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, a wonderfully penetrating writer who lived through many of the events recounted in this book, 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. She continually confronted Gloria Steinem, her arch-rival, over the movement's direction.
Betty Friedan is a book whose candor some will find objectionable, but most will come away with a new appreciation of a memorable woman whose rich life is here riotously revealed.
"Her insecurities were as great as her achievements," Judith Hennessee writes in her Introduction, "and her flaws cost her her leadership. But the movement she ushered in is immense, worldwide; it has permeated our lives; it is intrinsic to the public debate, and its issues have to be addressed. What she did for women outweighs the rest."
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A biography, even a sympathetic one, isn't always the sincerest form of flattery. The kindest histories are often those written about a subject when enough time has passed for all the wounds to heal. Judith Hennessee's portrait of feminist Betty Friedan is a study in profound contradictions and a reminder that the founders of movements are not necessarily nice people. As a child of privilege growing up in Depression-era Peoria, Friedan was both brilliant and caustic; an elitist, and at the same time an outsider--a Jew in a world of moneyed Gentiles. Later, at Smith College, Friedan flowered intellectually, but then, after a short stay at Berkeley and a few years as a union organizer, she fell in love and seemingly turned her back on the world of ideas, choosing marriage and convention over a career. Friedan liked convention, and it was within its confines that she produced her revolutionary thesis The Feminine Mystique.
Friedan's contradictions as recounted within the pages of Hennessee's well-written and thoroughly researched book read like a laundry list. She's a feminist who prefers the company of men to the friendship of women. Her temper and penchant for political infighting cost her the leadership of the National Organization for Women (which she founded). And, with her sense of entitlement, she saw no irony in calling a meeting of feminist organizers in her New York apartment, then employing a black maid in a white uniform to serve refreshments. But despite her flaws, the Betty Friedan who ultimately emerges from Hennessee's biography is very much a heroine--a woman never afraid to challenge the status quo, whose keen perceptions and astute social vision have always been far more than the sum total of her own prejudices. Betty Friedan, says Hennessee, is a force of nature. --Patrizia DiLucchioAbout 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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