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Labor Day and the Feminine Mystique

Aug 28, 2013

This Labor Day during the 50th anniversary year of the publication of the landmark “Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan, one wonders, “What if?”

What if more people knew of Friedan’s background – especially her years as a labor journalist leading up to the infamous Red Scares of post-war America?

Bill Knight

Few realize that Friedan, born and raised in Peoria, was not only a student reporter and editor in high school and college, but an advocacy journalist covering equal rights for working women and various progressive issues for years before “Feminine Mystique.” From 1942 into 1952, Friedan was a reporter for Federated Press for labor unions. Then she was a staffer for seven years at UE News, a publication of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

James Lerner, former UE News editor, in his book Course of Action recalls, "It was a loss to American history that a remarkable journalist and feminist leader failed to bring forward the seminal contributions that labor ideals and struggles had made to feminism in the 20th century.”

Now recalled mostly for “The Feminine Mystique,” about the unfulfilled lives suburban women faced, Friedan graduated from the all-female Smith College, studied for a year at Berkeley, then declined an offer to remain there in order to work as a labor journalist. That led her to the UE, the most progressive labor union in the nation then, one accused of being led by communists, a charge that was exaggerated but not completely false.

Lerner wrote, "[Friedan] and I frequently covered stories of broad national interest to union members, including equal rights for women in the workforce. She wrote a number of important articles on women's wages, among them several pieces on wage discrimination against women in the electrical industry.”

Friedan also wrote articles about rank and file union members and minorities, and she criticized conservative interests that she saw as undermining reform and progressive causes. In 1943, she blasted an agenda supported by the National Association of Manufacturers to weaken labor, reverse the New Deal, and let businesses operate however they pleased, all to boost profits.

One of her best pieces of journalism at UE was a 1952 pamphlet, UE Fights for Women Workers, outlining the exploitation of working women. In it, she foreshadowed ground she’d cover in “Feminine Mystique,” describing ads that show women working in GE kitchens, watching Sylvania TVs or using Westinghouse Laundromats: Friedan wrote, "Nothing is too good for her – unless she works at GE, Westinghouse or Sylvania, or thousands of other corporations."

Describing physical woes caused by factory speedups, the typical less-pay-for-equal-work and the glass ceiling shutting off promotions to better-paying jobs, the uncredited Friedan earned praise for the 39-page analysis. Historian Lisa Kannenberg, unaware of the identity of the pamphlet’s author, in 1990 said it was "a remarkable manual for fighting wage discrimination that is, ironically, as relevant today as it was in 1952."

Why isn’t this background better known? Blame Joe McCarthy. An onslaught of anticommunist attacks on unions by the House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthy’s Senate hearings in the late 1940s and early ’50s greatly weakened the UE. Its membership topped 600,000 in 1946, but by 1950 was down to 71,000, and that decline eventually forced cutbacks that resulted in Friedan’s layoff.

Also, Friedan became fearful of tying her rising star in the ’60s to those dark days. Anticommunism was still used to attack the Civil Rights, anti-war and student movements and, as biographer Daniel Horowitz noted, “Had Friedan revealed all in the mid-1960s, she would have undercut her book's impact, subjected herself to palpable dangers, and jeopardized the feminist movement.”

Unfortunately, had the public realized the ties between Friedan’s early work as a labor journalist along with her feminist writings, there may have been a better understanding of the solidarity of those movements, and better outcomes to derailed or defeated campaigns as different (yet connected) as the Equal Rights Amendment and the Employee Free Choice Act.

Friedan herself seemed to realize this in 1997, when she reflected and speculated to journalist Judith Warner that the greatest threat to the future of the women’s movement wouldn’t be “age-old sexism, persistent stereotypes, gender expectations or unfairly shared caretaking duties. The larger danger would be the tilt in our national values that occurred in the last decades of the 20th century: ‘the culture of corporate greed,’ the downsizing and downgrading of formerly solid middle-class jobs and ‘the sharply increased income inequality between the very rich … and the rest of us, women and men’.”

Bill Knight’s newspaper columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.