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From the Archives: To Volunteer or Not to Volunteer? The Betty Friedan Conundrum

This article is part of the series From the Archives. From the Archives highlights primary sources that have changed the course of history, for an individual, a community, or the world.

“[Friedan] demands that all women find a life purpose or career which will give them an independent identity and what she calls fulfillment.In that, she surely goes too far.” —SARASOTA HERALD-TRIBUNE, September 1963

When Betty Friedan’s landmark book, The Feminine Mystique, hit stores in February 1963, reviews were mixed. While some reviewers recognized “the problem that has no name,” others argued everything from the concept being “alarmist” to alienating women to the average woman preferring to “stay home and cream her face.”

But the book spoke to many women and within the next year and a half it became a national bestseller. Soon after its release, the Women’s Division (WD) of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit jumped at the opportunity to have Friedan speak at their Annual Meeting in June 1963. The WD was comprised of volunteers who worked diligently to raise money for the Jewish organizations under the Federation umbrella. Additionally, many of the women volunteered their time with multiple other organizations, including National Council of Jewish Women and Hadassah.

Perhaps because they considered themselves professional volunteers, the women initially didn’t connect their work to Friedan’s views on volunteerism. At least not until Friedan stood in front of their record-breaking crowd of 500 women. According to the oral history of Carolyn Greenberg who attended the event, Friedan insulted the women in the room. “Her statement was you shouldn’t be volunteering, you shouldn’t be offering your services because you are taking away the job of some Jewish woman, or any woman.”

The stance offended some women to the point that they walked out on the speech. The board meeting minutes a week later states only that there was a “wide variance in opinion concerning Mrs. Friedan’s speech.” 

One must wonder how closely the WD committee had read The Feminine Mystique before inviting Friedan. Her position was clearly stated in the book—access to real jobs was blocked by volunteer work and volunteering was merely a way to fill in time in a ladylike pursuit. Her belief was that the emptiness a housewife felt could not be satisfied with community work—especially if that work was done for free. The National Organization of Women (NOW), which Friedan co-founded, went so far as to pass a resolution in 1973 that condemned volunteering as an extension of unpaid housework (its bylaws were later changed to remove this).

Perhaps the disconnect existed because the women of WD didn’t see themselves as merely an unpaid labor force; the Federation at the time was almost completely run by both male and female volunteers, with few paid staff positions. Indeed, there were as many if not more men volunteering their time. Instead, they saw their work as necessary to the survival and welfare of the Jewish community, as tikkun olam, and thus, holy work.

Friedan herself seemed to change her opinion. In Metamorphosis, an addendum to the 1997 edition of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan posits that it was the bonds of civic engagement through voluntary associations that kept society flourishing. She observed that the decline of organizations is due in part to women working and that for all the years women did volunteer work for free, no one valued them. She conveniently forgot that she once described much of women’s volunteer duties as “meaningless busywork” that “…does not challenge their intelligence—or even, sometimes, fill a real function.”

In his 1995 article “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” author Robert D. Putnam noted the decline of membership associations and volunteers for mainline civic organizations. His statistics, from the Labor Department’s population study, were based on “regular” volunteering. Occasionally dropping in or merely writing a check for dues and never actively participating did not create the same social connectedness, he argued.

Is it a coincidence that as civic engagement declined, so did voter turnout? Putnam didn’t think so. While the erosion of social capital is not entirely to blame, it is not a stretch to hypothesize that a lack of social connectedness in one’s community can lead to apathy about what happens to others.

A 2015 federal study on volunteering and civic life in America found that just 24.9% of adults volunteered during the year and that volunteers are more likely than non-volunteers to talk to neighbors, attend community meetings, and discuss politics or local issues with family and friends. It further showed that the highest rate of volunteerism is with religious organizations. It may not be surprising, then, that while Jews form only 2 to 4% of the electorate (according to the Pew Research Center), eligible Jewish voters typically turn out at a rate of 80% or higher.

Betty Friedan helped pave the way for women in the workforce, and the world is better for it. But, contrary to her early advice, we should not forget the contributions of volunteers to our society. Now, more than ever, we need to carve out time to be an active part of our community and to let our voices be heard in the voting booth.

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Flyer for Betty Friedan's 1963 Presentation in Detroit
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A flyer for the 1963 annual meeting of the Women's Division of the Jewish Federation of Detroit, featuring a talk by Betty Friedan's about The Feminine Mystique.
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How to cite this page

Terman, Robbie. "From the Archives: To Volunteer or Not to Volunteer? The Betty Friedan Conundrum." 23 August 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 14, 2018) <https://jwa.org/blog/from-archives-to-volunteer-or-not-to-volunteer-betty-friedan-conundrum>.

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