Daniel Horowitz further complicated the book's legacy with his 1998 book Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique. In it, he exposed a startling, weirdly little-known truth about its author: She wasn't who she said she was.
In 1963 and the years afterward, Friedan had claimed that she "came to political consciousness out of a disillusionment with her life as a suburban housewife," and in so doing, she promoted The Feminine Mystique by marketing its authenticity. But Betty Friedan was not a simple housewife driven to action by her own feelings of domestic captivity. Rather, she was a seasoned radical with years of experience in leftist politics.
Friedan's version of her life, which historians and journalists readily accepted, hid from view the connection between her union activity of the 1940s and early 1950s and the feminism she articulated in the 1960s. Her story made it possible for white suburban women readers to identify with its author and thereby enhanced the book's appeal.
Horowitz's book revealed that Friedan, then known as Betty Goldstein, had become involved with radical leftist activism during her years at Smith College from 1938 to 1942. At Smith, she was editor of a college campus paper that argued for non-intervention in WWII and unionization of the maids on campus.
From 1946 to 1952, she wrote for the Federated Press, America's foremost leftist news service at the time, and for six years (1946 to 1952) she wrote for UE News, the news periodical of the radical-aligned United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union. There, she wrote pamphlets calling for equal pay and an end to discrimination. According to Horowitz,
She emphasized how discriminatory practices corporations used against women hurt men as well by exerting downward pressure on wages of all workers. ... Friedan set forth a program that was, [historian Lisa] Kannenberg has noted, "a prescription for a gender-blind workplace."
Somewhat ironically, given the criticism she received from bell hooks and others,
She highlighted the "even more shocking" situation African-American women faced, having to deal with the "double bars" of being female and African American.
So even though, as Horowitz puts it, "most women's historians have argued that 1960s feminism emerged in response to the suburban captivity of white middle-class women during the 1950s, the material in Friedan's papers suggested additional origins—anti-fascism, radicalism and labor union activism of the 1940s."
And while Friedan did have a big house, a breadwinning husband, and three children, she was never anybody's typical, cooped-up suburban housewife. She enjoyed a successful side career as a freelance journalist, and often traveled for her reporting.
It's founded on a lot of lies.
Several of Betty Friedan's fundamental arguments in The Feminine Mystique are based on source materials by Margaret Mead, Alfred Kinsey, and Bruno Bettelheim—three thinkers whose most famous conclusions have since come under serious critical questioning. As Alan Wolfe wrote in The Atlantic in 1999, that fact raises "the uncomfortable question of whether a book can arrive at the larger truths if the bricks on which it is built won't stand up to time."