History

Betty Friedan's Unexpected Legacy

Her common-sense feminism went out of fashion, but it's the one that will last.

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If there was a modern-day feminist matriarch, it was Betty Friedan. She looked the part, in her later years: a grande dame never conventionally beautiful but strikingly majestic, a lioness in winter with a grizzled mane.

Friedan, who died last week at 85, was widely credited with—or blamed for, depending on one's point of view—launching the modern women's movement with her 1963 best-seller, The Feminine Mystique, in which she challenged the 1950s ideal of female fulfillment through marriage, motherhood and suburban domesticity. A woman of paradox, she often found herself on the losing side in the ideological disputes within the movement she helped create; and the loss was as much the movement's as hers. As American feminism marks the passing of its founding mother, it also finds itself looking for direction, and still grappling with some of the dilemmas Friedan faced more than 40 years ago.

Since the revelation a few years ago (in the 1999 book, Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique, by historian Daniel Horowitz), that the pre–Feminine Mystique Friedan was not the apolitical housewife and writer she made herself out to be but a journalist with a background in far-left labor union activism, some of Friedan's conservative critics have tried to paint her as a radical intent on subverting the American family and society. But actually, the radicalism of The Feminine Mystique was in many ways surprisingly un-radical. Friedan sought to change women's roles and bring them out of the private domestic sphere, but she wanted to integrate them into the mainstream of the public sphere, not to revolutionize it.

The vision of a good life that emerges from her book is saturated with a very traditional Western and American humanism that, in some ways, harkens back to the 19th century. She celebrated the "unique human capacity…to live one's life by purposes stretching into the future—to live not at the mercy of the world, but as builder and designer of that world" (a capacity that, she argued, "occupation: housewife" did not truly fulfill with its endlessly repetitive domestic tasks), and urged women to join men in "the battle with the world."

The Feminine Mystique has its rhetorical excesses, most notably the outrageous metaphor of the suburban home as a "comfortable concentration camp" (on the grounds that it, too, reduces its inhabitants to purely biological living). But one thing it never did was pit men against women as enemies or victimizers, or fall into a "women good, men bad" trap. If anything, Friedan tended to view men as victims of domineering wives who, frustrated in their own ambitions, had to seek status and identity through their husbands and treated a man as an "object of contempt" if he couldn't meet those needs. Women's "wasted energy," she wrote, was bound to be "destructive to their husbands, to their children, and to themselves."

Recent scholarship has challenged the notion that that modern liberal feminism sprang fully armed from The Feminine Mystique like Athena from the head of Zeus. Horowitz argues that many of its ideas were being widely discussed by the time of its publication, even in the very same magazines that Friedan blasted for promoting the happy housewife myth. (While Friedan claimed that she had to uphold the ideology of domesticity in her own writings for those magazines, Horowitz showed that most of her articles celebrated independent women with achievements outside the home.) Nonetheless, there is little doubt that Friedan's best-selling book helped channel and focus the already simmering female discontent, and in that sense she played a vital role.

A co-founder of the National Organization for Women, Friedan later found herself sidelined. Part of this had to do with her abrasive personality. As Judith Hennessee records in her warts-and-all 1999 biography, Betty Friedan: Her Life, Friedan saw herself as the alpha female of the feminist movement and had a tendency to be hostile and paranoid toward anyone who could threaten that status—she even accused Gloria Steinem of being a CIA plant—as well as rude and bullying toward subordinates. But there were ideological conflicts as well, with Friedan in opposition to the movement's growing radicalism.

Friedan was appalled by activists who wanted to pattern feminism on what she called "obsolete ideologies of class warfare," activists who saw the family as inherently oppressive. She deplored men-are-evil rhetoric and the obsession with male violence against women. (Interestingly, Friedan's own marriage, which ended in 1969, was marked by recurring violence—though, by all accounts, she was at least as much aggressor as victim.) Friedan's initial antipathy to the movement's embrace of lesbian rights has been rightly seen as having a homophobic tint (particularly in view of a cringeworthy passage in The Feminine Mystique in which she decried the rise of male homosexuality in America and blamed it on frustrated housewives smothering their sons). However, it also needs to be seen in the context of the 1970s advocacy of lesbian separatism as a political revolt against men.

In the end, Friedan was marginalized if not ostracized by the feminist movement; by 1991, Susan Faludi was proclaiming her a part of the "backlash" because of her insistence that marriage and motherhood are essential to most women's happiness. But, partly because of that, feminism itself ended up being marginalized by American culture.

In 2006, it is increasingly clear that Friedan was right about one thing: the central issue of feminism should have always been the work-family balance. It is an issue that women confront again today, as debates rage about educated professional women "opting out" to raise children. Friedan didn't necessarily have the right answers—she was, to the end of her life, a fan of institutional, government-subsidized day care—but she raised, at least, the right questions. Dated though it is in many ways, The Feminine Mystique deserves to be read today as an eloquent reminder of the dangers of defining female identity through home and motherhood.

Friedan was highly critical of Freud's views on women, but she embraced his view that love and work are the two basic elements of a fully human life, and passionately believed that women's lives should have both of those elements. In that, she was right. And perhaps, after all the battles between gender warmongers and latter-day champions of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan's vision of feminism as an equal partnership between men and women is the one that will endure.