The radical roots of the feminist movement

Betty Friedan: Her Life
by Judith A. Hennessee (Random House, $27.95)

Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique: The American Left, The Cold War, and Modern Feminism
by Daniel Horowitz (University of Massachusetts Press, $29.95)

“I’m a feminist,” one student after another assures me, “but, not one of those radical ones.”

What my students know about feminism puts heavy emphasis on the splintering and the tensions they see today. Many are aware that the needs of women of color have often been ignored by white feminists, and virtually all are critical of liberal feminist agendas for having promised women happiness in a work world where child care is improvised. Men as well as women in my classes say equality has gone far enough; women as well as men say feminism causes trouble. Yet my female students also clearly take for granted many of the changes achieved by feminism.

Perhaps it’s the historian’s weakness to prescribe a little history when folks are feeling confused, but that’s what I’m doing these days. A cluster of books and documentaries have appeared recently, among them two biographies of Betty Friedan, helping us move beyond stereotypes about feminism and to ground today’s anxieties in yesterday’s experience.

In 1963, Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. The book’s great appeal was its acknowledgment of the social dimensions of private anxieties. Conspicuously absent was any criticism of social policies and political structures, or any demands for institutional changes, such as child care, health care, job security for women, and racial equality for all. So it comes as something of a shock to find, in Daniel Horowitz’s mesmerizing study, Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique, that by 1963, Friedan was already the veteran of two decades of intense political struggle; that the arguments in her book grew out of her experiences as a leftist journalist who wrote in the 1940s and 1950s about the labor movement; and that the politics that she lived and breathed were sapped of air by the anti-Semitism and red-baiting of the time. Horowitz, a professor of American studies at Smith College, places the young Friedan squarely within the great national tragedy of McCarthyism.

Horowitz’s book places Friedan’s early career in a time when groups such as the Congress of American Women (an internationalist, anti-fascist organization that Friedan reported on) provided a forum for a cross-class, racially integrated feminism. Friedan learned quickly that anything she wrote that endorsed women’s labor activism and interracial or interethnic cooperation was unlikely to find a publisher. Horowitz argues that Friedan needed the neutral voice she adopted in The Feminine Mystique—which muted politics, class, race and ethnicity—to become a widely read author. That neutrality led Friedan, Horowitz suggests, to avoid writing in The Feminine Mystique explicitly as a Jewish woman, and largely to ignore the racism that African-American women faced and about which she had previously written.

In journalist Judith A. Hennessee’s new biography, Betty Friedan: Her Life, there is a great deal about personal relations among feminist activists and tensions among “Betty” and “Bella” and “Gloria” (Friedan, Abzug and Steinem). There is also a great deal, too about the tensions, even violence, of the Friedan marriage. But the price of Hennessee’s easy read is that a great deal of faith is demanded of us. She tells us that “effortlessly,” Friedan “rose to the top” at Smith; that “she began to take lovers.” But she doesn’t provide us with the grounds for such claims.

For me, the Friedan to whom Horowitz introduces us—the vulnerable woman who struggled to find her identity, and who wrote on behalf of working women—is more touching than the constantly busy, active, often-quarreling Friedan of Hennessee’s account. The deeper argument Horowitz’s version points to is that feminism has been healthiest when linked to the full range of issues of social justice—the labor movement, the civil-rights movement, religious values and a philanthropy devoted to social justice. When those other voices and movements have been silenced, so has feminism. And when I hear my students worry about being called a feminist, I realize that we need ever-more-nuanced women’s history to help us revitalize the holistic vision of the work that feminism has yet to do.

Linda K. Kerber is a professor of history at the University of Iowa. Her most recent book is No Constitutional Right to Be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship (Hill and Wang). A longer version of this essay originally appeared on April 23, 1999, in The Chronicle of Higher Education.