radical past of liberal feminism: Betty Friedan and the making of the feminine mystique: The American left, the cold war, and modern feminism, The
Douglas, Carol Anne
The Radical Past of Liberal Feminism: Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique; The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism
Betty Friedan was a notable leftist whose writings focused on union women. True of false? True, if you’re talking about Betty Friedan in the 1940s and early ’50s, when she was Bettye Goldstein.
Yes, Betty Friedan, whose work has often been criticized for focusing on middle-class housewives and leaving out the experiences of working women and women of color, had earlier in her life focused on working women and women of color. She did not leave them out of The Feminine Mystique through unconscious classism, but deliberately, in order to attract middle-class women. That her tactic was wildly successful says as much about society in the United States (and middle-class women) as it does about Friedan.
off our backs seldom if ever reviews books by men, but Daniel Horowitz’s biography of Betty Friedan is too important to the feminist movement to miss. I passed it up when it was a hardback, but I recently picked up the paperback and realized it needed a review. Horowitz is a progressive who wants to set the record straight that second wave feminism was more influenced by the Old Left than most feminists think.
Bettye Goldstein was born in 1921, the daughter of a Peoria, Illinois, jeweler. Always interested in writing, she was the editor of her high school newspaper and later of the college newspaper at Smith. A Smith professor told Bettye’s mother that Bettye was the most brilliant student Smith ever had. But as a Jew, Bettye was an outsider, often socially excluded in predominantly gentile institutions.
Bettye was radicalized at Smith, where a number of professors were progressives and some were refugees from Nazi Germany. People looking back at radicals of the time often wonder whether they had ties to the Communist Party or followed the Communist Party line. Friedan did not follow any line. As a college newspaper editor, she wrote that the best way to oppose fascism in Europe was to oppose fascism in the United States. She opposed entering the war in Europe (as Communists did after the Hitler-Stalin Pact), and did not change her mind (as Communists did) after Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Only after Pearl Harbor did she support U.S. entry into the war; she feared that when the U.S. went to war, the domestic right wing would be strengthened, as there had been anti-Left actions during World War I.
Before her last year at Smith, Bettye spent several weeks at learning how to be an organizer at the progressive Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which later was important in the Civil Rights Movement. During her senior year, Bettye supported a strike by Smith’s cleaning workers.
After Smith, she went to graduate school at Berkeley with the aim of becoming a psychiatrist. During that time she dated physics graduate student David Bohm, who was working on what later became the Manhattan Project producing the atomic bomb. The FBI was investigating him and other leftists in the project; he joined the Communist Party that year. Bettye’s FBI report, which Horowitz has seen, says she applied to join the party that year, but was turned down because they had too many intellectuals. However, there were errors in the report and FBI reports are notoriously full of errors, Horowitz notes. In the early ’50s, Bohm took the Fifth Amendment before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, was indicted for contempt, and left the country for Brazil soon afterwards to avoid further persecution.
After a year, Bettye left graduate school. She said in the ’70s that it was because a boyfriend had pressured her to quit, but Horowitz disputes that and says it was because she wanted to work for a union. At any rate, she did become a reporter for Federated Press, a labor news service.
Books saying that women should not be confined in the home were popular at that time, Horowitz writes. Bettye reviewed a 1943 book by Elizabeth Hawes, Why Women Cry, or Wenches With Wrenches, which said that women needed to work in the paid labor force. Bettye opened the review with the line, “Men, there’s a revolution cooking in your kitchens.” Revolutions of the forgotten female, who is finally discovering that she can produce other things besides babies. So much for her claim in The Feminine Mystique that she discovered that housework was oppressive when she was a housewife in the mid- and late ’50s.
Working for Federated Press, Bettye opposed discrimination against African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Japanese Americans. At the end of the war, she noted that a majority of union members were female and wrote that she hoped progressives, with women playing a central part, would prevent corporations from reversing wartime workplace gains.
