Betty Naomi Goldstein Friedan (1921-2006) (Smithsonian Institution Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

In February 1969, Betty Friedan, president and cofounder of the National Organization for Women and best-selling author of the feminist manifesto The Feminine Mystique, led a protest of 30 women at Manhattan’s storied Plaza Hotel. Since 1907, the Plaza’s elegant wood-paneled Oak Room and adjacent bar had excluded women from its weekday lunch service. Clad in a mink coat, the 48-year-old Friedan addressed the press gathered in the gilded lobby. Drawing parallels to the sit-ins of the civil rights movement, Friedan asserted that the Oak Room’s exclusion of women constituted a violation of state law, asserting, “This is the only kind of discrimination that’s considered moral, or, if you will, a joke.” 

Betty Friedan: Magnificent Disrupter by Rachel Shteir Yale University Press, 384 pp.

Indeed, the media mocked the “phalanx of feminists” and their theatrics. “For a woman to stroll into a men’s bar at lunchtime and demand service seems to me as preposterous as a woman marching into a barbershop and demanding a hot towel and a haircut,” the New York Post chided. Though the small protest, like hundreds of others staged by NOW, was ultimately successful, resulting in the hotel’s reversal of its men-only policy, it became an object of derision within the movement, too. Younger, more radical feminists like the journalist Gloria Steinem “felt that the Oak Room sexgregation action proved yet again that the organization was too white, too middle class,” as Rachel Shteir writes in her new biography, Betty Friedan: The Magnificent Disrupter. In 1963, the explosive publication of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan’s siren call for women trapped in the mind-numbing drudgery of housework and the glorification of motherhood, had lit the fuse of the second-wave feminist movement. But just six years after becoming a household name, Friedan was on the verge of being eclipsed by the movement she had created, dismissed by her critics as a relic of a stodgy feminism too narrowly focused on legal and economic equality.

Shteir’s book wrangles with the complex legacy of the mother of mid-20th-century feminism, and, by extension, the women’s rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s. This new biography is animated by a desire to restore Friedan’s reputation, which Shteir describes as marred by highly publicized quarrels within the women’s movement, and by disparaging historical treatments. Shteir portrays Friedan as misunderstood, both in her time and today. Shteir writes, “Since Friedan’s death [in 2006], the practice of either ridiculing her or making her disappear continues, carrying forward the portrait cemented twenty years ago in the last round of full-length biographies.” In 2020, a biopic about Steinem (The Glorias) and a miniseries about the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly and the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment (FX’s Mrs. America) introduced the women’s liberation movement to a new generation of young women. Indeed, Friedan fares poorly in both cinematic histories, coming across as shrill, out of touch, and self-absorbed.

Shteir’s rehabilitation of her subject rests on Friedan’s undeniable achievements. The Feminine Mystique is regularly listed among the most influential non-fiction books of the 20th century, alongside classics like the conservationist Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The first paperback edition sold 1.4 million copies. The futurist Alvin Toffler proclaimed that “it pulled the trigger on history.” It’s difficult to think of a book published in the past 25 years that has had a comparable cultural and political impact. Validating many women’s dissatisfaction with their lives—a phenomenon she dubbed “the problem that has no name”—Friedan wrote, “Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’ ” 

The Feminine Mystique launched Friedan’s public career. For the next decade, she was everywhere—in magazine profiles, with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, leading marches, speaking at civic organizations, and meeting with elected officials. But critics noted that the book spoke primarily to white, college-educated, suburban women, virtually ignoring Black and working-class women. Others questioned the originality of Friedan’s ideas and deemed the book derivative, particularly of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, published more than a decade earlier. These criticisms—too white, too derivative, too middle class—followed Friedan for decades. Feminist theorists like bell hooks demeaned the The Feminine Mystique as “a case study of narcissism, insensitivity, sentimentality, and self-indulgence.” Friedan often cast herself in heroic terms, musing, “The reactions to my book have been most satisfying, even the violence of the attacks … Writing this book seems to have catapulted me into a movement of history.”

