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“Don't you clowns know who I am?": Betty Friedan’s Unchanging Sense of Self in a Changing World

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 In 1963, after six years of writing and research, Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book-length study of women in contemporary society, The Feminine Mystique, was published. This book was very influential and is even credited by some as the beginning of second-wave feminism. What is far more fascinating than the success of the book, however, is the individual and political success of Betty Friedan, who, in 1966, went on to found one of the largest and most important feminist organizations in the world, the National Organization for Women. 

For an activist in such a radical time, Friedan was surprisingly moderate. She was said by Germain Greer, in article written shortly after her death, to be “disconcerted by lesbianism, leery of abortion and ultimately concerned for the men whose ancient privileges she feared were being eroded.”

 While Greer’s negative opinion and personal bias is made clear from the beginning of the mock obituary, it is important to note that these claims are backed up by other historian’s account of Friedan’s actions in addition to the evidence provided by her own writings. Daniel Horowitz notes that Friedan wanted “a broad based movement that would appeal to what she called the mainstream,” and that her political preoccupation with issues that concerned mostly herself and other women similar to her would eventually prove divisive as other activists in the women’s movement came to believe that these attitudes “under-scored her own privilege.”

 In her very own magnum opus, The Feminine Mystique, she generalizes that “American women no longer know who they are”

 using interviews she conducted with exclusively upper-middle-class white women to back up this widely sweeping statement. For Friedan the “American woman” was the women that most closely resembled herself: white, upper-middle-class, and college educated. She was fundamentally selfish and had no interest in issues that did not concern her own experience. She was interested in things like “self-realization and fulfilling professional jobs.”

As previously mentioned, Friedan was indeed an exceptionally privileged woman. She attended Smith college and as a young graduate was very engaged as an activist in journalism and Labor politics. After her brief and exciting career, however, what she found left for her was the fifties. She found rampant consumerism and empty domestic tasks. She found conformity and oppressive silence about women’s dissatisfaction. She was a woman who had been promised something that she never received, and it was that feeling of personal hurt and betrayal that drove almost all her later actions within the feminist movement. She herself had been oppressed and seemed completely determined to right that wrong. Greer describes an incident with Friedan in Iran where “the various dignitaries and ministers of state all had their own cars, while the female guests of honour were piled into a single car.”

 Friedan showed little sympathy for her female colleagues and proceeded to throw a full out tantrum shouting “I deserve my own car! I will nutt travel cooped up in this thing with two other women. Don't you clowns know who I am?"

 She only calmed down once she had gotten what she wanted. The other two women rode in a single car together. 

During the foundational starting years of the second-wave feminist movement, Friedan maintained her figure-head place in important positions of power. She served as the first president of NOW. Eventually, however, as the changing and dynamic movement out-grew her personal sense of outrage at being oppressed, she would be replaced by the more radical Aileen Hernandez. Where Betty Friedan dismissed lesbian feminists as a “lavender menace” that would destroy the movement and purged them from the organization, Hernandez would support the addition of lesbian rights to the organization’s official list of political concerns. In the years to come the women’s movement became increasingly concerned with the plight of working-class and African American women. It became an intersectional movement about the interaction of gender with an number of other modes of systematic oppression. Friedan remained stubbornly uninterested in anything more than equaling women to their male counter-parts, regardless of their initial level of privilege. 

  Although Betty Friedan was an exceptionally static and flawed individual, her inability to budge, to evolve, to change her mind, is perhaps what made her so important. Her complete unwillingness to compromise would one day be her down-fall, but before that day came it was her strength. Under her presidency of NOW, feminism seemed accessible to many (middle-class) women and the organization gained 3000 member in three short years. Major news sources praised Friedan for her moderate politics that so thoughtfully refused to challenge male privilege on a deeper-than-surface level. Where success can be easily defined as achieving one’s goals, Friedan was undeniably successful, if not at times misguided, ignorant, and bigoted in her actions. Ultimately Friedan was an exceptionally important and influential public figure, whose inability to grow as an individual, may have been her most notable advantage.