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Summary

Life So Far is a memoir by Betty Friedan, the early second-wave feminist leader and cofounder of the National Organization for Women. Friedan's manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, has had a profound effect on the lives of American women.

Friedan doesn't use her icon status to mask the struggles and conflicts of her journey, and the book explores all aspects of this very complex woman. She was raised in the conservative milieu of Peoria, Illinois, in the 1920s, the child of a doting father and a distant mother whose misery as a housewife would decisively shape her daughter's attitude toward this role. Always a brilliant student, perpetually brimming with confidence, Friedan was advised by her school's principal to use her leadership skills "for good, not for evil," words she took to heart.

She graduated summa cum laude from Smith College and accepted a graduate fellowship at Berkeley to do psychological research with Erik Erikson. For reasons that Friedan suggests involve her complicated relationship with her father, who disapproved of her academic pursuits, she abandoned a career track (psychiatry) in which she seemed destined for distinction and embarked on a career as a journalist. In retrospect, she realizes that this was a mistake, a way of resolving a conflict felt by many talented and ambitious women throughout much of the twentieth century—that is, between fulfilling their professional ambitions and enacting the conventional role of a woman as wife and mother.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Friedan successfully combined work as a freelance journalist with raising a family and learned much about the oppressive aspects of women's lives. She began to write articles on "the problem that has no name," which later became "the feminine mystique." In her landmark book, she describes it:

It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the US. Each suburban housewife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries . . . she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—"Is this all?"

Deploying her psychological education, she also noted flaws and contradictions in the Freudian theory of "penis envy," with its implication that only in the role of wife and mother could a woman find true fulfillment. Like the first wave of feminists, Friedan affirmed the potential for equality of women with men in all fields of endeavor. Too, as a critic of the conformist, corporate model of society, she emphasized the importance for women to have the opportunity to grow and develop their full potential.

Friedan also details her embattled relations with a younger group of feminists, such as Kate Millett and Germaine Greer, over differing agendas. Much of this conflict seemed to have been caused by her strong initial resistance to giving gay women an equal voice in the women's movement, a surprising blind spot which she eventually repudiated. Her desire to retain traditional standards of feminine beauty—involving, for example, the use of makeup and hair-styling—also often put her odds with younger feminists.

Despite all, Friedan's books, political activism, and consciousness-raising have earned her an honored position in women's lives—and in US history.

Summary

(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...

(The entire section is 2,286 words.)