Osburn on Horowitz, 'Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique: The American Left, The Cold War, and Modern Feminism'

Daniel Horowitz
Katherine M. Osburn

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. 354 pp. $30.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-55849-168-7.

Reviewed by Katherine M. Osburn (Tennessee Technological University) Published on H-Women (January, 2000)

Deconstructing Betty Friedan

In her 1963 feminist classic The Feminine Mystique Betty Friedan condemned the limited and unsatisfying gender roles of the post-World War II era. Her passionate plea for expanded public roles for women was especially effective because she spoke as one who had been trapped and nearly suffocated by the role of the suburban housewife. While historians of post-war gender studies have argued that gender roles were far more complex than those portrayed in The Feminine Mystique, Friedan's personal narrative of the bored middle-class housewife turned activist has been accepted as a model for the evolution of feminist consciousness in the second-wave feminist movement. Daniel Horowitz's study suggests that, like the book she wrote, Friedan herself is far more complex than the persona she has created.

Using an extensive collection of Friedan's papers archived at Smith College, Horowitz argues for a multi-causal view of second-wave feminism: "Though most women's historians have argued that 1960s feminism emerged in response to the suburban captivity of white middle-class women during the 1950s, the material in Friedan's papers suggested additional origins--anti-fascism, radicalism, and labor union activism of the 1940s" (p. 7). His unauthorized biography weaves the strands of these "isms" into an compelling account that functions exceptionally well on many levels: as biography, as historiography of feminism, and as social movement history. Betty Friedan herself, however, has publicly rejected the story Horowitz tells in this biography. She has stood by her 1973 statement that "it is a decade now since the publication of the Feminine Mystique and until I started writing the book, I wasn't even conscious of the woman question." (Friedan in The Feminine Mystique , 10th Anniversary Edition, New York, Dell Publishing Co.: 1974, p. 1.) Knowing from the onset of the book that Friedan rejects its major premises immediately draws the reader into the narrative, for one wonders what Horowitz will argue that Friedan repudiated.

Horowitz is a superb biographer, immersing his subject in the currents of history. He provides the reader a clear sense of the places and periods that shaped young Bettye (the spelling she used until graduate school) Goldstein (Friedan). He recreates her childhood in Peoria, Illinois as the bright daughter of a prosperous Jewish merchant whose wealth gave the family social standing above Peoria's poorer Jews, but whose Jewishness marginalized them from the rest of the middle class. In this context of social alienation, Bettye was drawn into the leftist critique of capitalism that was popular among some intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s. Writing for her high school newspaper, Goldstein published columns and book reviews that addressed workers' rights and criticized fascism. She even wrote a satire on women's limited career choices that she modeled on the parable of the grasshopper and the ant. Despite her precociouness in high school, Goldstein did not develop into a fully committed, politically active social critic until she went to college.

During her years at Smith College (1938-1942) and later in graduate school at Berkeley, (1942-1943), Bettye Goldstein embraced many progressive causes. She became an outspoken advocate of labor unions and a critic both of fascism and of U.S. involvement in Britain's struggle against fascism (because Britain was an imperialist nation and therefore an unworthy ally). During her senior year, Goldstein studied at the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, which trained labor activists. Returning to Smith, she supported the successful unionization of the campus maids. Upon graduation, Goldstein went to Berkeley to pursue a doctorate in psychology, but left after only one year. Horowitz directly challenges Friedan's later account of why she ended her graduate studies so abruptly. In the Feminine Mystique and elsewhere, Friedan claimed that she had won a lucrative and prestigious fellowship that would have allowed her to finish her studies, but that her then boyfriend pressured her to turn it down because he felt threatened by her success. Friedan claims she chose love over career because the Mystique had already exerted its hold on American women. According to Horowitz, however, Friedan left for a combination of reasons because "she was apparently unable to combine activism and academic work or to find the kind of leadership position and attention" that she had held at Smith (p. 88). Fear of being unable to find an academic position as a Jewish woman and her desire to help the struggle against fascism by helping organize workers (she abandoned her earlier isolationism after Pearl Harbor), also contributed to her decision to leave Berkeley and begin a career as a journalist.

Goldstein's work as a journalist reflected her interest in radical social critique, including women's rights. Her first position was as a Popular Front labor journalist for the Federated Press (1943-1946), where, in 1946, she wrote an article on the formation of the Congress of American Women. In discussing her departure from the Federated Press, Horowitz challenges Friedan's later "Mystique" account that she lost her job to a returning vet, arguing instead that, while "sexism played some role in the loss of a job" her political radicalism was also a key issue (p. 120). With the end of the war and the onset of McCarthyism, the Federated Press moderated its assaults on capitalism and fired its more outspoken writers like Goldstein. From 1946-1952 Goldstein worked for the UE News, "the official publication of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America" (p. 121). She married Carl Friedan in 1947 and continued to work after the birth of her first child.

