A Mother’s Day Mash Note, of Sorts, to Betty Friedan

Culturebox can’t think of a figure more deserving of her admiration than feminist ex-icon Betty Friedan. Friedan and her battle for women’s rights, after all, have a lot to do with why Culturebox gets to have a career and write a column in the first place. This burden of gratitude, however, has its side effects. For one thing, it makes Life So Far, Friedan’s new memoir, an uncomfortable read. Friedan has a penchant for overly intimate confession that strikes a would-be idealist as a form of petty torture. It’s icky to learn that when the soon-to-be husband of the feminist mother-of-us-all “put his tongue hard down my throat” she “loved the whole melting feeling, not just the clitoral orgasm.” It’s hard not to cringe when the obviously intelligent Friedan feels compelled to boast about her IQ–180, of course: genius level–while pretending that what she’s doing is chronicling family squabbles (her mother bragged about Betty’s IQ to Betty’s sister, which created a lifelong resentment in said sister, etc.). Then there’s the catalog of nearly every real-estate and interior-decorating decision Friedan has made in recent years. Does sisterhood require us to read this stuff?

The answer is yes, it does, or at least we have to know what it says, because it has now become important to the history of feminism to establish just how insecure and trivial Friedan can be. Anyone who has followed Friedan’s public flitting hither and yon in the past 20 years, who read her rambling books post-Feminine Mystique, may have already acquired a sense of her personal deficiencies. But lately Friedan’s emotional problems have acquired what Washington pundits call policy significance. If she’s a little bit nutty, that turns out to be a point in her favor.

Let me explain. Last year, a biography came out claiming that Friedan wasn’t really the unhappy suburban housewife she said she was when she wrote The Feminine Mystique (1963), the book credited with creating our contemporary understanding of feminist consciousness. Daniel Horowitz, a professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, argued that Friedan was in fact a fellow traveler, a labor journalist and community organizer passing herself off deliberately as an innocuous Everywoman. Friedan countered then–and argues again in her memoir–that she never denied having been a labor journalist, but that by the time she wrote the book she had given up her career and moved to New York’s outer suburbs to raise her children, just like the women she wrote about.

This dispute may seem academic, but what’s at stake is the status of Second Wave feminism itself. Was Friedan the Rigoberta Menchú of feminism–Menchú is a Nobel Prize-winning Guatemalan Indian peasant now accused of having fabricated her memoir–as David Horowitz (no relation to Daniel) argued when he reviewed Daniel Horowitz’s biography in Salon? If Friedan is, in fact, a “feminist fibber” (David Horowitz again) who was really a “Stalinist Marxist,” does that mean that feminism was never really a grass-roots suburban movement, a native flowering of middle-class self-awareness? Was it instead the product of 1940s radicalism–revolution by other means–influenced, somehow, by Moscow and subject to the revision that everything else tainted by the Cold War has now undergone?

David Horowitz, a former editor of the radical journal Ramparts who has since joined the ranks of the vast right-wing conspiracy, is something of a nut himself, so his crude red-baiting wouldn’t have meant much if more respectable figures, such as sociologist Alan Wolfe, hadn’t joined in. Reviewing Daniel Horowitz’s book in the Atlantic Monthly, Wolfe declared, “the made-up life of Betty Friedan leaves contemporary readers uneasy about whether anything at all in her book can be trusted.” The key point, to Wolfe, was the charge that Friedan misrepresented a central crisis in her life, in which she gave up a prestigious fellowship at Berkeley. Friedan had written in The Feminine Mystique that she did it because a boyfriend’s disapproval had made her fear that academic success would lead to lonely spinsterhood. Nonsense, says Wolfe, following Horowitz’s lead: “Friedan, an activist by inclination, became bored with the highly specialized scientific discipline that psychology had become.” Wolfe and Horowitz make much of the labor-oriented newspapers Friedan then went to work for, and even the fact that she and her husband lived briefly in a racially integrated suburb in Queens mostly populated by U.N. employees before moving on to Rockland County and a house near the Hudson River.

So here’s the question Friedan was forced to answer in her memoir: Is her life story representative of women’s experiences in her day, or was she a secret agent of Marxism? Culturebox, for one, found Friedan’s description of her emotional confusion and lack of self-esteem quite convincing, and only partly because throughout the book Friedan demonstrates a lingering need to impress. Friedan’s memoir harks back to a world Horowitz, Horowitz, and Wolfe have left out of their biographical revisions, probably because it never forced itself upon them, the way it would have if they had been women. Familiar as these circumstances are to a generation of women raised on their mothers’ clichés about the 1950s, they bear repeating: Friedan grew up in a time when girls were warned not to act smart because boys wouldn’t like them, and a career was seen as antithetical to love, marriage, and children. To dismiss these things out of hand when thinking about the young Betty’s decisions about her future is to operate with a mechanistic model of human motivation, to say the least. But when you consider that Friedan left her job as a journalist and retreated to her home because of sex discrimination–she was fired by her union-newspaper bosses when she got pregnant a second time–it’s downright ironic. Here she was, kicked out by the left for having babies, and now she’s accused of having had a fanatical clarity of Communist purpose more suited to the Hollywood version of a Soviet spy. Read the book, guys, and decide for yourselves whether Soviet Central Command would have viewed her as a likely candidate.