I met Rachel Shteir for coffee at Oromo Café in Lincoln Square on a gusty late summer day. Rachel had been graduate-school roommates with one of my favorite professors, Rishona Zimring, but I had not known that or met her before. We had never connected, because we had been so busy juggling our own lives, writing and careers. I had to wonder if that blend of actualization and disconnection was a comment on the current state of feminism.
Rachel Shteir is head of the Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism program at the Theatre School at DePaul and the author of three acclaimed books. Her latest, “Betty Friedan: Magnificent Disrupter” is a dynamic biography of the woman who wrote “The Feminine Mystique,” the 1963 bestseller that gave middle-class women a language for their unspoken dissatisfaction and oppression. “The Feminine Mystique” begins with housewives making the beds, making sandwiches for their children, driving their sons to Cub Scouts, and at the end of the day, lying beside their husbands, thinking, “Is this all?” It struck a chord, and Friedan, who was herself a writer and activist juggling motherhood, marriage and career, lost no time in launching a movement. She founded the National Organization of Women (NOW), which fought for women’s rights as human rights, and sparked what is now known as the Second Wave of feminism.
But Friedan was a complicated leader, a woman whose hot temper still haunts those who knew her, and a visionary who remains misunderstood. Rachel Shtier gives us a brilliant and complex portrait of Friedan in her new biography. I was excited to sit with Rachel and talk about Betty Friedan, and feminism then and now.
Your book seems especially important today, after the overturning of Roe v. Wade and renewed arguments about women’s reproductive freedom. It seems like we have lost the narrative about women’s rights. Do you agree? Did you feel a sense of urgency as you wrote Betty Friedan’s biography?
Yes, I agree that we have lost the narrative about women’s rights. Just the phrase women’s rights is confusing to a lot of people, who ask: aren’t women already equal? Or: should women be a category? Or: isn’t racial inequity more important?
The writing of this book took some time, so at different times in the process the urgency hit me differently. I sold the book in 2016, the year that Trump came into office, and I did a lot of the research and writing during his presidency. During that time, I did feel a sense of urgency, which mostly took the form of: people today have to know who Betty is—not some clichéd idea of her.
You did six years of research, accessing previously unopened archives and interviewing more than one-hundred people who knew Betty. What did you uncover in your research that was new? What did you notice about the interviews?
Well, as I said, I sold the book in 2016 and it was published September 12. So it took about five to six years to research and write. I had access to some people’s personal papers and archives that were not publicly available in the 1990s, when the last round of major biographies about Betty were written. We are in some ways living in a golden age of archives for the women’s movement as more and more women donate their papers, and the story becomes richer and more complex.
I hope that my research uncovers a fuller picture of Betty as a woman, an activist, a wife and particularly as a mother. She was devoted to her children, but she had a very specific idea of what it meant to be a mother. It was not the conventional idea. Certainly not the conventional idea of the time.
As for interviewing, the first thing I noticed was how people remembered being hurt by something inconsiderate she blurted out, maybe forty or sixty years ago. Almost everyone started their interview with a story about that.
Why do you think people wanted to talk more about Betty’s volatile personality than about her ideas and work for equality?
There are a lot of reasons for this. Talking about Betty’s volatile personality is, of course, what the media did during her lifetime, largely to discredit her and the women’s movement. So many New York Times stories cast her as a nutty character. Which I think is easy to do—it is easy to write her off because she had a temper. Since childhood, by the way. Throwing a fit was one of the ways she dealt with the conformism and wounds of her childhood.
But I also think that we live in an age when all we want to talk about is people’s lives—not engage with their work or ideas. We have given up on the idea that the work and the life need to be examined separately, which was a cornerstone of my education. Then too, I think talking about women’s rights and NOW is embarrassing to people, or they think these ideas or organizations are some far left group, perhaps, or that they’re full of anarchists. But actually NOW was a diverse group from the start. That was baked into its identity—the idea that women from different backgrounds could go into a room and somehow meet. NOW didn’t always live up to this ideal, but that was where it started from. Which we’ve really lost today.
Betty Friedan wrote about American housewives who have not been able to work outside the home and actualize their intellects. But in the years before “The Feminine Mystique,” she wrote on behalf of the poor and working people, and against conspicuous consumption and the hierarchies of capitalism. She wrote about race and acknowledged that a Black woman is “doubly cursed for her race and her gender” in terms of equal rights. She collaborated with women of color in the founding of NOW. Why do you think her inclusiveness—and an awareness of what we would now call “intersectionality”—has been misunderstood in recent years?
I think it is easier to organize if you have a scapegoat. If you are hurling yourself against something, or someone. Some evil force. I think unfortunately Betty became a scapegoat within the women’s movement. As early as 1970 she felt that. Part of it was age. By 1970, she was nearing fifty and divorced. A lot of women in the movement were young and single. Part of it was other things like her Jewishness, her Midwesternness.
Betty was radical in that she saw women as a category and pushed that idea into the zeitgeist, but she was also less radical than young women’s liberationists coming of age in, say, 1968, when she was president of NOW. Betty also cared what Republicans and housewives thought. She wanted them to be part of the coalition. But a lot of young women did not. Intersectionality is an idea that was born in 1989, I believe, nearly three decades after “The Feminine Mystique” was written. It was well after the AIDS crisis had begun and really it was on the cusp of Third Wave feminism, which was itself a rebellion against Betty.
