Problem that had no name

Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique
April 9, 1999

Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique is a riveting account of the forces that produced one of the most important books of the modern feminist movement. Historian Daniel Horowitz skilfully reconstructs the left-wing background of Friedan that she carefully suppressed in revising her personal biography as she became a major figure in American society. He writes revealingly about Friedan's curious effort to reinvent her past, while acknowledging the enormous impact the book had on women - and men - around the world.

Horowitz, like many of us who teach 20th-century history, has assigned the book to students for years. It was a bestseller after its publication in 1963, and it remains a classic today for its role in energising the second wave of feminism (following the first wave earlier in the century) that brought about such profound changes in the 1960s and 1970s.

Initially, Horowitz accepted at face value Friedan's appraisal of her background. In 1973, looking back at the past decade, she noted that as she started work on The Feminine Mystique , "I wasn't even conscious of the woman problem." Then, and later, she repeated over and over that this was an account that reflected her personal experience as a housewife, for as she said in 1976, in the early 1950s she was "still in the embrace of the feminine mystique".

In fact, as Horowitz shows so well, the story was much more complicated. Friedan was far more than a frustrated housewife trapped in the suburbs in those years. A brilliant summa cum laude student at Smith College, she was also active in radical causes, particularly in the years from 1943 to 1952. She worked with labour unions, wrote pamphlets for UE - the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America - and edited its publication, UE News . In the course of her work, she fought racism and sexism aggressively and squarely supported working-class activism.

Friedan was clearly part of the Popular Front. This was, according to cultural historian Michael Denning, a radical social-democratic movement in the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s that focused on such issues as anti-fascism and anti-racism while endorsing the need to protect civil liberties and safeguard industrial unionism.

After describing these Popular Front activities, Horowitz then persuasively recounts Friedan's transformation in the 1950s. She married Carl Friedan, a theatrical producer, and had three children in the next nine years. The onset of McCarthyism in the United States made radical labour journalism much more vulnerable than it had been before, and Friedan also wanted to make money to help support her family. As she and Carl moved to a number of New York suburbs, she began to write for the popular press. Psychotherapy led her to look more critically at her labour years and to view them as misguided. She found herself going back to issues she had explored in college: the impact of Freudianism, the importance of psychology and the need for social action. Life in the suburbs, Horowitz notes perceptively, "taught her the connection between the personal and the political". Gradually, he observes, "she recovered her identity but lost or hid from view crucial elements of her past".

This is a fascinating story, made all the more compelling by Horowitz's account of Friedan's response to his work. He writes about early meetings and social occasions with her, and then relates that as he came to understand more about her past and asked her about it, she refused to have anything further to do with him and even threatened him with legal action if he infringed upon her rights. Once, he notes, in 1974 she was more forthcoming in an article in New York magazine, reprinted two years later in It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women's Movement , but then retreated back into the sanitised version of her life.

As he challenges Friedan's own account, Horowitz seeks to understand why she insisted - and still insists - on such a description of her past. He thoughtfully describes the personal and political pressures she faced and the decisions she made in transforming herself.

At the same time, Horowitz acknowledges the impact of The Feminine Mystique and notes the continuing power of the book. Indeed, he offers one of the best recent readings of her arguments in his sympathetic assessment of the book.

Horowitz's real contribution is to enrich our understanding of feminism by highlighting the different strands that contributed to the movement. Friedan was far more than a housewife describing for the first time "the problem that has no name". Rather, the movement that she helped initiate was the conjunction of different forces that informed Friedan's background - and the background of others - energised her prose and allowed her to write for an audience that responded so enthusiastically to her account.

Allan M. Winkler is a professor of history, Miami University, Ohio, United States.

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

Author - Daniel Horowitz
ISBN - 1 55849168 6
Publisher - University of Massachusetts Press
Price - £23.95
Pages - 355

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