In 1952 she published a thirty-nine page pamphlet entitled UE Fights for Women Workers in which she clearly outlined her support of equal pay for equal work, condemned discrimination against women, and documented the appalling conditions of Latina and African American factory workers. In 1953 her UE pamphlet UE, Women Fight for a Better Life! UE Picture Story of Women's Role in American History, Friedan addressed the childcare problems that women factory workers faced. According to Horowitz, she left UE due to a complex tangle of sexism, economics, and cold war politics. Friedan, however, has given versions of the event that support her contention that gender was the primary issue in her departure: that she was fired because she was pregnant with her second child and her union failed to live up to its promise of a maternity leave, and that she left full time employment (with relief) because it was too arduous to combine work with caring for two small children. Horowitz again argues that sexism was only part of the picture--that McCarthyism had "dramatically reduced the membership of UE [and that] the union had to cut its staff" (p. 141). According to Horowitz, Friedan may also have volunteered to quit because she had less seniority. The actual circumstances of the firing remain murky, but it is clear that, on some level, Friedan was simply worn down by trying to juggle her personal and professional lives.

Like so many others in the post-war period, the Friedans fled to suburbia in 1950 where Betty became a community activist and a freelance writer while she raised her three children. During these years she also entered therapy to combat her increasing sense of unhappiness. Friedan has given contradictory accounts of her life in the suburbs, noting that she often felt trapped and yet she was also able to step back from career pressures and experience personal growth. Friedan's time in suburbia hardly mirrored the inane experiences of consumerist housewives driven by the Mystique. Even after the Friedans moved again to a more affluent suburb in 1956, Friedan associated with thoughtful and stimulating people such as Herbert Gutman and C. Wright Mills, continued to research and write, worked for the Democratic Party, and taught courses in writing at New York University and the New School for Social Research. Horowitz then analyzes how Friedan created the Feminine Mystique and authored a new narrative for her life.

This leads to the really interesting story in this book, which is the contradictions between the persona Friedan created for herself in 1963 (a woman who became an activist because she was trapped by stultifying gender roles of the post-war middle class) and her past life as an activist. Horowitz suggests that Friedan's self-constructed identity was "puzzling" to him. "It is possible," he wrote in his introduction, "that Friedan has an explanation of her own life that, for one reason or another, I cannot fathom" (p. 14). Despite his claim that he really doesn't understand Friedan, Horowitz provides a thoughtful, multi-faceted analysis of why she might have interpreted her life as she did. He suggests that Friedan, an "outsider" all of her life, may have reinvented herself out of a desire to be more accepted. He posits that her therapy may have caused her to see a sharp break between her earlier years and her experiences as a housewife so that she believed that "her radicalism involved nothing more than dabbling and that she had no genuine interest in women's issues" (p. 247). Finally, he argued that many 1940s radicals retreated from Popular Front activities because they were disillusioned by Stalin's horrific behavior and emotionally battered by McCarthyism. Moreover, the hypocrisy of sexist progressive men and the failure of 1940s social movement to address adequately women's issues may also have encouraged Friedan's disaffection. Disillusionment with leftist causes may have encouraged Friedan to view her actions as a popular front activist as somehow inauthentic.

Horowitz also blames McCarthyism for Friedan's passionate defense of her "trapped housewife" identity as her objective reality. He notes Friedan's response to an American Quarterly article where he first exposed her involvement in Popular Front activities in the 1940s. In a speech at American University, Friedan remarked, "some historian recently wrote some attack on me in which he claimed that I was only pretending to be a suburban housewife, that I was supposed to be an agent." (p. 15) In reply, Horowitz asserted that, "I made clear that she was a suburban housewife, but one whose experience was marked by discontent, nonconformity, ambivalence, and very real professional achievement" (p. 15). This latter portrayal is far richer and more complex than Friedan's portrait, so why has Friedan so adamantly rebutted it? Horowitz argues that, in part, she feared that exposing her earlier left activities might give conservative critics of feminism ammunition to discredit the movement. In Horowitz's interpretation, some of Friedan's language reflected a fear of red-baiting that lingered from watching her associates persecuted during the McCarthy years.

While evidence of her radical past is clear in the documents of her life, Horowitz is also prepared to accept that perhaps Friedan might simply have a different interpretation of their significance. Horowitz cautions that he could be misunderstanding Friedan's meaning when she uses terms like "feminism" or maybe that the two of them did not "share the same view of cause and effect" (p. 14). Horowitz balances deftly between arguing that Friedan's life was not exactly what she claimed and acknowledging the power of the subjective in Friedan's accounting of her journey. "Though she may have been under the sway of the Feminine Mystique briefly," he writes, "her sense of being trapped was enormously powerful" (p. 164). Thus, Horowitz avoids the simplistic interpretation that Friedan is a conscious hypocrite.

The question of how each of us remembers and retells the past is crucial to the historian. Friedan clearly sees her life very differently than does Horowitz. This led Horowitz to conclude rather wryly that "In the end, Friedan's story of the trajectory of her life is enough to tempt anyone to embrace post-modernism. Its emphasis on contradictions, omissions, narrative disruptions, unstable texts, as well as on the tendency to of texts to work against themselves, makes more understandable Friedan's story of her life" (p. 247). In deconstructing that story through his wonderfully lucid and absorbing narrative, Horowitz has made a significant contribution to our understanding of the complex origins of second-wave feminism.

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Citation: Katherine M. Osburn. Review of Horowitz, Daniel, Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique: The American Left, The Cold War, and Modern Feminism. H-Women, H-Net Reviews. January, 2000. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=3698

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