Betty Friedan Biography

There is no one in the women’s movement more renowned or pervasive in her presence, more long-lasting–or more contentious–than Betty Friedan.
But what sort of person is she, really? Judith Hennessee, a wonderfully penetrating writer who lived through many of the events recounted in this book, has dug deep and come up with a story of a woman of many paradoxes, a woman who survived disastrous moments and who continues to this day to lead, to find new energies and crusades.

  Before feminism, she focused her activism on fighting for the cause of labor unions against big business.  
  She wanted to be an actress.  
  Her female friends notwithstanding, she was known as the feminist who didn’t like women.  
  A champion of the family, she had a lusty and violent marriage.  
  Her husband, Carl, was the first to realize that The Feminine Mystique would be a success–but it was the book and his wife’s fame that precipitated the breakup of their marriage.

NOW, the first feminist organization she founded, was never meant to be all-inclusive. Friedan envisioned it as a group that would be able to work things out with those in power.  Even though she was a founder of three of the most important organizations of the women’s movement–NOW, NWPC, NARAL–two of them shunted her aside.  She continually confronted Gloria Steinem, her arch-rival, over the movement’s direction.

Betty Friedan is a book whose candor some will find objectionable, but most will come away with a new appreciation of a memorable woman whose rich life is here riotously revealed.
"Her insecurities were as great as her achievements," Judith Hennessee writes in her Introduction, "and her flaws cost her her leadership. But the movement she ushered in is immense, worldwide; it has permeated our lives; it is intrinsic to the public debate, and its issues have to be addressed. What she did for women outweighs the rest."

Jean Calterone Williams

Daniel Horowitz, Betty Friedan and the Making of “The Feminine Mystique”: The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Read together, Hennessee’s and Horowitz’s new books provide a fascinating and complex look at feminism and the ways that Betty Friedan shaped the movement’s trajectory in the 1960s and 1970s. Both authors purport to have written Friedan’s biography, but there is minimal overlap in the information they present. Though each book helps to make sense of the feminist movement, Hennessee and Horowitz have particular sets of concerns that ultimately make for accounts very different in approach and focus. In the process of writing the story of Friedan’s life, Hennessee describes the personalities and political actions central to the development of “second-wave” feminism, including the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC). She writes as something of an insider, caught up in the 1970s in what she describes as “the most exhilarating time of my life” (xv), crediting Friedan for many of the movement’s early successes. Horowitz concentrates less on the movement itself and more on the ideas [End Page 149] that influenced Friedan, and in turn, second-wave feminism. Arguing that many of the philosophies and movement priorities of second-wave feminism can be traced through Friedan to radical-left politics of the 1930s and 1940s, Horowitz expands our understanding of the intellectual and political precursors to “modern feminism.”

Horowitz maintains that Friedan’s early commitments to unionism, antifascism, and antiracism shaped her feminist politics. However, Friedan downplayed the links between her radical political sympathies and her feminism, both in The Feminine Mystique and in the organizations she founded. Because she had personally experienced anti-Semitism and seen the devastating effects of McCarthyism, Friedan was acutely aware of the damage to the movement that would come with accusations that feminism was a “Communist conspiracy.” Though feminism as a movement should be understood as linked, through Friedan’s political goals and her personal connections, to earlier social-justice movements, Horowitz contends that these ties are lost in most historical renderings of second-wave feminism. Indeed, most of the narratives that describe the beginnings of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s point to the civil rights and antiwar movements of the same period as the source for many of the political theories and direct-action methods used by feminists, the place where some feminist activists developed their political sensibilities.

Horowitz shows that Friedan’s political education followed a different trajectory, providing plenty of examples to support his argument. Beginning with her adolescence and college years, he suggests that Friedan struggled with the anti-Semitism of both her peers and the larger society and with cultural pressures to downplay her intelligence. Growing up in an era when women had limited hopes regarding education and work opportunities gave Friedan insight into women’s lives and formed a nascent analysis of women and work that would become the centerpiece of Friedan’s feminism. From there, Horowitz chronicles her work as a labor journalist at Federated Press and UE News, her stint at the Highlander Folk School, and her circle of mentors and friends with Popular Front sympathies. Even Friedan’s years at Parkway Village, a diverse suburban community in Queens, New York, is perceived by Horowitz to be consistent with Friedan’s radical past. She participated in battles over housing issues and racial diversity within the community, leading a call for affordable rent.

It is, however, Friedan’s involvement with “women’s issues” through her work as a writer for UE News that is particularly important for Horowitz’s argument. Horowitz describes the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America as “a radical union in the forefront of the fight for social justice for African American and women.

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