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Rethinking Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique: Labor Union Radicalism and Feminism in Cold War America

From: American Quarterly
Volume 48, Number 1, March 1996
pp. 1-42 | 10.1353/aq.1996.0010

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American Quarterly 48.1 (1996) 1-42

In a certain sense it was almost accidental -- coincidental -- that I wrote The Feminine Mystique, and in another sense my whole life had prepared me to write that book; all the pieces of my own life came together for the first time in the writing of it.

--Betty Friedan, "It Changed My Life," 1976

In 1951, a labor journalist with a decade's experience in protest movements described a trade union meeting where rank-and-file women talked and men listened. Out of these conversations, she reported, emerged the realization that the women were "fighters -- that they refuse any longer to be paid or treated as some inferior species by their bosses, or by any male workers who have swallowed the bosses' thinking." The union was the UE, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, the most radical American union in the postwar period and in the 1940s what historian Ronald Schatz, appreciative of the UE's place in history, has called "the largest communist-led institution of any kind in the United States." In 1952 that same journalist wrote a pamphlet, UE Fights for Women Workers, that the historian Lisa Kannenberg, unaware of the identity of its author, has called "a remarkable manual for fighting wage discrimination that is, ironically, as relevant today as it was in 1952." At the time, the pamphlet helped raise the consciousness of Eleanor Flexner, who in 1959 would publish Century of Struggle, the first scholarly history of American women. In 1953-54, Flexner relied extensively on the pamphlet when she taught a course at the Jefferson School of Social Science in New York on "The Woman Question." Flexner's participation in courses at the school, she later said, "marked the beginning of my real involvement in the issues of women's rights, my realization that leftist organizations -- parties, unions -- were also riddled with male supremacist prejudice and discrimination." The labor journalist and pamphlet writer was Betty Friedan.

In 1973 Friedan remarked that until she started writing The Feminine Mystique (1963), "I wasn't even conscious of the woman problem." In 1976 she commented that in the early 1950s she was "still in the embrace of the feminine mystique." Although in 1974 she revealed some potentially controversial elements of her past, even then she left the impression that her landmark book emerged only from her own captivity by the very forces she described. Friedan's portrayal of herself as so totally trapped by the feminine mystique was part of a reinvention of herself as she wrote and promoted The Feminine Mystique. Her story made it possible for readers to identify with its author and its author to enhance the book's appeal. However, it hid from view the connection between the union activity in which Friedan participated in the 1940s and early 1950s and the feminism she inspired in the 1960s. In the short term, her misery in the suburbs may have prompted her to write The Feminine Mystique; a longer term perspective makes clear that the book's origins lie much earlier -- in her college education and in her experiences with labor unions in the 1940s and early 1950s.

The establishment of an accurate narrative of Betty Friedan's life, especially what she wrote in the 1940s and early 1950s, sheds light on the origins of 1960s feminism. Most historians believe that 1960s feminism emerged from events particular to that decade, but some have argued for a connection between the protest movements of the 1940s and the 1960s. Friedan's life provides evidence of such continuity by suggesting a specific and important connection between the struggle for justice for working women in the 1940s and the feminism of the 1960s. This connection gives feminism and Friedan, both long under attack for a lack of interest in working class and African American women, a past of which they should be proud.

More generally, understanding The Feminine Mystique in light of new information illuminates major aspects of American intellectual and political life in the postwar period. Friedan offered a feminist reworking of important themes in a genre of social criticism, including the notion of a faltering...


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