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

Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique: The American Left, The Cold War, and Modern Feminism. – Review – book review

Edith A. Disler

Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique: The American Left, The Cold War, and Modern Feminism. By Daniel Horowitz. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998. Pp. 255. $29.95.)

In the spring 1999 edition of Story, Erika Krouse describes a protagonist who teases her hair, “to look like a coed from the [19]50s caught in a tornado” (F&W Publications, Inc., 34). She named the hairstyle, “`What Really Happened to the Feminine Mystique.'” So pervasive was the impact of Betty Friedan’s 1963 book that it remains a cultural hallmark, known for articulating “the way the mystique of suburban womanhood smothered aspirations for a more fulfilling life” (226).

Though hardly the first progressive feminist text, as Horowitz states, “As much as any book written in the middle of the twentieth century, The Feminine Mystique helped transform the course of America’s political and social history” (4). Key to the book’s popularity has been Friedan’s steadfast claim that it was born of an average housewife’s suburban discontent. Horowitz aptly contests this assertion. Having found historical evidence to the contrary, he reveals the more complicated foreground to Friedan’s “two extraordinary contributions”: writing The Feminine Mystique and helping to launch the feminist movement of the 1960s (5).

“Once The Feminine Mystique had been credited with helping to launch the women’s movement,” writes Horowitz, “observers tended to understand it in the context of its results rather than in the context in which it arose” (207). As an intellectual historian investigating the complexities of “ideas and political commitments,” Horowitz’s chronological investigation is motivated by his discovery of apparent radical and feminist influences upon Friedan during the 1940s and 1950s at the wellspring of second-wave feminism (14). This era includes her years as a student and prolific editor of the campus newspaper at Smith and one year as a graduate student at Berkeley, during which she became acquainted with several people who would later become victims of redbaiting. This formative period also includes Friedan’s work as a writer for the official publication of a radical union already waging the fight for social justice for African American and women workers.

Central to Horowitz’s thesis is his discussion of Friedan’s activism regarding the rights of women workers. This activism, he asserts, disproves her later claims that she was unattuned to women’s issues before bemoaning the stifled suburban housewife. By tracing Friedan’s education and publication history, Horowitz’s academic achievement is to connect early 1960s feminism to Popular Front radicalism of the 1940s–radicalism so devastated by McCarthyism that Friedan seems to fear the connection, and Horowitz deems it a “break in historical consciousness” (145).

Naturally of particular interest to students of feminism, this book will also interest historians and students of popular culture interested in Cold War redbaiting. Readers craving intimate insight into a fascinating figure in the women’s movement, however, will be disappointed. Friedan, having consented only minimally to interviews with the author, left Horowitz to his own judgments and conjecture. In this task, Horowitz performs quite fairly. He does not make any pretense, after all, to writing a biography in the usual sense. Nevertheless, with Friedan as the focus, Horowitz has clearly contributed a valuable perspective to the record of ideological, social, and political influences largely responsible for women’s status in twentieth-century American society.

Edith A. Disler

United States Air Force

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