History pages allow knowing a person from the past. However, there are different ways in which historians treat a subject from the past or a person who influenced the past, present or has the ability to influence the future. Such a person was Betty Friedan and this essay explores how she was perceived by two historians, respectively Daniel Horowitz and Stephanie Coontz, analyzing their account of her personal and activist life.
First, there will be analyzed the work of Daniel Horowitz (“Rethinking Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique: Labor Union, Radicalism and Feminism in Cold War America”, published in 1996 in American Quarterly, volume 48, no. 1, pp. 1-42. Second, Horowitz article and findings on Friedan will be compared with Stephanie Coontz’s book “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and the American Women in the Dawn of 1960s”, published by Basic Books in 2011 in New York.
As a historian focusing on consumerism, Daniel Horowitz views Betty Friedan’s feminist activity as a fight against the big corporation that exploited women by employing them for smaller salaries compared with their men counterparts in the purpose of gaining increased profits. The historian focuses on Friedan’s feminist activism that voiced out a concern that was in its early development phases, namely the equal salaries between men and women.
Horowitz indicates that Friedan’s feminist articles, published while she supported the feminist movement of the labor union United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), were criticizing the corporatist goal of making women exponent of the consumerism, promoted by the big companies that hired women, such as GE, Westinghouse or Sylvania through shiny advertorials.
The historian tells how Betty Friedan took advantage of her upper class condition for dedicating herself 9 hours per day to working, being away from home, while hiring a housekeeping – nanny to fill her role as a mother. From analyzing her interviews and her self-evaluation as it is revealed from her reading “The Feminine Mystique”, Horowitz simply states that Friedan was content with her decision, although initially she was blaming herself for ignoring her children and her duties as a mother and as a housewife.
The historian Daniel Horowitz looks at “The Feminine Mystique”, focusing on the critics that Betty Friedan’s book received for addressing the book to a middleclass women audience, neglecting her previous focus on working class women, African American or Latina women.
With these two aspects that shaped Friedan’s life (the dedication for her work in the disfavor of her family duties and the shift of focus from working class women to middleclass women), Horowitz considers that the feminist activist expressed her real focus in life for a career development and for gaining a consistent income. The historian indicates that Friedan’s 1963 book indicates a visible anti-Americanism and anti-communism speech, suggesting her political views that shaped the arguments developed in the book. Her ideological book, Horowitz considers, is directed towards the middleclass population, especially women, the target of consumerism, calling them to wake up and to liberate themselves from the consumerism slavery imposed by the American-consumerism conspiracy.
The historian notes that Betty Friedan was the exponent of the left feminism that instigated the American feminism in the 1960s. However, while the historian acknowledges that the feminist movement was launched in radical conditions provided by the UE labor union, it was enhanced by middleclass, educated women, such as Betty Friedan. He nevertheless indicates that Friedan has hidden the actual source of her book (her political views), arguing that the book would have not enjoyed commercial success if the readers knew that the book was politically inspired.
Similarly to Horowitz, another historian, Stephanie Coontz addresses the critique that Friedan’s book “The Feminine Mystique” raised, according to which the author ignored the problems of the working women, while focusing on the middleclass, educated women.
Unlike Horowitz, Coontz takes a different approach on viewing Betty Friedan. Coontz mostly focuses on the feminist activist’s book “The Feminine Mystique”, applying a sociological research technique called oral history to interview women on their perceptions on the book and on the author. Therefore, rather than analyzing the author’s own words from interviews, published and unpublished articles and from the book itself, as Horowitz did, Coontz lets the actual audience of the book, the women, discuss about the effects that Friedan’s ideological document had upon them. The results are mixed. As such, some educated women like the journalist Kate O’Brien consider even nowadays that Friedan was responsible for shifting the perfectly normal traditional lifestyle of the American families by brainwashing women into believing that the “selfless devotion was a recipe for misery” On the other hand, other women consider that Friedan ignited women to end the marital rape or to burn their bras, although, as Coontz indicates, Betty Friedan did not mention such claims in her book.
Nevertheless, Coontz is sharply pointing out that Betty Friedan encouraged the middle class women to find a middleclass job, while finding housekeepers and nannies to take care of their chorus and babies, criticizing the fact that Friedan did not address the issue of the women employed for these jobs; as such, Coontz approaches the biased attitude and the elitist prejudice with which Friedan favored the middleclass women.
In his article, Horowitz states that Friedan’s ideology that inspired her to write her book was based on her political activity. Coontz confirms this information, explaining how Horowitz’s finding pushed Friedan to threaten to sue Horowitz, as she wrote the book from the position of a middleclass white women, not as a political activist; such an association would impede the commercial success of the book.
The feminist activity of Betty Friedan was perceived differently across time and culture. This essay outlined two views on the historical figure of Betty Friedan. It compares the focus on radical feminism and political activity that Daniel Horowitz attributed to Friedan with the various perceptions on Friedan that Stephanie Coontz gathered from interviewing women who read “The Feminine Mystique”.
Coontz, Stephanie. “A Strange Stirring”: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of 1960s” New York: Basic Books, 2011.
Horowitz, Daniel. “Rethinking Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique: Labor Union, Radicalism and Feminism in Cold War America”. American Quarterly: 48(1), 1996.