cover image Betty Friedan: Magnificent Disrupter

Betty Friedan: Magnificent Disrupter

Rachel Shteir. Yale Univ, $27 (384p) ISBN 978-0-300-22002-5

Historian Shteir (The Steal) highlights Betty Friedan’s complex legacy as a tireless and mercurial crusader for feminism in this warts-and-all biography. In 1963, Friedan channeled her unhappy experiences as a daughter and wife into The Feminine Mystique, in which she described the “numbing gendered division of labor at home.” The book’s success helped transform Friedan from a left-wing print journalist into a popular—if controversial—speaker and a cofounder of the National Organization for Women (NOW). At the second NOW Congress in 1969, Friedan clashed with lesbian activists, calling them the “lavender menace” and attempting to distance NOW from their cause. Delving into Friedan’s reasoning, Shteir concludes that a combination of Midwestern prudishness, paranoia (Friedan “contended that the lesbians were CIA plants”), and left-leaning economic theories convinced her that material gains like wage equality, free abortion, and free childcare were paramount for women’s liberation, while “sexual politics” spearheaded by lesbian intellectuals like Kate Millet were a dangerous distraction. Shteir’s comprehensive research includes interviews with Millett and other second-wave feminists, and illuminating deep dives into archives recently made public. The result is a lucid portrait of Friedan as a bold yet flawed advocate for women’s equality. (Sept.)