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Jewish World Review May 14, 1999 /28 Iyar 5759

Cathy Young

Cathy Young
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Feminists lost the war of ideas when they dismissed Friedan

(JWR) ---- (
THIRTY-SIX YEARS AFTER PUBLISHING her landmark book The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan remains a lightning rod for the gender debates.

To many feminists such as Backlash author Susan Faludi, she’s a renegade who lent her voice to reactionary attacks on feminism as anti-family and anti-male. To many conservatives such as writer F. Carolyn Graglia, she is a harpy who denigrated homemakers and undermined the family.

Two new books, Betty Friedan: Her Life by Judith Hennessee and Betty Friedan and the Making of “The Feminine Mystique” by Daniel Horowitz, are likely to reignite the controversy over Friedan’s legacy. They’re not likely to make Friedan a happy woman.

Horowitz, a University of Massachusetts scholar, disputes Friedan’s claim that pre-Feminine Mystique, she was an apolitical housewife whose feminist awakening was the result of her suburban captivity; in fact, she had been a left-wing activist until the early 1950s, writing for the newspaper of a communist-controlled labor union and often focusing on women’s issues. These radical ties, which Horowitz seems to regard as something to be proud of, are more likely to be seen as compromising her and her ideas.

Does this make Friedan’s feminism part of some subversive plot? Hardly.

By the time she wrote The Feminine Mystique, Horowitz acknowledges with some chagrin, Friedan had abandoned the class-warfare rhetoric for essentially American concerns with individual achievement and identity. He also shows that female discontent with domesticity and aspirations outside the home were already evident in American culture — even in the women’s magazines that Friedan blasted as peddlers of the “mystique” — before the book was published. This may somewhat diminish Friedan’s stature as a pioneer, but it also shows that she did not, as Graglia and others ridiculously contend, single-handedly lure millions of happy housewives out of their homes.

In her biography, Hennessee declares her admiration for Friedan’s accomplishments as a founding mother of the modern women’s movement but unsparingly chronicles her often unattractive private and public behavior: temperamental outbursts, high-handed treatment of others (especially her assistants), relentless self-aggrandizement. Friedan’s personality undoubtedly contributed to her eventual marginalization in the movement she helped launch. But the conflicts between her and the more radical wing of feminism obviously had to do with ideas as well. And while Hennessee can’t be faulted for being honest about Friedan’s flaws, she fails to appreciate how right Friedan was in her warnings about the direction of the movement.

From the beginning, Friedan cautioned against “sex/class warfare” rhetoric that rejected the family and assailed men as oppressors. Long before the phrase “victim feminism” was coined, she deplored the “wallowing in the victim state” under the guise of addressing violence against women. In her 1980 book The Second Stage, she wrote that the only way for the women’s movement to regain its relevance was to focus on balancing career and family and extending more flexible options to women and men alike.

Some responses to The Second Stage, which Hennessee surveys, show what kind of mentality Friedan was up against. John Leonard, the more-feminist-than-thou chief cultural correspondent for the New York Times, charged that she advocated “licking the hand that batters you.” Another reviewer, Angelina Goreau, found an ironic contradiction between Friedan’s defense of men and the fact that her husband had failed to pay child support after their divorce.

In fact, Friedan should have been commended for refusing to project the antagonism between herself and her ex-husband onto all male-female relations. (Perhaps the violence in Friedan’s marriage — in which she was often the aggressor as well as the victim — made her realize that domestic abuse is not a simple men-bad, women-good issue.)

Friedan had her share of dubious ideas. But on the threshold of the 21st century, the women’s movement suffers badly from its rejection of her agenda of equal partnership with men.

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality Send your comments to her by clicking here.


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©1999, Cathy Young