Since its publication in 1963, The Feminine Mystique has been one of the most influential books in American society.
While Lyndon Johnson did not emulate Abraham Lincoln, who, when meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is said to have remarked, “So this is the woman whose book started a war,” hundreds of thousands of people across the country read and responded viscerally to Betty Friedan’s description of “the problem that has no name.”
Writing about the suburban ennui that gripped housewives who had traded career ambitions for motherhood and material comfort, Friedan established herself as an icon of the burgeoning women’s movement-a role she moved into in the following years as the President of the National Organization for Women.
A central part of the book’s efficacy lay in Friedan’s having gone through the experiences she was depicting in others.
But in Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique, Smith College History Professor Dan Horowitz suggests that, while largely true, Friedan’s self-description marked a reinvention of herself and the erasure of a more politically radical history.
While Friedan was living in suburban New York, she was an active freelance writer. Beyond that, though, she had worked for close to a decade as a writer and editor for labor publications and had had strong ties with the Old Left.
In this fascinating work, Horowitz skillfully uncovers Friedan’s more complicated history, links the labor movements of the 1940s to the modern women’s rights movement and speculates about why Friedan chose to largely suppress her ties to her left-wing past.
Horowitz writes in the book’s introduction that his curiosity was piqued by meeting Friedan in the 80s, when his wife Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, and she were teaching at the same university in California.
The Making of the Feminine Mystique begins in Peoria, Illinois, the then Betty Goldstein’s hometown. In the book’s opening chapters Horowitz establishes some of the dominant themes of Friedan’s life: her insecurity about social acceptance in part due to her being Jewish; her striking intelligence; and her belief in social justice.
Horowitz develops these themes during Goldstein’s years at Smith College, during which time she became, according to one professor, the most accomplished student in the school’s history. She also continued expanding her journalistic skills, becoming head of the school newspaper and one of the lead editorial writers who struck a consistently progressive tone.
Goldstein’s academic accomplishments gained her admission into a doctoral program in psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, but she left after a year in large part to be with her boyfriend at the time-an experience she cited as an early example of her submission to the feminine mystique.
From there, though, she moved into nearly a decade of working for a couple of left-wing labor publications with strong ties to that movement’s more radical elements. Part of the power of Horowitz’s book is his explanation of organized labor’s contribution 20 years later to the women’s movement. In this way, his work touches on much of the same argument about the generational harvest of activist that John D’Emilio advances in Lost Prophet, his biography of Bayard Rustin. In that book D’Emilio makes the point that Rustin and other conscientious objectors who served prison time for their beliefs during World War II were some of the later architects of the modern civil rights movement.
There is a further similarity between the two figures.
Rustin had a turbulent relationship with the movement because of his homosexuality, which led to his suppressing those desires within himself and his being exiled from the movement at different points. While Friedan did not appear to erase her connection to the past because of pressure from other feminists, she also did de-emphasize a formative part of her identity and life history.
Horowitz devotes some, but not much, time to talking about the book itself, noting that in many ways it spoke to the previous decade’s concerns, that it did not introduce completely new information, and that it was, he felt rightly, criticized for its focus on white, middle class women. He also includes some material about Friedan’s post-book battles with other feminists as well as Friedan’s ultimately failed marriage to Carl, who objected publicly and vehemently to her description of herself as a victim of the feminine mystique.
He offers a number of reasons why Friedan may have distanced herself from her past-I won’t give this part away as it involves some intriguing speculation-and throughout the book writes about the delicate balance she had to strike as a freelance writer between her own changing set of ideals and the material that she could get published by the largely male editors who ran the magazines.
All in all, this is a highly impressive, textured and multi-disciplinary look at a pivotal figure in American history, the times that shaped her and her disavowal of them. I ended the work more, rather than less, engaged by Friedan as a character and with a different sense of the origin of historical movements.