Betty Friedan: Her Life

Judith Adler Hennessee, Author Random House (NY) $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-679-43203-6
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 faults--her rages, excessive drinking, vindictiveness and hostility toward lesbians and women of different class and racial backgrounds--Hennessee 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. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 03/01/1999
Release date: 03/01/1999
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