Feminist Matriarch: Betty Friedan – a Profile

Profile of a Feminist
This issue of Samyukta gives a profile of Betty Friedan in its regular series on major feminists.

Abstract: At eighty today, Betty Friedan is the grand old lady of the feminist movement. Born in Peoria, she was educated at Smith’s college, where she developed her interest in political activism. She worked as a labour journalist and participated in radical movements in her youth. Her books awakened women to new possibilities of individual self fulfilment. An indomitable personality, Friedan is often credited with launching the second phase of the women’s liberation movement with her much acclaimed book, The Feminine Mystique.

“I was certainly not a feminist then – none of us, were a bit interested in women’s rights.”
( Friedan, quoted in Horowitz 6 )

The year was 1949. Pregnant with her second child, a woman labour journalist working at UE was told that her pregnancy was her fault and that the Newspaper Guild for which she was working was unwilling to honor its commitment to grant pregnancy leave. The UE was the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America, the most radical union in post war America, which Ronald Schatz, the historian has described as the largest communist led institution of any kind in the U.S. It had a strong ideological commitment to gender equality. The woman journalist, with over a decade’s experience in protest
movements called an urgent meeting. No one raised their hands in support. The women were silent and embarrassed: the men un-cooperative and uncomprehending. “ It was my own fault, getting pregnant again, a personal matter, not something you should take to the union. There was no word in 1949 for ‘sex discrimination’ “ ( It Changed My Life 6, 8 – 9). The realisation dawned that Leftist organisations and unions were also riddled with male supremacist prejudice and discrimination. It was the first personal stirring of her own feminism. The woman lost her job. A man took her place. Betty Friedan, the feminist was

The freedom to choose one’s own destiny has been the theme of women’s struggle for liberation both during the first wave and second wave phases of the feminist movement. In the 18th century, female thinkers notably Mary Wollstonecraft had shaped the women’s movement and put forward ‘feminist’ views on women’s social and political status. This first wave signalled the beginnings of a mass movement. Their goal of formal equality between the two sexes, was probably achieved through the process of enfranchisement. But formal equality without the means to implement the decisions about one’s own life, remains an illusion as Friedan painfully discovered. Political and civic structures had an inbuilt propensity for institutionalizing gender inequality. The second wave feminists realised that women had to reconceive the potential for women’s liberation outside the parameters of a political discourse and that nothing short of a social revolution could solve women’s continued oppression. Thus the pioneers of the second wave feminist activities like Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer challenged the dominant ideological representations of femininity, which ensured female subordination and made it endemic in all social relations.

Betty Friedan became a celebrity in the 1960’s with the publication of her book, The Feminine Mystique, a powerful, passionate analysis of the position of white middle class women in western society. The book, now regarded as the catalytic work of the women’s movement heralded a new dynamism of feminist thought. The scope of her analysis of the problem that had no name, endeared her to thousands of educated housewives, who had felt dehumanised by the drudgery of domestic labour. She had voiced their unarticulated alienation. She had realised that there was “a strong discrepancy between the reality of our lives as women and the image to which we were trying to conform” (The Feminine Mystique 9). As Eva Figes, the British feminist who concurred with Friedan argued “women, presented with an image in a mirror, has danced to that image in a
hypnotic trance” (Qtd in Whelehan 36). The problem that had no name was a sense of incompleteness that all women felt. It was caused by a society that did not permit women to gratify their basic need to grow and fulfill their potentialities
as human beings. Reading responses of college classmates to a questionnaire, in anticipation of their fifteenth reunion in 1957, Friedan understood that this dissatisfaction was shared by her suburban peers. Friedan decided to voice her problem when her articles to magazines were rejected. She claimed that she had been so trapped by the feminine mystique that she had worried over neglecting her children. Despite being a free lance writer she had written ‘ housewife’ in the census form asking for her occupation, as she felt guilty about her work. She had also identified a pivotal moment in her life when she had turned away from a promising career in psychology as she felt she would end up as an old maid. What her book did not reveal was the fact that she had reinvented herself in her book for some reason. She had distanced herself from her radical views and had portrayed herself as a victim of the feminine mystique. However, the past had a different story to tell.

