(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

In response to two unauthorized biographies, Betty Friedan: Her Life(1999), by Judith Hennessee, and Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique: The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism (1998), by Daniel Horowitz, which she calls “false, mistaken, sensational and trivializing,” Betty Friedan decided to record her own version of her life story. The result, Life So Far, is opinionated, chatty, frank, profound, and sometimes infuriating, but always entertaining. She says that she “never set out to start a women’s revolution . . . it just happened . . . by some miracle of . . . serendipity, one thing leading to another.” Friedan’s account of how her life and history converged to help create the women’s movement is both an engrossing read and a valuable history lesson.

Betty Friedan was born to Harry Goldstein and Miriam Horwitz Goldstein in Peoria, Illinois, in 1921. Harry, a Jewish businessman nearly twenty years his wife’s senior, owned a successful jewelry store in Peoria, and the family lived quite lavishly, at least until the Depression years. According to Friedan, her mother did not like being Jewish and was ashamed of her husband’s heavy accent and large nose. Miriam was beautiful, accomplished, and miserable. Her moods, which were most often bad, ruled the household. Friedan is certain that her mother’s misery stemmed from the fact that she had no career into which to channel her energy and creativity, and hence she made her husband and children miserable. Perhaps Betty sensed this even as a child, because she recalls praying every night for work to do when she grew up (along with a boy to like her best).

Nothing Betty did was good enough to please her mother. She was not accomplished at swimming, tennis, dancing, or golf, but she was very good at school, even skipping a couple of grades to enter high school early. High school, however, was agony for Betty. As a Jew, she was not allowed to join a high school sorority, and the fact that she was very smart, and not conventionally pretty, further added to her outcast status. She recalls that she never had a date on Saturday night and confesses that she still feels depressed when Saturday night comes around and she has nothing planned.

Upon entering Smith College, however, Betty came into her own. Her intellect was admired there, and the anti-Semitism on campus was not as severe as in Peoria. She quickly found herself part of an extensive group of friends and became a “big woman on campus.” She fell in love with the study of psychology and discovered an aptitude for journalism as she edited the college newspaper. Upon graduation she won a psychology fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley, but found she did not really feel at home in California. While at Berkeley she was offered a very prestigious science fellowship—a rare accomplishment for a woman—but, fearing being “brighter than the boys,” she turned it down and moved to New York City.

Like most young woman of her era Friedan had no career plans, because at that time careers for women were virtually unknown. Even women with expensive Ivy League educations were expected to bide their time until marriage by working at secretarial jobs. Betty found work at a news agency serving labor unions and later at the official publication of the United Electrical Workers. She married Carl Friedan, an aspiring theater producer, in 1947, and settled into married life. Because Carl’s income was undependable, Betty worked, even after the birth of their first child, Daniel. When she became pregnant for the second time she was fired, because the newspaper did not want to give her another maternity leave. Feeling the injustice of her situation, but powerless to do anything about it, Friedan began freelance writing at home to earn the necessary income. Although working steadily, she considered herself “just a housewife,” turning down an invitation to attend a prestigious workshop for aspiring television writers because it conflicted with her den mother duties (her son soon after asked if he could quit the Boy Scouts, because he hated it).

The defining event of Friedan’s life came about quite inauspiciously when she was asked to prepare a questionnaire for Smith alumni in preparation...

(The entire section is 1756 words.)