Friedan was, by all accounts, difficult. Her own brother described her as “a cross I had to bear.” She had a fierce temper, was imperious and demanding, and insisted on proper deference. “She thought she was the wave,” an obituary noted wryly.

While Shteir acknowledges the narrow scope of The Feminine Mystique, she endeavors to rescue Friedan from attacks of classism and racism. By 1963, Shteir argues, Friedan had earned her left-wing bona fides. She was quick to join a picket line and had logged two decades of writing for labor publications, publishing critiques of capitalism, conspicuous consumption, and income inequality. After the book’s publication, despite viewing herself as not “an organization woman” but “a writer, a loner,” Friedan parlayed her celebrity to cofound NOW to confront bread-and-butter issues of legal and workplace inequality, and lobby for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and the expansion of the Civil Rights Act. Shteir writes that Friedan actively recruited Black luminaries like Coretta Scott King and Fannie Lou Hamer onto the boards of her organizations. Friedan drew frequent parallels between the civil rights and women’s movements, drawing ideological and tactical inspiration from the former, and referring to NOW as “the NAACP for women.” 

NOW was remarkably effective in raising awareness of structural inequalities in every sector of American life, many of which are unimaginable today: prohibitions against unaccompanied women being served liquor at a bar; United Airlines’ men-only “executive flights”; and newspaper classified ads divided by sex. In 1969, Friedan built on NOW’s success by cofounding NARAL (the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws) and in 1971, the National Women’s Political Caucus, to elevate women’s voice in the political process. 

Despite organizational successes, fissures emerged around substantive ideological disagreements, separating feminists from would-be allies in the labor and civil rights movements. For example, NOW split with unions over the ERA, which some feared would undercut hard-earned protections intended to shield women workers from long hours and dangerous work. And early Black allies like Pauli Murray abandoned NOW, frustrated with its ongoing preoccupation with the ERA at the expense of issues more directly impacting poor Black women. 

By the late 1960s, a clear schism had emerged between centrist feminists like Friedan and a growing women’s liberation movement, which included disparate radical feminist groups—many of them comprised of younger, unmarried women—advocating female separatism and sexual freedom. This strain of the movement, shaped by the Black Power movement, the student movement, antiwar protests, and the counterculture, was represented by Steinem, Friedan’s younger and more charismatic rival.

The two camps disagreed on fundamental matters, including divergent attitudes toward the nuclear family—Friedan argued that gender equality was compatible with marriage and motherhood, and rejected radical feminists’ vilification of men. Friedan shied away from portraying women as victims or members of an oppressed class. Influenced by the counterculture’s celebration of sexual freedom, some feminists drew connections between their own sexuality and feminism, celebrating the female orgasm and advocating alternatives to heterosexuality. Friedan quipped that lesbians in the movement constituted a “lavender menace” and feared that they would scare off the middle-class suburban housewives she needed to rally support for the ERA. In response to Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, which focused on sexual oppression, Friedan griped, “Young women only need a little more experience to understand that the gut issues of this revolution involve employment and education not sexual fantasy.” Even as Friedan enthusiastically led “guerrilla” actions like a 1967 protest in which NOW members threw typewriters and aprons at the White House gates, she eschewed those targeting beauty culture, like the Miss America protest where women burned bras and hanged the pageant host Bert Parks in effigy.  

Differences came to a head in 1968, when Valerie Solanas, the author of SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto, shot the artist Andy Warhol. Ti-Grace Atkinson and Flo Kennedy, leaders of the NY NOW chapter, rushed to Solanas’s defense, with Kennedy describing her as a hero of Black Power and “one of the most important spokeswomen of the feminist movement.” Friedan was appalled, and telegrammed, “Desist immediately from linking NOW in any way with Valerie Solanas. Miss Solanas’s motives in Warhol case entirely irrelevant to NOW’s goals of full equality for women in truly equal partnership with men.” When Atkinson, a former Friedan protégée, ran for reelection as president of NY NOW, Friedan rallied the opposition; Atkinson and Kennedy defected to found the Feminists, an egalitarian, radical organization. 

