew to Mexico and got a divorce. (According to Hennessee, Friedan mustered the courage during a trip to Zurich, where she had a speaking engagement: "She had never been to Europe, and she thought if she could travel and stay by herself in a hotel and have dinner alone for a couple of days--if she could manage that--she could overcome her paralyzing fear and get a divorce.") Was this, in the end, her most radical act? After defending the rights of working women at UE News, after championing liberation for middle-class housewives, and after founding NOW, Friedan was finally beginning to apply her ideals to her own life.

Friedan never remarried. Now in her late seventies, she has devoted much of the last thirty years to teaching and writing, producing nothing, however, to rival The Feminine Mystique in influence or originality. Ironically, a dismissive review of The Fountain of Age, Friedan's 1993 paean to old age, makes the magnitude of that influence clear. Attacking the new book for its sloppy research, pop-psychology truisms, self-absorption, and facile optimism, Mary-Lou Weisman, writing in The New Republic, concluded that the book merely "rounds out the odyssey of the woman whose personal crises have fueled public revolutions." In some profound sense, this is high praise. The first woman to turn her private life into a political movement has become banal. In 1963 her idea was revolutionary. Today it is a platitude. And that is a real victory. •

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