Last Updated on September 25, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530
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.
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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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1756
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 for the fifteenth reunion of her graduating class. She threw herself into the task, asking questions about marriage, children, sex, housework, finances, careers, politics, religion, intellectual life, and social life. She received two hundred responses, which raised more questions in her mind than answers. Intrigued with the results, she wrote a magazine article about what she found, but all the women’s magazines rejected it. Feeling that she had stumbled upon something very profound, she determined to turn the questionnaire results into a book.
Five years later, in 1963, The Feminine Mystique was published, an event that changed not only Friedan’s life, but perhaps also the course of history. After interviewing her former Smith classmates and many other middle-class suburban women, Friedan discovered what she referred to as “the problem that has no name.” The women she talked to were unsatisfied and unfulfilled in their lives as wives and mothers, and felt that there must be something wrong with them. They were not content with the role assigned to them by society and felt guilty and ashamed because of it. Friedan became convinced that “American women had been sent home again and that it was bad for them, and not only for them but for their families.” Although she had no idea that the book would start a revolution, she “did understand that what I had figured out—that the feminine mystique was no longer a valid guide to women’s lives, that it was obsolete—implied monumental social change.”
Writing The Feminine Mystique charted the course of Friedan’s life for years to come. She became dedicated to raising consciousness and changing laws to allow women to enter fully into all aspects of society as equal partners with men. Ironically, Friedan’s one regret is that she did not have a “real” career, although her achievements in founding the women’s movement add up to more than any single “career.” In 1966 she was instrumental in founding of the National Organization for Women, becoming its first president. She also was a cofounder of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League and the National Women’s Political Caucus. She captures the heady sense of women’s newfound power as she describes the women’s march in New York City on August 26, 1970: “What a moment it was. Suddenly there we were, holding hands, marching in great long swinging lines from sidewalk to sidewalk, down Fifth Avenue. . . . People leaned out of office windows and cheered. Passersby left the sidewalk to join us.”
Friedan’s middle-of-the road stance infuriated many women’s activists. She felt that the movement was endangered by radical lesbians and man-hating rhetoric and wanted the movement’s focus to remain on practical issues such as equal employment opportunity. She did not believe it was necessary to give up femininity to achieve equality and was contemptuous of Gloria Steinem, whom she accused of preaching the gospel of no makeup and hairy armpits while sneaking to the beauty shop to get her hair streaked. After many well-publicized disagreements with other leaders of the women’s movement—most notably Steinem, Bella Abzug, and Germaine Greer—Friedan withdrew from the various movement organizations and began writing, lecturing, and teaching. She traveled extensively and was active in international women’s conferences. She wrote It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement (1976) and The Second Stage (1981), both about the women’s movement, and The Fountain of Age (1993), about the aging process.
Although Friedan has without question lived a fascinating life and has been at the center of perhaps the most profound social movement of the twentieth century, Life So Far is often a frustrating book. The author’s sometimes rambling and sloppy style often juxtaposes the ridiculous with the sublime. The history of the women’s movement is often mixed indiscriminately with the price of the slipcovers she purchased twenty years ago or the fact that she keeps cottage cheese and sardines in the refrigerator for lunch. There is a lack of balance at times between the profound and the inane, and a disconcerting lack of perspective.
Friedan’s historical accomplishments are somewhat cheapened by the description of her romantic life. She names several of her serious boyfriends, casual dates, and even one-night stands, and describes their exploits in inappropriate detail. She plays fast and loose with the personal lives of these men, not hesitating to describe their apparently frequent sexual failures. She gloats over the time she talked on the phone to Gloria Steinem while in bed with a married father of five and the occasion when she dined out with one of her married beaux accompanied by his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife. She also insensitively and needlessly discusses the sex lives of her children and personal details about their marriages.
The most publicity generated by the publication of Life So Far revolves around Friedan’s revelation that her husband Carl, whom she divorced after twenty-two years of marriage, physically abused her throughout their married life. That the icon of women’s liberation was a victim of domestic abuse was big news, and it overshadowed other aspects of the memoir. Carl Friedan denied any abuse, and Betty backpedaled on her accusation a bit. She admitted to “provoking” her husband and conceded that he was not entirely to blame.
Despite its annoying inconsistencies in tone and perspective, Life So Faris a fascinating and valuable insight into the character of one of the most influential thinkers and activists of the twentieth century. This self-described “housewife” dispelled the myths about women’s lives by simply describing the truth as she saw it, thereby launching a revolution that is not over yet. Although undoubtedly one-sided and biased, Life So Far offers a compelling glimpse into one of the most important movements in American history.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (March 1, 2000): 1146 .
Boston Herald, May 4, 2000, p. 35.
Chicago Sun-Times, May 14, 2000, p. 18.
The Christian Science Monitor, May 17, 2000, p. 19.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 14, 2000, p. 12I.
The Detroit News, May 20, 2000, p. 28.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, June 25, 2000, p. 7.
Library Journal 125 (April 1, 2000): 110.
Mother Jones 25 (May, 2000): 81.
New York Daily News, May 7, 2000, p. 20.
The New York Times, May 11, 2000, p. B1.
The Newark Star-Ledger, April 18, 2000. p. 3.
Portland Oregonian, May 25, 2000, p. E4.
Publishers Weekly 247 (April 10, 2000): 81.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 22, 2000, p. D3.
Time 155 (May 1, 2000): 74.