By the 1970s, Friedan was increasingly marginalized from the movement she birthed. Her attempts to make common cause with other factions could be cringingly tone deaf—she organized a truck bearing watermelon and fried chicken (a “Traveling Watermelon Feast”) in support of Black Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign. But Friedan continued to work on behalf of women’s equality. Shteir notes that in many ways, Friedan was ahead of the culture, writing about the pressures of the “double shift,” paid maternity leave, universal child care, and pressure to choose between family and career. In later years, she wrote about menopause, women’s right to love and sexual satisfaction, and aging. But on many issues, Shteir concedes, Friedan was on the wrong side of history. She viewed rape, domestic abuse, sexual liberation, pornography, and abortion as distractions from the fundamental fight for gender equality. 

Could a different, more flexible leader have navigated the transition from the early women’s movement, which emphasized legal and political strategies, to women’s cultural liberation? Perhaps. Shteir blames Friedan’s centrism and incrementalism for accelerating a mass defection of young women from NOW into radical feminism. But it’s hard not to see Friedan’s limitations as those of personality. Obliquely referring to Friedan, Steinem told a reporter, “I know other women with whom I have the same ideological differences with whom I can work.” 

Friedan was, by all accounts, difficult. Shteir’s interviews with Friedan’s former colleagues and family members provide some of the most biting commentary in the biography. Her own brother described her as “a cross I had to bear.” Within the movement, she turned on former allies, maligning them behind their backs. Friedan had a fierce temper, was imperious and demanding, and insisted that she receive proper deference. In a pointed obituary, Germaine Greer noted wryly of Friedan, widely acclaimed as the mother of second-wave feminism, “She thought she was the wave.” 

Jaw-droppingly hostile press coverage skewered Friedan’s clothing, hairstyle, weight,
and facial features. In a
Philadelphia Inquirer profile, a sympathetic female reporter offered a backhanded compliment, writing, “[Friedan] is not as grotesque as the press and many photographs would have you believe.”

Shteir shares the catty comments from Friedan’s fellow feminists, and the jaw-droppingly hostile press coverage, which skewered Friedan’s clothing, hairstyle, weight, and facial features. In a Philadelphia Inquirer profile, a sympathetic female reporter offered a backhanded compliment, writing, “[Friedan] is not as grotesque as the press and many photographs would have you believe.” There is more than a tinge of antisemitism to many attacks—her “long nose,” and “bulging” eyes—and in a movement filled with Jewish activists, Friedan seemed uniquely targeted. 

The discussion of how a subject is perceived by colleagues and family is fair game in a biography, but there’s something that feels cruel, almost—dare I say?—antifeminist about Shteir’s ample attention to these personal flaws. For a movement that trumpeted that “the personal is political,” Shteir’s repetition of the slurs—even as a form of reporting—feels gratuitous, even as they create the context for the hostile environment in which feminism flourished. And one wonders whether all of Friedan’s negative attributes—her bluntness, bossy demeanor, and assertiveness—might have been viewed as virtues in a male counterpart.

Ultimately, Shteir successfully argues that Friedan’s legacy rests on the work itself, rather than on her character, an assessment Friedan herself would have found gratifying. Through her writing, her organizations, and her unrelenting prodding at social norms, Friedan transformed the way women viewed themselves, even as true equality remains unrealized. Shteir concludes, “Friedan was no saint. But she was an oracle and an iconoclast, ahead of her time … She imagined herself under the shadows of history and eternity, acting with remorseless courage.” A fairly magnificent legacy, indeed.

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Sara Bhatia is an independent museum consultant who writes about museums, history, and culture.