Feminist Bird · Godly Women · Motherhood · Traditionalist Bird

Did Betty Friedan have a Terrible Mother?

Lori says today:

Did you know that the modern feminist movement began with three women who had terrible childhoods. “How ironic that these three intelligent women (Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, and Gloria Steinem), none of women is currently married, have so influenced our current notions of family and motherhood” (Dr. Brenda Hunter).

Because I don’t take a godly woman’s word as gospel, I did some searching on Friedan to see if its true and found some contrary information.

Bettye Naomi Goldstein was born on February 4, 1921, in Peoria, Illinois. Her father, Harry Goldstein, an immigrant from Russia, owned a jewelry store; her mother, Miriam (Horwitz) Goldstein, gave up her position as editor of the women’s page of the local paper to raise her family. Bettye attended Smith College, majoring in psychology and editing the college newspaper. Under her stewardship, the paper became a forum for the fight against fascism abroad and in favor of union organizing at home. She graduated summa cum laude in 1942.

Then there is this interview:

QUESTION: What did your family do?

BETTY FRIEDAN: My father had a fancy jewelry store, like sort of Tiffany’s for that part of the Middle West. And my mother was technically a housewife. I mean, she had been the women’s page editor of the Peoria paper and she had loved that. And she could hardly wait for me to get into junior high school to get me to try out for the school paper. And she was obviously a bright woman with a lot of my energy. [W]e were comfortably middle class. And so, except for the Depression, there was sometimes a maid and a cook and so on. [My mother] did everything that women were supposed to do, and she did it very well: golf, tennis, bridge, Mah Jongg, shopping. 

And, you know, when people, reporters, historians, [ask] why me, why did I start the women’s movement, I can’t point to any major episodes of sexual discrimination in my early life. But I was so aware of the crime, the shame that there was no use of my mother’s ability and energy. And I think her frustration . . . she was a beautiful woman and she was a very able woman. But she spent a lot of time in bed with colitis, and she dominated her husband and made her children’s life slightly miserable. 

And when my father was much older, began to have serious heart trouble, and he taught my mother how to run the business. And she had to start seriously working at running the [business]. Her colitis disappeared, you know. 

Of course that’s not good that she admits her mother was dominating her husband and this article certainly doesn’t paint her mother in a good light either. Her mom seemed highly critical and controlling. Some of it seems like typical mother-daughter battles. She certainly was no saint, but is she as terrible as some would like you to think? I am not so sure. Afterall, on the surface she did all the right things. She stayed at home. It’s not because Freidan’s mother went off to a career everyday that contributed to her dominating and critical personality. So, how does that happen? Who can we blame? How about simply fallen humanity. Imperfect people perhaps trying to do their best but not always hitting the mark. It can happen to anyone.

Then she only starts to become a business woman and work outside the home when her father gets sick. How terrible! Her mother is just doing what must be done to provide money to the family. I suppose the godly answer would be to just let the business fail (or sell the business) so she can stay at home. But it was her father’s decision that her mother be trained in the business. So, she was following what her husband wanted in the end. That one must be a pickle for traditionalist. Do you follow what your husbands wants and take over the business? OR insist that you must stay home, so he will have to find another way?

Brian comments at Lori’s:

Actually, Friedan didn’t come from a broken family. and her mother was a devoted stay at home mom.

Stay at home? Yes.  No broken family? It’s true, if “broken” is defined by divorce. Devoted is the part up for debate. It seems her mother stayed at home, but it wasn’t her passion or what she really wanted to do. You can’t just put a woman in a home and see this as some guarantee of familial happiness. A woman has to really feel content and fulfilled in the role of simply being mom.

Ken responds to Brian:

I am not sure where you are getting your information Brian, but the books about Friedan and Wikipedia paint a portrait of a woman who “She spoke of her own ‘terror’ at being alone, wrote that she had never once in her life seen a positive female role-model who worked outside the home and also kept a family, and cited numerous cases of housewives who felt similarly trapped.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betty_Friedan

This women appears to have carried on a almost full time career at writing for journals and her own books, neglecting her children and ultimately ended up with huge regrets.

To say that she was a “stay at home Mom” who hated it and did not focus her attention on her family and home life, may be accurate for some periods in her life, but misses the whole point of the post and what it means to be a stay at home Mom.

There seems to be some confusion of whether we are talking about Friedan’s mother, Friedan herself, or a random woman featured in her book. Here is the full quote from Wikipedia. Ken left out the bolded line which is really needed for context.

In her book, Friedan described a depressed suburban housewife who dropped out of college at the age of 19 to get married and raise four children.[13] She spoke of her own ‘terror’ at being alone, wrote that she had never once in her life seen a positive female role-model who worked outside the home and also kept a family, and cited numerous cases of housewives who felt similarly trapped. From her psychological background she criticized Freud‘s penis envy theory, noting a lot of paradoxes in his work, and offered some answers to women desirous of further education.[citation needed]

I think the depressed housewife who dropped out of college at 19 is referring to someone who Friedan interviewed for her book since the wikipedia says Friedan graduated from college.  If that is the case, then talking about the “terror” of being alone it is referring to another woman’s life who is probably actually talking about the isolation of being a housewife, not that she felt terror being alone as a child while her mother went off to work (this is the picture Ken and Lori are trying to paint).  “Friedan described a depressed suburban housewife”. It does not say she is talking about herself. The citation is to page 8 of her book, which I am looking for an online copy to verify (will update in comments what I find).  Whoever the person is, saying that she didn’t have any good role models of women who worked and also raised a family is not at all shocking for the time. Its not suggesting that this person’s mother was a bad role model.

Yes, Friedan had a huge career of writing, but not her mother. Lori’s orginal post is talking about the bad mothers of feminists, not the feminists themselves and how they ended up being mothers.

“To say that she was a “stay at home Mom” who hated it and did not focus her attention on her family and home life, may be accurate for some periods in her life, but misses the whole point of the post and what it means to be a stay at home Mom.

Brian didn’t say that, so I don’t know who or what he is referring to there. It could be part of Brian’s comment was edited out (as they do often) and Ken is responding to the deleted part making everything so much more confusing.

The point of all this is not to defend Friedan, but rather to show that both sides are always pushing an agenda and to get to the real truth you have to do some research. Friedan’s mother was hardly perfect, but was she a terror mother who created a truly horrible childhood, I am skeptical. I have to do more research, but on its surface I at least know the image and story traditionalists want you to believe isn’t all that it seems. Friedan could have ripped her mom to pieces in that interview if her childhood was so horrible, but rather described her as “bright” and had lots of “energy”. She did say she made her children’s lives “slightly miserable” but is that coming from her adult viewpoint or how she saw her mom as a child? I think as children we all see our mom’s as making our lives miserable. Her mother encouraged her to get into journalism and probably to fulfill the the dreams her mother could not.  Is that a horrible, distant mother? To those who think women should always stay home no matter what, I imagine so.

I have not researched the mother’s of the other two feminists yet.

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4 thoughts on “Did Betty Friedan have a Terrible Mother?

  1. Just looking up the wiki entries for feminist writers, 19th century is a good starting point. Even many of the ones who weren’t feminists ended up sympathetic to some of their social critiques because of the broader trend of women forced into breadwinning for male relatives who were too “educated” or “well-bred” to provide, or in more sympathetic cases were actually too sick/ill to work.

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  2. The backstories of feminists are generally pretty interesting. Often unreliable male provision is a major formative event. A surprising number of early modern (19th century and early 20th) feminists were women who had to earn for male relatives and from there logically thought women should have better economic options.

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