Betty Friedan: Her Life

Overview

There is no one in the women's movement more renowned or pervasive in her presence, more long-lasting - or more contentious - than Betty Friedan. But what sort of person is she, really? Judith Hennessee has dug deep and come up with a story of a woman of many paradoxes, a woman who survived disastrous moments and who continues to this day to lead, to find new energies and crusades. Before feminism, she focused her activism on fighting for the cause of labor unions against big business. She wanted to be an ...
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Overview

There is no one in the women's movement more renowned or pervasive in her presence, more long-lasting - or more contentious - than Betty Friedan. But what sort of person is she, really? Judith Hennessee has dug deep and come up with a story of a woman of many paradoxes, a woman who survived disastrous moments and who continues to this day to lead, to find new energies and crusades. Before feminism, she focused her activism on fighting for the cause of labor unions against big business. She wanted to be an actress. Her female friends notwithstanding, she was known as the feminist who didn't like women. A champion of the family, she had a lusty and violent marriage. Her husband, Carl, was the first to realize that The Feminine Mystique would be a success - but it was the book and his wife's fame that precipitated the breakup of their marriage. NOW, the first feminist organization she founded, was never meant to be all-inclusive. Friedan envisioned it as a group that would be able to work things out with those in power. Even though she was a founder of three of the most important organizations of the women's movement - NOW, NWPC, NARAL - two of them shunted her aside. And she continually confronted Gloria Steinem, her archrival, over the movement's direction.
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Editorial Reviews

Entertainment Weekly
...[T]he author delivers an unsentimental portrait of a cultural heroine who, ironically, became known as "the feminist who didn't like women."
Norah Vincent

There are two reasons you're likely to find the new biography of feminist matriarch Betty Friedan less than scintillating. One, Judith Hennessee is not a very good writer. Two, Betty Friedan is not a very good subject -- or, at least, that's what you end up thinking after you've read 100 pages or so of Hennessee's portrait. This reaction, naturally, is the sign of a poor biography, one that surely violates the cardinal rule of Biography 101: Never let your biography convince your readers or, worse, posterity, that your subject and your readers both would have been better off without you. Sad to say, Hennessee, a former media columnist for Manhattan, Inc. magazine, has an unfortunate talent for leaching the spark of life out of a life. She could make a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis read like an office supply catalog. In Hennessee's hands, Friedan's life seems strangely drab and discontinuous, and it shouldn't, because Friedan has more going for her than that, even if a fair share of it is unpleasant.

On one level, Hennessee admires Friedan deeply. She wants to pay fitting tribute to the woman who founded the National Organization for Women and who wrote The Feminine Mystique. Or, perhaps more accurately, she wants to pay tribute to NOW and The Feminine Mystique as cultural phenomena and to Friedan only secondarily as the brain that created them. In fact, Hennessee confesses in her introduction, she found it difficult to reconcile what she so revered about Friedan the thinker with what she learned about Friedan the person. Not long ago, this kind of disillusionment was a familiar problem among Heideggerians, who were dismayed to learn that their brilliant, percipient idol was a Nazi. So it is with Friedan, the great liberator of women, who turns out to have been a misogynist as well as an ill-tempered, selfish, ego-driven, arrogant and altogether disagreeable human being. Hennessee writes, "She was a feminist who preferred men ... and deferred to them -- and did not even like most women ... She was rude and nasty, self-serving and imperious ... But the movement she ushered in is immense ... What she did for women outweighs the rest."

Hennessee's laundry list of unsavory facts does its own work in the reader's mind, work that is all the more damaging to Friedan because you suspect that Hennessee herself doesn't fully realize the pervasively bad impression her prose is creating. She blithely recounts, for example, the lurid details of Betty and Carl Friedan's savagely tempestuous 21-year marriage: "Although her marriage was violent, Betty was not what one ordinarily thinks of as a battered wife. She and Carl were a match; she egged him on, and she gave as good as she got ... Her rages had started to frighten her. She would black out during fights with Carl and wake up with a bruised face and a black eye." Hennessee describes at length how Betty and Carl shouted and threw crockery and endless streams of invective at each other. Then she calmly drops this bombshell: "With the aid of therapy, all three children managed to distance themselves from the emotional fallout of the marriage."

Things get still nastier with Hennessee's detailed account of the all-out war that Friedan waged against Gloria Steinem (whom she called "the Hair") and Bella Abzug. When, in the mid-'70s, media wags accused Steinem of being a CIA agent, Friedan, Hennessee writes, did "her best to publicize the charges." As for Friedan's relationship with Abzug, Hennessee describes it in her characteristic lugheaded style: "Bella and Betty were like the North Vietnamese and the Americans fighting over the shape of the table at the Paris Peace Conferences."

Even when Hennessee praises her subject, she does it so ham-handedly that you feel a little embarrassed on Friedan's behalf: "Betty emerged as the giant, creating order out of chaos ... She was a force of nature, as indomitable as the movement she had helped to found ... Shouting into the microphone, pumping her fists in the air, she struck the chords of her life and outlined a transcendent dream ..."

If you go into this biography liking Friedan, you'll probably come away wanting to shake her harridan's dust off your bootsoles, even if you are a self-described feminist. If you go into it disliking Friedan, you'll come away with a well-stocked cache of fresh ammunition to use against her, and quite possibly a renewed desire to take out a contract on her life.
Salon

Library Journal
Hennessee takes an unsentimental look at the author of The Feminine Mystique and founder of NOW. In the second book in a year to be published on Friedan (after Daniel Horowitz's Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique, Univ. of Massachusetts, 1998), Hennessee draws on personal interviews and on Friedan's papers, housed at Radcliffe. Throughout, Hennessee can't seem to decide whether her subject deserves damnation or praise but seems to settle mostly on the former. There are pages and pages of unflattering anecdotes about Friedan and her temper, sometimes leaving the reader wondering whether their point is to marginalize her place in history. Indeed, says Hennessee, the threat of marginalization is what most motivated Friedan once the movement was taken over by younger and more radical women. The more she felt sidelined, the louder she roared. Recommended only for large collections with interest in Friedan.--Roseanne Castellino, Arthur D. Little, Cambridge, MA
Entertainment Weekly
...[T]he author delivers an unsentimental portrait of a cultural heroine who, ironically, became known as "the feminist who didn't like women."
Judith Shulevitz
Biographers rarely come across a subject as acutely in need of their skills as Betty Friedan....[Her] feminism is not irrelevant. We just can't see it anymore....Friedan's life and accomplishments are a testament to...a hopefulness that swept through society like a giant wind, rearranging it as it went.
The New York Times Book Review
Women's Review of Books
Hennessee is...concerned with [Friedan's] personal life, which is...turbulent and fascinating....Hennessee's [narrative] is journalistic and based mainly on interviews....Hennessee's is far from an uncritical portrait, and indeed is extremely unflattering in many ways.
Kirkus Reviews
An exhaustive, readable, forthright biography of the woman who, however truculent she may have been in both personal and political disputes, earned her way as one who launched the second-wave feminist revolution.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679432036
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/16/1999
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 330
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.29 (d)

Meet the Author

Judith Hennesseeis a freelance journalist who writes mostly about women and media. She has written for The New York Times Book Review, Travel, Arts and Leisure, Ms., Esquire, Mademoiselle, Connoisseur, Vanity Fair, Town and Country, Avenue, Savvy, and Mirabella, among others. She was a contributing editor to [MORE]: The Journalism Review and media columnist for Manhattan,inc., and won the 1986 Front Page Award for her columns. With Dr. Michael Baden, she was co-author of Unnatural Death, published by Random House in 1989. She lives in New York City.
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