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The Abandonment of Betty Friedan

What does the academy have against the mother of second-wave feminism?

Today, Betty Friedan is recognized for two enormous accomplishments: her 1963 best seller, The Feminine Mystique, which helped push the women’s movement into the national conversation, and cofounding the National Organization for Women three years later. The Feminine Mystique is still read in women’s-history classes, especially the gorgeously written first chapter, which makes a persuasive case for the ubiquity of “the problem that had no name”: women’s entrapment in the roles of wives and mothers. “It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States,” she writes, imagining what half the human race might become if they could break free.

And yet Friedan’s status in the academy is uncertain. Today’s feminist intellectuals are as likely to pillory as praise her, and she’s often cast as a foil, or even a villain, in narratives extolling other feminists of her era. One professor of women and gender studies told me they now hesitate before teaching Friedan for fear of a backlash from students. Smith College, Friedan’s alma mater, conspicuously does not list her, along with Gloria Steinem, Sylvia Plath, and Julia Child, among the top famous graduates it holds up as epitomes of excellence. (She is on a much longer list, in small print, of second-tier achievers.)

The roots of Friedan’s embattled, uneven relationship with higher ed go back to her childhood. Long before she arrived at Smith, the woman born Bettye Goldstein in 1921 had a complex relationship with academe. Going to Smith in the first place — the same college her grandfather had blocked her mother, Miriam, from attending — was an accomplishment, as well as a rebellion. Bettye excelled there, majoring in psychology, editing the newspaper, and graduating summa cum laude in 1942. She credited Smith for helping her not to feel “like a freak.”

But there were negatives as well. The finishing-school girls in her class at Smith condescended to her. Although she had encountered antisemitism in her hometown of Peoria, Ill., Smith acquainted her with the genteel, East Coast version. And there was sexism. Recalling a conference of student-newspaper editors years later, Friedan observed that male editors of Ivy League newspapers were “expected to become … a big newspaper editor or a college president or an ambassador,” whereas she “had no such power assumptions or ambitions.”