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The Untold Story of Betty Friedan
November 25, 2003
by Carey Roberts

In 1963, the course of American history was changed with the publication of Betty Friedan's book, The Feminine Mystique. Over five million copies of this explosive book eventually would be sold.

In the book, Friedan claimed she had lived in a "comfortable concentration camp" of New York City suburbia. And for years afterwards, Friedan claimed that her awareness of woman's rights did not coalesce until the late 1950s when she sat down to write the book in her stately mansion in Grand View-on-Hudson.

But based on his analysis of Friedan's personal papers at the Smith College library, historian Daniel Horowitz has dramatically refuted that claim.

In his book, Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique, Horowitz acknowledges that Friedan had a brilliant mind, was a prolific writer, and pursued her cause with a single-minded devotion.

But Horowitz also reveals a dark side to Friedan's social activism: Betty Friedan was a long-time participant in the American Communist movement.

Here is Betty Friedan's true story (page numbers from the Horowitz book are in parentheses):

  • Friedan was first exposed to socialist thinking while an undergraduate at Smith College in the late 1930s (pp. 39-49).
  • Beginning in 1940, while still a junior at Smith, Friedan became an outspoken advocate of the Popular Front, a pro-Communist umbrella that embraced a broad range of radical groups (p. 10).
  • While studying psychology at UC-Berkeley 1942-43, Friedan was a member of the Young Communist League (p. 93).
  • From 1943 to 1946, Friedan worked as journalist at the Federated Press, a left-wing news service established by Socialist Party members (p. 102).
  • In 1944, Friedan requested to join the American Communist Party. According to her FBI file, Friedan was turned down because "there already were too many intellectuals in the labor movement" (p. 93).
  • From 1946 to 1952, Friedan worked as a journalist (some would say "propagandist" is the more accurate term) at the radical United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America. According to historian Ronald Schatz, this labor union was "the largest Communist-lead institution of any kind in the United States." (p. 133).

Horowitz also documents Friedan's numerous relationships with Communist Party operatives, including her romantic involvement with physicist David Bohm while a student at Berkeley (p. 92). Bohm would later invoke the Fifth Amendment while testifying in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and leave the United States shortly thereafter.

It is important to note that Horowitz did not intend to write his book as an exposé. Indeed, throughout the book, Horowitz is clearly sympathetic to Friedan's feminist objectives.

But this much is clear: beginning in 1940, Betty Friedan became a committed and articulate advocate for the American socialist movement.

It is true that after 1952, her views become less strident. But Friedan's basic outlook still reflected the socialist worldview of capitalist oppression and female victimization.

Take this quote from Frederick Engel's famous 1884 essay, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State:

"The emancipation of women becomes possible only when women are enabled to take part in production on a large, social scale, and when domestic duties require their attention only to a minor degree."

Engel was saying that equality of the sexes would only happen when women abandoned their homes and become worker-drones.

Friedan copied that sentence into her notes sometime around 1959, while she was doing her research for The Feminine Mystique (p. 201).

That revolutionary passage would become the inspiration and guiding principle for Friedan's book, and eventually for the entire feminist movement.

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