Bet­ty Friedan: Mag­nif­i­cent Disrupter

  • Review
By – September 21, 2023

Bet­ty Friedan influ­enced mil­lions of women with her ground­break­ing book, The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique (1963). In this new biog­ra­phy, author Rachel Shteir writes about the peo­ple who influ­enced Friedan.

In addi­tion to pen­ning a best­seller, Friedan wrote for pub­li­ca­tions as var­ied as the left-wing Fed­er­at­ed Press, a news­pa­per start­ed by trade unions in 1919, and main­stream women’s mag­a­zines like Ladies Home Jour­nal and McCall’s, where she had a reg­u­lar col­umn. But her activism didn’t end on the page. Friedan was a leader in the phe­nom­e­nal and phe­nom­e­nal­ly messy” work of orga­niz­ing three renowned women’s orga­ni­za­tions: Nation­al Orga­ni­za­tion for Women (NOW), Nation­al Abor­tion Rights Action League (NAR­AL), and Nation­al Women’s Polit­i­cal Cau­cus (NWPC). These groups, which were crit­i­cized ear­ly on in the media, won land­mark law­suits and pol­i­cy changes con­cern­ing gen­der-based clas­si­fied ads, sex dis­crim­i­na­tion in employ­ment, abor­tion, divorce law, and many oth­er advances for women.

Shteir, a the­ater pro­fes­sor at DePaul Uni­ver­si­ty in Chica­go, con­duct­ed more than one hun­dred inter­views and gained access to new­ly opened archival col­lec­tions and pri­vate papers. She con­cludes that Friedan was an ora­cle and an icon­o­clast, ahead of her time … dri­ven by a desire to change her­self and others.”

Shteir’s book is an invalu­able resource, but per­haps over­am­bi­tious. Some read­ers may find the lev­el of detail dis­tract­ing at times. No one needs to know every book assigned in every soci­ol­o­gy course at Smith College. 

Shteir writes that Friedan demon­strat­ed pas­sion, indig­na­tion and tenac­i­ty” not only in her bold pio­neer­ing advo­ca­cy, but also in many con­flicts, even with her clos­est asso­ciates. Friedan caused one of the first schisms in NOW when she dis­par­aged les­bians in lead­er­ship, call­ing them the laven­der men­ace.” Her insult — which rang of McCarthyism’s red men­ace” lan­guage from just a decade ear­li­er — led to a dra­mat­ic demon­stra­tion by les­bian mem­bers, includ­ing the recent­ly fired NOW newslet­ter edi­tor Rita Mae Brown. They all wore Laven­der Men­ace” T‑shirts in protest. 

Friedan also had a com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship with Black women. Her first part­ner in the found­ing of NOW was the bril­liant Pauli Mur­ray, who was the vale­dic­to­ri­an — and the only woman — of her Howard Law School class. Friedan was inspired by Murray’s con­cept of Jane Crow,” which described the dou­ble dis­crim­i­na­tion that Black women faced. But Friedan’s insis­tence that the women’s move­ment was equiv­a­lent to the civ­il rights move­ment angered many Black lead­ers, women and men alike. Some Black lead­ers charged that NOW only served mid­dle-class white women. 

Friedan’s per­son­al life was stormy, too. Her tur­bu­lent mar­riage to the­ater pro­duc­er Carl Friedan some­times turned vio­lent. She almost missed a major NOW protest at New York’s Plaza Hotel because Carl had giv­en her a black eye and she want­ed to avoid TV cam­eras. Only when her friend, a for­mer Eliz­a­beth Arden employ­ee, helped her apply make­up to dis­guise the bruise did she show up to give a speech about the Plaza’s vio­la­tion of gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion law. 

Friedan also clashed with her NWPC cofounders — name­ly, Glo­ria Steinem, Flo Kennedy, and Bel­la Abzug. The con­flict with Steinem was espe­cial­ly endur­ing: the Ms. edi­tor nev­er invit­ed Friedan to write for the mag­a­zine, despite the latter’s proven jour­nal­is­tic chops. 

In addi­tion to expe­ri­enc­ing misog­y­ny, Friedan felt the sting of anti­semitism in her home­town of Peo­ria, Illi­nois, where her East­ern Euro­pean immi­grant par­ents set­tled, as well as in the debu­tante-dom­i­nat­ed cul­ture of Smith and through­out her pro­fes­sion­al career. Even­tu­al­ly, she led sev­er­al Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions, serv­ing as cochair of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Con­gress Nation­al Com­mit­tee on Women’s Equal­i­ty and on the edi­to­r­i­al board of Tikkun.

In 1985, Friedan joined a high­ly pub­li­cized trip to Ger­many with Dick Gre­go­ry and David Dink­ins to protest Ronald Reagan’s lay­ing of a wreath on the graves of Ger­man sol­diers — includ­ing mem­bers of the SS — in Bit­burg. The del­e­ga­tion trav­eled to Dachau, where they said Kad­dish and demand­ed that Rea­gan can­cel his vis­it. He did not.

While Shteir con­cludes that Friedan was no saint,” she prais­es her tire­less work to make sure women would be able to ful­fill them­selves out­side the home.” 

Elaine Elin­son is coau­thor of the award-win­ning Wher­ev­er There’s a Fight: How Run­away Slaves, Suf­frag­ists, Immi­grants, Strik­ers, and Poets Shaped Civ­il Lib­er­ties in Cal­i­for­nia.

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