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Who Was Betty Friedan?

by Christopher Chantrill
February 05, 2006 at 12:46 pm

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THE 1963 BESTSELLER The Feminine Mystique is credited with starting the Second Wave of feminism that transformed the relations between men and women in the second half of the twentieth century. On Saturday February 4, her 85th birthday, its author Betty Friedan died of congestive heart failure. Writes Margalit Fox in The New York Times about the 1963 plea of this educated suburban housewife from Rockland County, NY:

With its impassioned analysis of the issues that affected women’s lives in the decades after World War II — including enforced domesticity, limited career prospects and, as chronicled in later editions, the campaign for legalized abortion — “The Feminine Mystique” is widely regarded as one of the most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century... Ms. Friedan charted the gradual metamorphosis of the American woman from the independent, career-minded New Woman of the 1920s and ’30s into the vacant, aproned housewife of the postwar years.

By 1966 Betty Friedan had founded the National Organization for Women, and the postwar feminist movement was running at full flood.

Friedan’s idea for the book came from a survey she conducted at the 15th reunion of her class at Smith College. She found among her educated women classmates a “nameless, aching dissatisfaction,” a discovery that “forced her to confront the painful limitations of her own suburban idyll.” But in The Second Stage published in 1981 Friedan seemed to retreat from her Mystique argument, writing that “The equality we fought for isn’t livable, isn’t workable, isn’t comfortable in the terms that structured our battle.”

So who was Betty Friedan? The suburban housewife, the feminist activist, or the revisionist? In Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique academic Daniel Horowitz revealed that Friedan was not indeed the simple suburban housewife she had advertised herself to be. In his review of Horowitz’s book conservative activist David Horowitz (no relation) wrote that as

Betty Goldstein, she was a political activist and professional propagandist for the Communist left for a quarter of a century before the publication of The Feminist Mystique launched the modern women’s movement... Her husband, Carl, also a leftist, once complained that his wife “was in the world during the whole marriage,” had a full-time maid, and “seldom was a wife and a mother.”

The (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,60-2026461,00.htm) London Times agrees. “For 20 years before her book appeared, she had worked as a journalist for union and left-wing newspapers and magazines and campaigned for a number of radical causes.”

Understandably, Smith graduate Friedan wanted to appeal to her readers as everywoman. But was she right about life in suburbia? What do real suburban women think about living in suburbia?

In Men and Marriage published in 1986 George Gilder reported that sociologists find that women “deeply enjoy suburban living.” Researching the lives of suburban Chicagoans, sociologist Herbert J. Gans found that “only 10 percent of suburban women reported frequent loneliness or boredom.” Helen Znaniecki Lopata found that

suburban housewives, by a significant margin, were more likely than working women to be using their education in their lives, to be reading widely and curiously, to be maintaining close and varied friendships, and to be involved in community affairs.

But throughout the last generation public policy in the western world has assumed that women are imprisoned in cages out in the suburbs aching to be freed into the satisfactions of paid employment and a career. Yet even feminist Maureen Dowd in Are Men Necessary? has admitted that high-status educated women, the women whose marriages are advertised in The New York Times Sunday Style section, are turning overwhelmingly away from careers and towards full-time motherhood.

Betty Friedan is survived by three children and nine grandchildren. She wrote “The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own. There is no other way.”

But many of the women inspired by her book and the movement she helped to create have found themselves childless on the wrong side of fifty and discovered that they really wanted children after all. Which is more important for a woman: to create children or find herself by creative work of her own?

Would it make a difference to a woman if she knew that Friedan was not an ordinary suburban housewife after all? Or would she have come to think, following researcher Lopata, that “the role of a housewife provides her a base for a multi-faceted life, an opportunity few other vocational roles allow, because they are tied down to single organizational structures and goals?” Would she decide to live a life, like Friedan, in which creative work could wait until after she had started a family?

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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