Betty Friedan and the Radical Past of Liberal Feminism

Joanne Boucher

[from New Politics, vol. 9, no. 3 (new series),
whole no. 35, Summer 2003]

JOANNE BOUCHER teaches politics and feminist theory at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. She currently researches and has published articles on the impact of new medical imaging technologies on debates about abortion rights.


BETTY FRIEDAN IS UNIVERSALLY REGARDED as one of the founding mothers of feminism's Second Wave. In The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, Friedan aimed to expose the sexist underpinnings of America's post-World War II complacent prosperity. Friedan argued that millions of American housewives found the destiny of mother and housewife which society mapped out for them stifling, repressive and even dehumanizing.

Anna Quindlen, in her introduction to the most recent paperback edition of The Feminine Mystique, proclaims that this book changed her life and that of millions of other women who became engaged in the women's movement and "jettisoned empty hours of endless housework and found work, and meaning, outside of raising their children and feeding their husbands. Out of Friedan's argument that women had been coaxed into selling out their intellect and their ambitions for the paltry price of a new washing machine…came a great wave of change in which women demanded equality and parity under the law and in the workplace."1

Friedan's self- presentation in The Feminine Mystique is that of a rather naive and apolitical albeit bright and university-educated suburban housewife who stumbles onto a startling discovery -- that America's housewives are, in fact, miserable.2 Friedan depicts herself as sharing in all the experiences of her fellow housewives. She is one of them and has experienced their plight.3 However, Friedan also uses another voice in the text, that of the expert, the university-trained researcher and psychologist. This perspective lends her work scientific authority. The combination of the two voices -- the personal and scientific -- gives The Feminine Mystique much of its dramatic force.

However, for all its acclaim and its status as the book that ignited the women's movement, praise for Friedan's Feminine Mystique has never been unqualified. Indeed many feminists have criticized its myopic representation of women. There is hardly a word in The Feminine Mystique that would indicate that American women in the 1950s were dealing with problems other than the trap of suburban domesticity which, after all, was a consequence of economic prosperity. The problems facing, for example, millions of poor, working women or non- white women -- oppressive working conditions and low pay, racism, and the burdens of a double day -- barely register on the radar screen of The Feminine Mystique. As Rosemarie Tong remarks, "Friedan seemed oblivious to any other perspectives than those of white, middle- class, heterosexual, educated women who found the traditional roles of wife and mother unsatisfying."4

bell hooks draws out further the deleterious political implications of Friedan's narrow picture of American women, particularly given her role as a founding figure of the women's movement. hooks notes that Friedan "did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute than to be a leisure-class housewife."5 hooks does credit Friedan with providing "a useful discussion of the impact of sexist discrimination on a select group of women." But she also offers this damning assessment of The Feminine Mystique, "it can also be seen as a case study of narcissism, insensitivity, sentimentality, and self-indulgence, which reaches its peak when Friedan, in a chapter title "Progressive Dehumanization," makes the comparison between the psychological effects of isolation on white housewives and the impact of confinement on the self-concept of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps."6

hooks' critique is shared by many feminists for whom Friedan's The Feminine Mystique represents the severe limitations of liberal or bourgeois feminism as a theory and as the basis for political action. The faults of liberal feminism center on its seemingly bland acceptance of American capitalism as a system structured on economic freedom which merely needs some tinkering (such as the elimination of "unfair practices" such as racism and sexism) to make it entirely workable and just. Friedan's single-minded focus on white, middle class suburban housewives and the presentation of their dilemmas as emblematic of those of all women demonstrates the underlying presuppositions of The Feminine Mystique about the character of sexism and capitalism. Friedan's liberal or bourgeois theoretical perspective has also been seen to inform the liberal politics which she espoused as the first head of the National Organization for Women (NOW) with its focus on attaining economic and civic equality and its avoidance of the more contentious territory of sexual politics.

Indeed, Friedan is notorious for her initial vociferous opposition to the introduction of lesbianism in particular and sexuality in general as legitimate topics of political discussion in NOW (a position she later renounced). She pushed a brand of respectability which was anathema to many of the radicals in the early days of the women's movement. Friedan was adamant that the women's movement present itself as reasonable, moderate, heterosexual, family-loving not family-destroying, man- loving not man-hating in its approach. Friedan's image as the paradigmatic liberal feminist was only reinforced with the publication of The Second Stage (1981) in which she systematically pointed out the dangers of what she deemed the excesses of the women's movement. Thus, Friedan's persona and the political positions she championed seemed to be entirely of a piece with her liberal feminism.

Moreover, there's an important way in which Friedan and her classic text are pivotal to the narrative of the evolution of the women's movement itself. Friedan and The Feminine Mystique epitomize an earlier, less sophisticated and less inclusive version of feminism. It is the feminism of a white, privileged middle class woman who was unaware of the lives of women outside the confines of safe and prosperous suburbs. In this sense, The Feminine Mystique represents the unworldly past of feminism which has been surpassed by years of political debate and experience. Friedan's work stands for the unsophisticated, naive past of the women's movement. It is a past which has been superseded as women have become more enlightened as a result of decades of struggle, debate and experience.

Before The Feminine Mystique

WITHIN THIS THEORETICAL AND POLITICAL context, the revelations in Daniel Horowitz's book Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique are intensely dramatic and disorienting. For Horowitz meticulously details the voluminous evidence of Betty Friedan's entirely un-bourgeois and un-liberal political commitments prior to the publication of The Feminine Mystique. Much of the new historical data Horowitz offers is significant precisely because it throws into question the tidy narrative of the progressive enlightenment of the women's movement -- from limited and exclusionary to sophisticated and aspiring to be fully inclusionary Horowitz's book disrupts this sort of Darwinian tale of the evolution of feminist politics, with its liberal, radical, socialist, global and post-modern phases representing steps up the evolutionary ladder of politics.

Here are some of the highlights of Friedan's hidden radical and feminist political past that Horowitz has brought to light:7