Betty Naomi Goldstein was born of Jewish parents in class divided Peoria on Feb. 4, 1921. Her father, Harry Goldstein was a rich merchant who owned a jewellery store. The mother Miriam had voluntarily given up her job as an editor of the local paper to raise a family. Betty grew up as a bright, self – confident young girl with dreams of going to college and having a family. Encouraged by her mother to enter the journalism profession Betty began writing for her school newspaper. She entered Smith College at Massachusetts in 1938. She studied Gestalt psychology and Kurt Koffka. She took courses from James Gibson, an advocate of trade unions, and Dorothy W. Douglas who was well known for her radical views. Slowly she developed sympathy for Marxist ideas. In 1941 she participated in a writer’s workshop at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a school well known for its Communist leanings. She served as editor in chief of the campus newspaper and published critiques on restrictions on student life, criticised teaching of professors, challenged curbs on publishing articles, opposed fascism and commented on related topics. She helped to organise workers into a union. When she left Smith in 1942 with a degree in psychology, she had developed her radical consciousness and established herself as a protest writer, linking journalism to political activities. She had become a determined advocate of trade unions, a defender of free speech, an opponent of fascism, a sceptic of all authority a questioner of social privilege and a herald of progressive social change. She also dropped the ‘e’ from her first name “perhaps a symbolic statement that she was no longer a girl form Peoria” (Horowitz 11).

Betty joined graduate school at Berkeley, University of California and just when it looked as if she was going to have a bright career in psychology she left. Her reasons for leaving are not clear. In 1963 she wrote that the feminine mystique had claimed one of its first victims as she declined the fellowship due to her boy friend’s insistence. A 1943 article in the Peoria paper reported that “she decided she wanted to work in the labour movement – on the labour press” (Qtd in Horowitz 11).

Betty Goldstein worked as a labour journalist for nine years from 1943, first as staff writer for Federated Press and later for UE News, both left wing news services. These years provided a seed bed for her later feminism. She wrote articles that supported dreams of African-Americans, that criticised discrimination of women and large capitalist business houses. She wrote the pamphlet “ UE fights for Women Workers “ where she maintained that fighting exploitation of women was man’s business too. She also highlighted the even more shocking situation of African American Women and set forth a program – a prescription for a gender blind workplace. At this time of her life the fight for justice for women was inseparable from the more general struggle to secure rights for African Americans and workers.

Until 1952 Betty had published all her articles and pamphlets under the name Betty Goldstein though she had married Carl Friedan in 1947 (Carl Friedan was a returning vet who switched careers from theatre to advertising and later public relations). But in 1955 she emerged as Betty Friedan, a writer for women’s magazines. From an employee of a union, writing radical political articles she had suddenly shifted to a free lance writer for mass circulation women’s magazines. But her keen interest in the working class and in union activity was not forgotten. Living in a cosmopolitan neighborhood at Parkway village in Queens she edited The Parkway Villager, which articulated a progressive position on a wide range of issues. Her articles invariably encouraged individual striving, non conformism and women’s political activism. In 1952 she led an extended protest and rent strike. In 1953 she read Simon de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and stated that from it she learned “my own existentialism” (The Feminine Mystique 10). Meanwhile she had also become a mother. Between 1948 and 1956 she had three children. In 1956 the family moved to the suburbs where Friedan fought against terrible odds
to combine motherhood and career in a tension filled marriage marked by financial difficulties and even violence.

All this Friedan chose to keep secret in 1963. Instead she maintained that she had eagerly read fashion magazines, spent money on clothes and had lost all interest in political activity. She gave the impression that she had lived in the bliss of domesticity and had generally succumbed to the feminine mystique, albeit reluctantly. Her critics too ignored her past. Donald Meyer, the historian of feminism skipped over Friedan’s years as a radical labour journalist and harped on how Friedan was “the exemplary victim of the feminine mystique” (Qtd in Horowitz 8). David Halberstan in 1993 covered the nine years of Freidan’s career with a casual statement that Betty Goldstein had worked as a reporter for a left wing paper.

The book however raised several issues. The malaise of educated white affluent housewives who had neither career nor political ambition was different from the raw suffering of African American woman who worked under inhuman conditions both at home and in the workplace. Gerda Lerner, one of the leading historians of women, though excited about the book, wrote to Friedan in 1963:

I have one reservation .. you address yourself solely to the problem
of middle class college educated women. This approach was one
of the shortcomings of the suffrage movement for many years and
has, I believe, retarded the general advance of women. Working
women, especially Negro women, labour not only under the
disadvantages imposed by the feminine mystique, but under the
more pressing disadvantages of economic discrimination. To leave
them out of consideration of the problem or to ignore the
contributions they can make toward its solution, is something we
simply cannot afford to do (Qtd in Horowitz 22).

