Betty Friedan and the American left

ÁÎ×Ó¹â Henry C.K.Liu ¹ù¤l¥ú hliu at SPAMmindspring.com
Wed May 31 15:05:54 MDT 2000


I do not follow American Feminism closely.  But it received so much
press in past decades that one cannot avoid getting exposed to it.  My
impression is that Freidan was dismissed by later US feminists who had
become more concerned with global revolutionary issues.  Third World
feminism has very serious reservations about US feminism, the early
phase of which was more involved with white liberal objectives.  Like
the civli right movement  (and in fact being a strand of it), US
feminism began to focus on true liberation only after it related its
narrow psycho-socio concerns to the larger issues of world revolution.
At that point, may US feminists, including Friedan, retreated back into
safe progressivism if not conservativism.

Henry C.K. Liu

Louis Proyect wrote:

> 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.
>
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>
> Louis Proyect
>
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