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 DiLucchio
From Publishers Weekly
Published in 1963, Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was a bestselling analysis of the oppression of middle-class women that helped ignite the women's liberation movement. In this unauthorized biography, Hennessee reveals how Friedan's difficult early life contributed to her theories and how the book's success influenced much of the rest of her life. Born in 1921 to an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Peoria, Ill., Friedan was highly intelligent, but her childhood and teen years were marred by anti-Semitism and sexism. While attending Smith College and UC-Berkeley, Friedan flirted with political radicalism and labor organizing before marrying, becoming a mother and starting a career as a journalist and later an author. The success of The Feminine Mystique made Friedan the country's most prominent spokesperson for women's rights, a role that was bolstered by her involvement in founding the National Organization for Women in 1966. However, as the women's movement grew, Friedan's position was contested, and confrontations with other leaders grew more frequent. While never shying away from what she presents as Friedan's faultsAher rages, excessive drinking, vindictiveness and hostility toward lesbians and women of different class and racial backgroundsAHennessee remains sympathetic to a fault, often presenting historical material uncritically from Friedan's point of view. This tight focus precludes a more comprehensive look at the period. (Karla Jay's recent Tales of the Lavender Menace is more successful in this regard.) Hennessee's prose is often clumsy, her marshaling of detail lax and her approach to her subject so fawning that the book feels insubstantial. Friedan and the women's movement deserve better. Photos not seen by PW.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.