Repeated attacks on her lack of interest in the working class forced Friedan herself to rewrite her history and reveal the radical past that shaped her 1963 feminism. In an autobiographical article in the 1976 publication, It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement Friedan revealed how she had worked in the vanguard of the working revolution and how she had protested against “the grubby economic underside of American reality.” However the dynamics of her shifts in commitment from the working class to the affluent middle class is still not clear. Why was her past kept a secret? Was it a part of her rhetorical strategy? Was it for complete identification with her subject? Was it because the revelation of her pro – communist stance would undercut the book’s impact ? Was it a part of a long term de-radicalisation ? Or was it unintentional? Perhaps Friedan herself was not so sure. “In a certain sense it was almost accidental-coincidental that I wrote The Feminine Mystique and in another sense my whole life had prepared me to write that book: all the pieces of my own life came together for the first time in the writing of it” (Qtd in Horowitz 1).

The focus on women, especially the more affluent middle class, which replaced Friedan’s focus on unions is in line with the legacy of such liberal thinkers as Mary Wollstonecraft, and John Stuart Mill. Liberal feminists speak the language of liberty, rights and legal equality and they claim that rationality is potentially genderless. They agree that woman too possess the innate capacity for rational thought and action but nurture makes all the difference. The institutional and ideological means of oppression over the centuries have been the same. Friedan’s portrait of the bored educated housewife echoes Wollstonecraft’s domestic angel who is not given the opportunity to realise her full potential; Friedan also characterises the effect of nurture rather than nature upon women as sex role conditioning. The Feminine Mystique is thus a part of the consciousness raising tradition related to efforts of women to reconstitute their identities. The subtext to Friedan’s epoch-making book is that ultimately the burden for progress lies with the actions of individual women. She assumes that women should continue their domestic responsibilities even as they try to find creative work outside their homes. Rosemary Tong critiques Friedan’s argument and observes:

The Feminine Mystique failed to consider just how difficult it would
be for even privileged women to combine marriage and motherhood
with a career unless major structural changes were made within,
as well as outside the family. Like Wollstonecraft, [Harriet] Taylor
and [John Stuart] Mill before her, Friedan sent women out into the
public realm without summoning men into the private domain (Qtd
in Whelehan 37).

The impetus and inspiration derived from liberal feminist writings is also evident in the statement of aims of the National Organisation for Women (NOW), a civil rights group which Friedan helped to found in 1966. It states that “NOW is dedicated to the proposition that women first and foremost are human beings.” It is the age old liberal plea for entry into humanity. The Organisation, with Friedan as its first president tried to unify the loosely structured women’s movement. Campaigns were held to end sex discrimination, to establish childcare centers, to encourage representation of women in government, to legaliseabortion and several other reforms. Though Friedan stepped down from presidentship in 1970, she continued to be the foremost spokesperson for women’s rights in the seventies. On the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage she organised a women’s strike for equality. She led campaigns for ratification of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. constitution. In 1971 she founded the National Women’s Political Caucus (N.W.P.C) “to make policy not coffee”. In 1973 she became director of First Women’s Bank and Trust Company. In the same year she declared that full equality for women would restructure all our institutions. The Humanist Award for the year 1975 was conferred on her. Her liberal leanings were markedly apparent when she attacked the disrupters of the women’s movement who advocated lesbianism and hatred of men. At the First World Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975, where most of the official delegates were men, she organised a march for women’s rights and a global network of women was born.

In 1981 Friedan ushered in a second stage to the feminist movement. In her book The Second Stage which speaks of new challenges, she identified a feminist mystique “, the result of a reactive stance taken by women. The cost of feminist reaction against gender discrimination was the compulsion that many women felt to abandon their human needs for hearth and home. This intensified the backlash against the women’s movement. Opponents of feminism effectively used defence of traditional family values as a platform to attack the Equal Rights Amendment. Moreover, an unarticulated malaise also existed among women who combined marriage, children and career. There seemed to be only dead ends for them. Her own marriage had broken up in 1967 largely due to maladjustment. Feminist ideology too had taken a decisive gynocentric turn and the emphasis was on women as a political class whose interests were at odds with interests of men. Friedan called for a joint effort by men and women to redefine their strategies. Men could aid the emancipation of women and there should be greater flexibility and adaptability. In a NOW convocation on “New Leadership” (April 1981) Friedan called for “a coalition of interests of not women alone and certainly not women against men”, to work for the larger interests of the country.

