Biographical approaches to historical study often exhibit great popularity among the broader public, however, their utility as a lens into history sparks debate among scholars. Useful in placing individuals in historical context or exploring intellectual ferment, biography often fails to more fully illuminate broader issues, while simultaneously reifying the “great man” or “great woman” approach to history.
Daniel Horowitz’s Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique attempts to reevaluate the intellectual and political underpinnings of Friedan’s feminist thought and more specifically, the experiences and ideas that shaped her classic 1963 work The Feminine Mystique. Freidan’s construction of how she came to author her 1963 work differs greatly with Horowitz’s research. Often cryptic about her work experience for various union publications such as the United Electrical and Machine Workers (UE) and Federated Press, Friedan obscured such experiences explaining her awakening as “cathartic” but unconnected to her time as a labor journalist. Moreover, despite her own written contributions to women’s magazines of the period, Friedan argued that such media created the feminine mystique in which she found herself trapped. Thus, Friedan’s “awakening” appears non-political, non-radical, and self driven.
Pushing back against this formulation, Horowitz suggests that Friedan’s years at Smith College, experiences at the Highlander Folk School and work as a labor journalist/activist reshaped her world view while also raising her own gender consciousness. For example, Horowitz connects several critical ideas of The Feminine Mystique to Friedan’s Smith professors such as Dorothy Wolf Douglass but also to early female writers from her union days, especially those espousing Popular Front beliefs. Friedan’s work at the UE and the Federated Press illustrated a commitment to the working class and minorities that many have criticized The Feminine Mystique for lacking. However, Horowitz repeatedly illustrates that Friedan wrestled with such issues for decades in various professional capacities and even personal life, excluding them from the final draft of Feminine Mystique for fear of publication rejection. According to Horowitz, Friedan’s experiences with McCarthyism, anti-semitism, and disillusionment with the labor movement itself led her to downplay race and class issues. Red baiting along with the associations of the time that conflated Jews with political radicals imbued a theoretical and narrative caution in Friedan’s work. Comparing Mystique’s initial draft with that of its published version, Horowitz carefully examines the shift in focus. If Friedan’s early draft exhibited a focus on class and race issues paralleling the problem of the “woman question”, her final work jettisoned such arguments for a white middle class perspective. In addition to publication concerns, Horowitz suggests Friedan’s academic background in psychology along with her own experiences involving therapy contributed to changes in Mystique’s published edition.
Interrogating the period in which Freidan claimed to be “trapped by the Feminine Mystique”, Horowitz reveals a women engaged professionally and intellectually. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Friedan continued to write while in also participating in the Intellectual Research Pool (IRP), putting her in contact with some of the leading scholars and writers of her day. Moreover, her own suburban experience differed greatly with that of the stereotype. Rather, Friedan and her husband of the time, lived in mixed communities that featured a more cosmopolitan, less conformist culture. Thus, Friedan’s appropriation of the Feminine Mystique in her own life may not have been as exact as her work claims. Still, her time in American suburbs, work with the IRP, and her former Smith connections shifted her gaze to the lives of white middle class suburban women.
The importance of how Friedan’s Feminine Mystique developed serves a driving force in Horowitz’s work. Hoping to connect Friedan’s thought to the Old Left, Horowitz argues “Friedan’s life suggests that she served as a crucial link between generations of advocates for women’s advancement,” which had been obscured by Friedan’s own explanations. The importance of this as Horowitz notes emerged in conflicts between Progressive Feminists like Friedan and her younger 1960s counterparts who “had little or no inkling of what their progenitors … had experienced.” This disconnect prevented wider understanding between Second Wave feminists resulting in damaging intercine battles. Moreover, as homophobia found expression through many Popular Front feminists, Friedan proved no exception.. Not only homophobia explains her inability to incorporate homosexuality into feminism. Though Friedan focused significant segments of her work to “identity”, her use of the term differed greatly from the emergence of the 1970s/1980s “Identity Politics”. Thus, her opposition to homosexuality grew out of her generally dim view of “Identity Politics”.
Though successful in reorienting ideas about Friedan’s intellectual development in crafting The Feminine Mystique, Horowitz’s work proves less satisfying in other ways. Suffering from Friedan’s own hostility toward his project, Horowitz could not access a significant portion of Friedan’s papers and correspondence, thus, limiting some of his conclusions. Additionally, in numerous places, Horowitz deconstructs articles or editorials printed by publications for which Friedan served as editor or columnist suggesting she wrote the articles in question while simultaneously noting that one cannot be positive she authored them. As with any psycho history, the author must draw conclusions about ideas and events that only the subject can clearly articulate.
Ultimately, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique reshaped ideas about gender and women’s rights. Though her prism had shifted from working class/racial concerns to the entrapment of middle class white women, it nonetheless established the debate over such issues. Friedan’s inability (or unwillingness) to include working class, gay, and minority women remains regrettable however, Daniel Horowitz’s work attempts to trace this shift while providing Friedan’s contributions to the feminism within the larger historical framework of the Old Left and the labor movement.