I also think that unfortunately it has been the nature of women’s justice that it really is one step forward and two steps back, and each generation has to reinvent things that you would think had already been settled. Especially under a Republican administration.
In reading your quotes from Friedan, I was struck by how often she used the language of Civil Rights for the rights of women. Do you consider that an effective strategy or an appropriation, a misstep?
One of Betty’s models was the NAACP. In fact, NOW was called The NAACP for women. So yes, she often borrowed from that language. I don’t know if it was a misstep. It was what she thought she could and had to do. She was struggling, as were others, to find a way to convince people that women’s rights were as important as Civil Rights. Perhaps if she had been able to create a language that was distinct to women’s rights, things would have gone differently. I see where you’re going with this. But she couldn’t do that. She was caught between Civil Rights and radical feminism. And she used the language of Civil Rights in part to buttress radical feminists. She didn’t or couldn’t create her own language.
Your book taught me about Betty Friedan, but also about the context of the times. I was reminded that women in my mother’s and grandmother’s time did not have the right to a divorce, or to a credit card, that few jobs were open to women, and businesses were allowed to openly discriminate upon the basis of sex. Were you aware that telling Betty’s story would also educate readers about women’s rights in the twentieth century?
Yes. There are so many rights that as recently as sixty years ago we did not have. That was shocking to learn. Again, I think we have forgotten that these are recently acquired gains.
Your book was published in the Yale University Press series, “Jewish Lives.” And you write about Betty Friedan’s Jewish family and her resistance to anti-Semitism. What are some ways that Betty’s experience as a second-generation Jewish American influenced her thinking and work?
Betty really began to talk about herself as a Jew openly in the 1970s, when she was in her fifties. But she experienced anti-Semitism before that: growing up in Peoria, at Smith College, in the women’s movement. She just did not know how to articulate it until the 1970s. She was also very influenced by the Human Potential Movement, as were a lot of other Jewish Americans.
What was the Human Potential Movement?
HPN was a New Age movement of the 1960s that rejected organized religion and focused on developing the whole person. It used scream therapy, Gestalt, reiki and other techniques to free the individual from the repressive chains of the past.
You quote Betty as writing, “I have never experienced anything as powerful, truly mystical, as the forces that seemed to overcome me as I was writing.” Did you experience any coincidences or strong intuitions when you were writing about Betty?
Several times, I became really angry on her behalf and felt like I had to defend her. Other times, I was struck by the prophetic nature of so many of her remarks.
“We do not know how strong we could be if we affirmed ourselves as women and joined together.” That’s from “The Crisis in Women’s Identity,” written in 1964.
I loved learning that Betty named her intuition “the ping,” and taught herself to identify projects in which her personal concerns dovetailed with those of the wider world. As those “pings” got louder, you write that this instinct taught her “when to shout, when to create a storm.” How did Betty Friedan use her big personality to get things done?
From an early age, Betty learned that to resist, she had to make noise. She did this in different ways. One way was acting. Another was throwing fits. There was at times a kind of violence to her character. She was also incredibly willful. A story that epitomizes all this and your question is the beginning of the Women’s Strike for Equality. In 1970, Betty had stepped down or been asked to leave the presidency of NOW. At the NOW conference where she was supposed to deliver her exit speech (which went on for at least two hours), she floated the idea of a nationwide strike in August, five months away, on the anniversary of women getting the vote. The media was there and so the incoming president and the other officers of NOW had to move forward with the idea. It proved to be one of the most successful events in NOW’s history. It was really the thing that turned NOW into a mass movement.
I’m struck by how many of the things that Betty fought for remain relevant—the tension between motherhood and work, the pain and rifts between Black women and white women, the fight to see reproductive rights as human rights, and the movement for women’s right to equal pay. (The Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution has still not been passed.) What do you think that Betty would say about the state of women today?
Just this morning I saw that five women professors at Vassar are suing over gender discrimination. So it really seems to me (and your question implies) that we have stalled. Betty knew that we had stalled. At the end of her life, she talked about how much work there was to be done. She didn’t want to stop talking about women’s justice. In fact, she would not have stopped if her children had not dragged her off the stage (not literally). I think she would not like the focus on identity politics, obviously. This was something that she remained against into the 1990s at least. She thought it was a distraction from securing the essential rights that you mention above.
Can you share one of Betty’s ideas that we could still learn from?
I mentioned the story about The Women’s Strike for Equality. I also want to mention that Betty was fearless. She was fearless and she did not back down. Sometimes this looked like rudeness or worse. But sometimes it was exactly what was needed. She tormented senators to vote for whatever it was she was campaigning for in the media. She would tell them she would hunt them down in their vacation homes. She was not afraid to be disliked. That’s really what I want to say.
She was not afraid to be disliked. That is liberation from the usual expectations for women.
We have a lot to learn from the past. Lessons are everywhere we look. We should not discard it. We should not allow others—whatever their ideologies—to convince us that the past should merely be destroyed, as if that could happen anyway.
“Betty Friedan: Magnificent Disrupter”
By Rachel Shteir
Jewish Lives series, Yale University Press, 384 pages