Betty Friedan and the American left

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed May 31 13:50:28 MDT 2000


H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-PCAACA at h-net.msu.edu (May, 2000)

Daniel Horowitz.  _Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine
Mystique:  The American Left, The Cold War, and Modern Feminism_.
Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.  255 pp.  Notes,
index.  $30.95 (cloth), ISBN 1-55849-168-6.

Reviewed for H-PCAACA by Robert E. Weir <rweir at MtHolyoke.edu>, Bay
Path College

A Jewish girl leaves Peoria, Illinois, for Smith College.  Upon her
1942 graduation she goes to grad school, works in New York, then
marries.  A move to the suburbs and three children complete the
conformist cycle.  But middle-class housewifery becomes a "gilded
cage," devoid of self-worth, identity, and purpose.  The realization
that other educated women share "the problem that has no name"
prompts the writing of _The Feminine Mystique_ (1963), the seminal
text during the rebirth of American feminism in the 1960s.

Sound familiar?  Betty Goldstein Friedan's transformation from nave
Illinois schoolgirl and bored housewife to feminist firebrand is a
popular culture staple of mythic proportion.  According to Smith
College American Studies professor Daniel Horowitz, that's precisely
the problem.  Most mythic odysseys, includng Friedan's, are equal
parts reality and fancy.  Like other social historians in the wake
of E.P. Thompson, Horowitz turns his attention to the "making" of
Betty Friedan, and the private drama behind the public persona.

During Goldstein's childhood, Peoria was Illinois's second-largest
city, and witnessed clashes between capital and labor.  Labor
conflict was discussed freely in the Goldstein household, as was
anti-semitism, the rise of fascism, free-thought, and literature. By
the time Goldstein graduated from high school, she already enjoyed a
reputation as a budding intellectual.

Goldstein's mind blossomed at Smith. Horowitz draws on Goldstein's
undergraduate papers and editorials in the campus newspaper she
edited, to show that Goldstein was also an activist. He does a
masterful job of linking Goldstein to Smith professors who shaped
her thought. Goldstein's capacious mind led her to write on topics
like pacifism, student rights, fascism, and socialism.  Many
articles were spirited defenses of labor unions and, at the urging
of a professor, Goldstein visited Tennessee's Highlander Folk
School, a hotbed of union activism.

As a graduate student at Berkeley (1942-43), Goldstein immersed
herself as much in the Popular Front as in psychology labs.  She
moved to New York, where from 1943 through 1946, she reported on
labor and women's issues for the Federated Press.  When she lost her
job -- partly due to sexism -- Goldstein began writing for the UE
News, the official journal of the United Electrical Workers, a
radical union with a relatively progressive record on women.  She
continued to write for the News into 1952. Horowitz notes that her
1949 marriage to Carl Friedan did not silence Friedan's union
radicalism, McCarthyism did.  The UE's communist organizers led to
right-wing attacks that so decimated UE membership that Friedan fell
victim to staff cutbacks.

Retreat to the suburbs failed to stifle Friedan.  First in Queens,
then in Rockland County, Friedan edited a community newsletter and
immersed herself in grassroots organizing on multi-cultural housing,
racism, rents, and education.  She also commuted into New York City
to teach college writing and conduct research for her burgeoning
freelance writing career.

So why did _The Feminine Mystique_ represent Betty Friedan as a
naive housewife awaiting revelation? It is here that Horowitz makes
his most important analytical contribution.  As a Jew, a radical,
and a woman, Friedan was particularly vulnerable to right-wing
persecution.  Horowitz chronicles the Red Scare nightmares and
concludes that Friedan realized that neither her writings nor
feminist thought would gain currency if tainted with Old Left
radicalism.  The myth of the trapped housewife was a necessary
fiction.

Horowitz speculates that Friedan repeated her own myth so often she
came to believe parts of it, and that as an intellectual she has
been overly protective of her turf.  Friedan refused to talk with
Horowitz and has leveled an indefensible charge of red-baiting.  If
anything, Horowitz places more stock in what historian David Caute
dubbed "the great fear"  than Friedan, and sees her as a right-wing
victim.  Horowitz argues that McCarthyism was so fearful and
damaging that it continues to compel Friedan to repudiate her roots
and intellect in order to protect herself against enemies that can
no longer harm her.

It's a great pity.  If Friedan read Horowitz's book she'd find that
he takes her more seriously as a thinker than any other scholar to
date.  His is a nuanced account that traces Friedan's intellectual
development and shows her deftly developing her views, skillfully
negotiating slippery political terrain, and evolving strategies that
kept her one step ahead of right-wingers.

This is a work of first-rate scholarship that reads like a complex
mystery novel.  There are limitations. Horowitz admits he should
have spent more time interviewing Carl Friedan, whom Betty divorced
in 1969, but the chief shortcomings appear when Horowitz is forced
to speculate on areas where Friedan would not cooperate.  Judith
Hennessee's official biography corrects several small errors, though
her book lacks the intellectual wallop of Horowitz's and repeats
myths that he demolishes.

Small problems detract little from a masterful work.  Students of
popular culture can read this work on many levels.  It shows how
"truth"  is relativized by historical forces, and adds to a growing
body of literature on the use of fear as a political weapon, a
tactic whose currency is sadly all-too-relevant.  Horowitz's
findings raise questions about how ideas are appropriated by various
groups who stamp them with their own political agendas.  There is
also a fascinating lesson in the controversy surrounding this book.
What happens when scholars challenge sacred ideals?  But on a more
prosaic level, Horowitz's book is simply a fascinating story of what
lies behind ideas that change the world.

     Copyright (c) 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved.  This work
     may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit
     is given to the author and the list.  For other permission,
     please contact H-Net at H-Net.MSU.EDU.



Louis Proyect

(The Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org)





More information about the Marxism mailing list