Betty Friedan is famous for her epoch-making book The Feminine Mystique (1963) and for her work as the founding president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Although other women writers, such as Simone de Beauvoir, had challenged the male dominance of society a generation earlier, Friedan brought feminist arguments into the mainstream and the lives of not only militant career women but also women who read conventional women’s magazines. Friedan took a popular approach, writing in a language that was less austere than that of her predecessors. Moreover, Friedan portrayed herself as a housewife with children and someone who had lived the suburban, male-identified life that millions of women had endured, especially since the end of World War II, when returning soldiers displaced many women in the workforce. Friedan, in other words, established her authority on the basis of not only what she said and the research and interviewing she had done, but also who she was. She emerged as a leader of the women’s movement precisely because she had been a follower of the status quo. She had done her time as a servant of the patriarchy and now she wished to tell millions of women that it was time to liberate themselves, pursue careers, or at least demand the right to consider how they wanted to define their lives apart from the behavior prescribed by the patriarchy.
One of the virtues of Judith Hennessee’s authoritative biography is that she makes Friedan’s exciting emergence vivid reading, even though she is obliged to point out that the image of Friedan as middle-class housewife was not exactly the whole truth. Friedan simply ignored her earlier period of activism in the labor movement and her work as a journalist, making her own seemingly unexpected rise to fame all the more striking. Compelling myths are built on this urge to simplify and symbolize a life, as the sympathetic Hennessee understands. The author demonstrates with an honest, sympathetic tone how Friedan changed history and the lives of millions of women.
Therefore, Hennessee is not out to expose Friedan, even though the biographer certainly reveals aspects of Friedan’s life that Friedan did not want published. At first, Friedan refused to cooperate with the biographer, but as Hennessee interviewed many of her friends, family, and associates, she felt it necessary to meet several times with the biographer. Consequently, the author has had the good fortune of hearing some of the subject’s story from the subject herself while maintaining the kind of independence that most biographers covet.
As is often the case, the record of Friedan’s life is at least as fascinating as the myth. She grew up in Peoria, Illinois, where, Hennessee explains, the phrase “Will it play in Peoria?” originated. Peoria was a crucial stop on the vaudeville circuit. It was a heartland town where a vaudevillian could discover whether his or her material—his or her “act”—would be acceptable. If the act went well in Peoria, chances were it would be fine elsewhere, too. Friedan’s biographer does not make too much of this fact, yet it seems that Friedan’s lifelong concern that the women’s movement not take itself out of the American mainstream owes something to her sense of the country she received in Peoria.
Friedan grew up a smart, aggressive, but not very attractive young woman. Her looks bothered her, especially since she had a very attractive younger sister, Amy, and a mother who also prided herself on her looks. Early on, Friedan had the support of a doting father, who later objected to her ambitious plans for herself. Friedan did well in school, although she experienced some of the alienation that Jews living in the Midwest encountered. Once again, the idea of being forsaken by the mainstream troubled her.
Friedan proved to be a contentious student at Smith, one of the very selective women’s colleges, where she excelled as both a journalist and a psychology major. Although she fought with some of her professors, they could not deny her brilliance, and one of the professors she had criticized gave her a glowing recommendation. At the University of California at Berkeley, she presented her undergraduate thesis and was told that it was good enough to submit for a Ph.D.
When Friedan dropped out of...
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