Critical reaction to The Second Stage concentrated once again on the fact that Friedan’s subject was the white middle class woman. Moreover Herne Hill Kay, a professor of law at University of California, differed from Friedan’s idea that the problem of The Feminine Mystique had been transcended. She said that it was premature to identify a second stage in a social movement when the original goals of the first stage of the movement were still disputed and largely unrealised. But Kay found the underlying theme of the book valid, that both men and women needed to be free to discover their own ‘personhood’. Freidan also believed that it was time for feminists to work along with men to improve the conditions of society for all people. She argued for a new paradigm of social policy transcending all “identity politics.” In “Beyond Gender” (Newsweek Sep. 4 1995), before attending a U.N sponsored conference in China she declared : “the basis of women’s empowerment is economic – that’s what is in danger now and it can’t be saved by countering the hatred of women with a hatred of men.”

Betty Friedan rose to the status of feminist matriarch in the 80s and 90s. She travelled and lectured all over the world. She was Visiting Distinguished Professor at the University of Southern California, New York University, and George Mason University, Adjunct Scholar at Wilson International Center for Scholars at the Smithsonian, and Distinguished Professor of Social Evolution at Mount Vernon College. Judith Hennessee wrote a controversial biography that revealed both her tempestuous violent marriage and her controversial character:

She was a feminist who preferred men… and deferred to them ….
She was rude and nasty, self serving and imperious…. But the
movement she ushered in is immense…. What she did for women
outweighs the rest. (Vincent 1999)

The ultimate concern for the human being is preeminent in Friedan’s attempt to dispel the mystique of age in her new book The Fountain of Age (1993). She explores the problem of age which rests on a socially generated mystique that perceives age as decline and deterioration from youth. To judge by youthful parameters is to be blind to the new strengths and possibilities of growing old. Drawing copiously from statistics Friedan chronicles the adventure of growing old, an uncharted terrain where further growth can occur. She uses an Outward Bound expedition as a metaphor for the risks and rigours of adventurous aging. Old age goes beyond old roles and fantasies into a world of self defined meaning where the elderly can participate in an ongoing human enterprise that transcends death. This book evoked the same kind of reverberations like The Feminine Mystique despite the criticism that the experience of aging was different for people from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds. But in breaking silence once again Friedan provided a new area for reflection and thought emphasising potential similarities between sexes rather than differences.

At eighty today Betty Friedan is much sought out on the lecture circuit. She continues the reshaping of attitudes towards women’s lives and rights after decades of social activism, strategic thinking, and lecturing. She received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Arts from the Academy of the Arts in New York in December 1998. Modern radical feminists like Faludi have bracketed her with those who have sold out to patriarchy because of her pro-family agenda. They have accused her of treason. But Friedan’s feminist endeavour incorporates a liberal vision of social transformation. Gone is the radicalism of the past. Today when the parameters of feminist discourse have extended beyond recognition, her feminism is neither defeatist nor gender divisive. She sees the propagation of feminist ideas as dynamic forces of social criticism and change. She awakens
women to new possibilities for individual self – fulfilment. She exhorts men to participate in the empowerment of women. In a 1993 interview she declared “it isn’t that I have stopped being a feminist, but women as a special separate group
are not my concern any more”. The mood now is one of acceptance, affirmation and celebration. She experiences freedom as she ventures into a new curious country of successful aging. “Somewhere along the way, I recognised with relief and excitement my liberation from the power politics of the women’s movement. I recognised my own compelling need now to transcend the war between the sexes, the no-win battles of women as a whole sex, oppressed victims, against men as a whole sex, the oppressors…. The unexpectedness of this new quest has been my adventure into age” (The Fountain of Age 615).

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1965.

—. It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement. Boston, Harvard: University Press, 1997.

—. “Beyond Gender”. Newsweek Sep.4.(1995): n.pag. Online. Internet. 28 April 2001.

—. The Fountain of Age. London: Vintage, 1994.

Horowitz, Daniel. “Rethinking Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique: Labour Union Radicalism and Feminism in Cold War  America” American Quarterly 48:1 1996. 42 pp. Online. Internet. 26 April 2001.

Vincent, Norah. “Review of Betty Friedan: Her life by Judith Hennessee.” Salon March 29 1999. n.pag. Online. Internet. 26   April 2001.

Whelehan, Imelda. Modern Feminist Thought. Edinburg: Edinburg UP, 1995.

Is working as a lecturer in All Saints’ College, Tiruvananthpuram. Her doctoral work was on Irving Layton’s Poetic Vision. She has presented papers in many conferences, national and international.

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Is working as a lecturer in All Saints’ College, Tiruvananthpuram. Her doctoral work was on Irving Layton’s Poetic Vision. She has presented papers in many conferences, national and international.

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