But when the war was over, Bettye, like many other women, lost her job to a man. But instead of losing it to a returning soldier, she lost it to a man who had gone to prison rather than fight. Same story, slightly different. Federated Press was also worried that she was too radical, because after the war there was a great deal of pressure against the left. Anti-Communist labor leaders were purging Communists from unions, and the labor press was losing its independence. An article that Bettye wrote saying that the atom bomb should be controlled by civilians, not the military, worried men at Federated Press who were afraid of being seen as too radical.
Bettye then went to work for UE News, a publication of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, one of the most progressive unions. They held a strike that completely shut down all Westinghouse and General Electric plants, angering the corporations.
In 1946, she wrote about the formation of the Congress of American Women, a progressive group. (Ironically, the article, which she co-authored, criticized middle-class women for standing apart from working-class women.) Within 12 months, the group had a quarter of a million members, who fought for equal pay, government-sponsored day care, national health insurance, a central role for women in unions, and respectful representation of women in the media. But red-baiters were able to drive liberals away from the group.
Although Horowitz emphasizes what he calls the “Popular Front feminism” of progressive women at the time, he does note that there was male chauvinism in the Left and that men who verbally supported equality for women still didn’t do any housework.
Bettye married Carl Friedan in 1947; he did not have the idea of egalitarian marriage that she did. He had changed his name from Friedman, possibly so it would sound less Jewish.
In 1952, Bettye wrote a pamphlet, UE Fights for Women’s Rights, which, among other things said that African American women suffer from double discrimination. Soon afterwards, the union that supposedly fought for women’s rights had to reduce its office workforce of two men and two women; it laid off the two women, including Bettye. The union had been greatly depleted as working-class people left left-wing unions for “mainstream” ones during the “Red” scares.
Betty (she began using the name Betty Friedan at this point) later expressed bitterness that the unions let women down and the working class (she thought) let the progressive unions down because too many workers just wanted material goods, not social change. These feelings no doubt influenced her decision to focus on middle-class women in The Feminine Mystique.
Even before she wrote her most famous book, Betty was not exclusively a housewife but organized community groups and was a freelance writer.
In the early drafts of The Feminine Mystique, which Horowitz read, Friedan quoted from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Friedrich Engels’ The Origins of the Family. In later drafts, she cut the references. She emphasized personal growth for women as individuals.
But in 1966, when she was involved in founding the National Organization for Women (N.O.W.), the N.O.W. statement of purpose mentioned working class and African American women. N.O.W.’s first focus was on job discrimination.
Friedan quickly rejected radical feminism and had a homophobic response to lesbians in the movement. Horowitz indicates that she always had homophobic tendencies.
In her 1997 book, Beyond Gender, Friedan said it is now necessary to “go beyond feminism, beyond sexual politics, beyond identity politics altogether.” She called on women, men, African Americans, and lesbians and gays to put aside differences to work against the “corporate culture of greed.” She said it was better not to focus on issues such as rape, pornography, and abortion, but on reshaping work to improve family and economic life. Horowitz sees her as coming full circle back to calling for a labor-identified “Popular Front” coalition.
There are many good things about this book, but one aspect is appalling: Horowitz refuses to see Betty Friedan as a battered wife, but says that because she sometimes hit Carl (very possibly in self-defense), Carl and Betty just had a “free-for-all” in which both participated. They divorced in the late ’60s because Carl could not tolerate her public stature.
Zillah Eisenstein wrote in The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism that liberal feminism is derived from a view of the world coming from authors such as John Stuart Mill. But Friedan apparently was more influenced by Engels than Mill. (Note: the title of this book review, which is derived from that book’s title, was suggested by Tricia Lootens.)
So liberal feminism did not come from liberalism at all, Horowitz writes, with some justification. The establishment media and the corporate culture of the United States would never have promulgated a more socialist version — not to say they really accepted liberal feminism, but they claim its goals have been achieved although they say it is dead. Friedan’s pragmatic move to shift her focus apparently worked, but at the cost of working-class women and women of color.
Friedan was well aware of bias. I wonder whether The Feminine Mystique by Bettye Goldstein would have become the bible of middle-class housewives?
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Jul 2001
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