Justice  /  Book Review

Betty Friedan and the Movement That Outgrew Her

Friedan was indispensable to second-wave feminism. And yet she was difficult to like.
Rachel Shteir

It was a cold day in Manhattan in 1969, and Patricia Burnett was wearing her fur. She had looked up Betty Friedan’s home address, and had made the trip to New York from Detroit, where the former beauty queen was a housewife and an occasional volunteer in local Republican politics. Inspired by Friedan’s 1963 best-seller, “The Feminine Mystique,” and by Friedan’s new feminist activist group, the National Organization for Women, or NOW, Burnett had formed a local chapter, and hosted a gathering at the Scarab Club to recruit her friends, the genteel women of Detroit’s white élite. She had expected it to be a harder sell. Burnett emphasized to the assembled group of mostly rich men’s wives that NOW was moderate and respectable, and would “take pains not to appear threatening in order to protect members from their husbands’ and friends’ disapproval,” Katherine Turk writes in “The Women of NOW: How Feminists Built an Organization That Transformed America” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), her new history of the group. But Burnett had been surprised at the women’s openness to feminist politics; they were especially moved by NOW’s call for abortion rights. Nearly all of them had joined NOW on the spot, and pitched in a total of a hundred and twenty dollars for their membership fees. Burnett was in New York to hand over the money—and to meet Friedan, her hero.

The woman who answered the door looked Burnett up and down. She called upstairs, “Betty, you won’t believe this. Here’s this woman down here in a chinchilla hat and muff, who says she’s a lifelong Republican.” Hearing this, Friedan ran down, and “yanked” Burnett inside.

Unbeknownst to Burnett, a lifelong Republican in a chinchilla hat was exactly the sort of NOW member that Friedan was looking for. In Rachel Shteir’s new biography, “Betty Friedan: Magnificent Disrupter” (Yale), it becomes clear why. Friedan’s vision was always to make NOW, and feminism more broadly, as nonthreatening as possible to the American mainstream. But the American mainstream, in Friedan’s imagination, was a very narrow, specific group. “Friedan saw herself as the protector of the marginalized,” Shteir writes, “by which she meant mothers, wives, and Midwesterners.” By 1969, Friedan was already afraid that this mass of women would be turned off by feminism’s reputation for bra-burning radicalism. “I kept moving to figure out new ways of bringing back the women the others were alienating,” she later recalled. Someone like Burnett could be her perfect poster child: a demure, respectable, and extremely feminine feminist.