"Betty Friedan, Feminism, and Jewish Identity", from Joyce Antler, The Journey Home...

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan was first published in 1963 at the beginning of the second wave of feminism in the United States.
by Joyce Antler

Excerpted from The Journey Home: How Jewish Women Shaped Modern America (New York: Shocken, 1998).

On August 26, 1970, on the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the vote for women, 50,000 women marched down Fifth Avenue to demand equal rights and a political voice of their own. This Women's Strike for Equality, the first nationwide women's action since the suffrage victory, had been organized by Betty Friedan, the writer whose expose of the so-called "feminine mystique" sparked a new wave of feminist activism. The size of the march considerably altered depictions of the resurging women's rights movement. No longer could the media portray the movement as a fringe action, for it was clear that it attracted a large and significantly mainstream following.[1]

At the defining moment of the march, as Friedan came forward to address a vast, cheering throng in Bryant Park behind New York's Public Library, she found herself speaking—and revising—the ancient Hebrew prayer which Orthodox Jewish men recited every morning. "Down through the generations in history," Friedan declared, "my ancestor prayed, "I thank Thee, Lord, I was not created a woman. From this day forward women all over the world will be able to say, "I thank Thee, Lord, I was created a woman."[2]

Unable to remember ever having heard the prayer before, Friedan was startled by her own words. But the joining together of her feminism to her Jewishness at this historic moment was not as strange as it seemed. Friedan confessed to having always had "very strong feelings" about her Jewish identity; it is not unlikely that this Orthodox prayer, emblematic of gender differences in Jewish religious roles, now emerged from the recesses of Friedan's memory. For Friedan, it had become necessary to confront "the anti-woman aspects of the Jewish tradition in order to accept both feminism and Judaism." She had the sense that "having broken through the feminine mystique to affirm my authentic full identity as a person, as a woman, brought me to confront my Jewish identity."[3] Because feminism insisted on making the personal political, her exploration would inevitably become a public one, as her oratory in Bryant Park signalled....

In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan explodes the myth of domestic contentment, which she argued had infantilized women, "burying them alive" in their suburban homes as if in a "concentration camp." Like the victims of the Holocaust, she suggests that they, too, had undergone "progressive dehumanization" and could not fight back.[4] Friedan's appropriation of Holocaust imagery did not attract much attention or criticism, nor did Friedan seem especially troubled that she had broken an unstated taboo by contrasting ordinary, albeit disturbing, social ills to the moral enormities of the Jewish catastrophe.

Friedan used the language of the Holocaust not merely as a metaphor, or as a tactic to shock readers, but because of the link she had already made between the oppression of women and that of Jews. Her family history provides evidence that these repressions had long been joined in her own experience.

Born Bettye Goldstein in Peoria in 1921, she was the oldest of the three children of Harry Goldstein, then 40, and his wife, Miriam Horwitz Goldstein, 18 years younger; a sister came a year and a half later, and a brother five years later. Harry Goldstein had immigrated with his family from a village near Kiev when he was still a boy; leaving the rest of the family in St. Louis, where they settled, at age 13 Harry went on to Peoria, peddling collar buttons on street corners. Eventually he owned the finest jewelry store in the community—the "Tiffany's of the Midwest" according to Betty—and put his youngest brother through Harvard Law School.[5] Goldstein became a leader of Peoria's business elite and a prominent member of its Jewish community.

No matter this success, to his wife, Goldstein was a failure because he could not provide either social acceptability, or especially during the Depression, sufficient material comforts. Friedan believes that her mother's scorn for her father sprang not only from these alleged deficiencies but from Miriam's dissatisfaction with her own role as housewife and mother.

Miriam Horwitz Goldstein was the only daughter of a prominent Illinois physician and his wife. The family delighted in the apocryphal story that as an immigrant from Hungary, Miriam's father had gone through high school and college in one year; he graduated in the first class of Washington University Medical School and eventually become health commissioner of the state. Despite her father's status, Miriam grew up "fairly isolated as a Jew," resentful of the community's snubs. After attending the local college, she became women's page editor of the Peoria newspaper, a job she loved. But, as was customary at the time, Miriam gave up her work when she married. She never recovered from that loss. Thereafter, "nothing my father did, nothing he bought her, nothing we did ever seemed to satisfy her," Betty notes.[6] "Beautiful, self-possessed, poised," Miriam nonetheless lacked fulfillment, and lived vicariously through her children, especially the bright and able Betty.[7] "She could hardly wait until I got into junior high," Friedan notes, "to put the idea into my head to try out for the school newspaper, to start a literary magazine in high school. She could hardly wait for me to go to the college she had no chance to go to, to edit the newspaper there."[8] While her father also encouraged her, it was Miriam who "lavished all the 'oldest son' treatment" on Friedan, no doubt regarding her daughter's accomplishments as justification for the career she had relinquished.[9]

Her mother's unhappiness caused her not only to live through her children, but to snipe at her husband. "It was obvious she belittled, cut down my father because she had no place to channel her terrific energies," Betty recalled.[10] She hated "waking up in the middle of the night to hear them arguing," mainly about money. It was the Depression, and her mother was "insatiably greedy and dissatisfied about material things. She was always [spending] her allowance, building up huge charge accounts, trying to get out of the hole by gambling and then losing and having to admit all to my father, who had a terrible temper." In revenge, Harry Goldstein entered into "a sort of complicity" with Friedan about Miriam, always wanting to talk about her faults, which made Friedan uncomfortable and evasive.[11]

Friedan blamed Miriam for "dominating the family," for being "hypocritical" and selfish.[12] "Discontented, running the Sunday School one year, Hadassah the next, the Community Chest, talking about 'writing,' though she wouldn't or didn't do it, taking up ... fads, " Miriam was a terrible role model. "When I still used to say prayers, even as a child, after the 'now I lay me down to sleep' and the Schema Yisrael—I would pray for a "boy to like me best' and a 'work of my own to do' when I grew up. I did not want to be discontented like my mother was...."[13] Years later, when asked what had motivated her to write The Feminine Mystique, Friedan responded that "a combination of circumstances" in her own life, along with the "massive crisis of identity already brewing in my mother's generation," had done so. The first specific cause she names is her "mother, and her discontent, which I never understood."[14]

Friedan was not unaware of the specifically Jewish dimension to her mother's discontent. Despite Harry Goldstein's prominence in Peoria, the Goldsteins had not been accepted socially. People who associated with her father in business would not associate with him elsewhere; the family was not allowed into the Peoria country club, where all the children's friends belonged.[15]

This discrimination hit her mother hardest. But Miriam blamed her husband rather than the community for the isolation and ostracism the family experienced, faulting Harry Goldstein's immigrant background, accent, lack of education. Recalling these years, Betty acknowledged that her mother had in fact become an "anti-Semitic Jew" like many Jews in smaller cities who distanced themselves as far as possible from other Jews and Judaism. These were "people who changed their names and did something to their noses, tried not to talk with their hands ... and denied the very richness, the warmth, the specialness, the good taste of their own background as Jews."[16] Although Friedan told herself that her family "was somehow better, finer, more sensitive, smarter" than their neighbors, she, too, could not avoid internalizing some part of Peoria's anti-Semitic prejudices. She grew up feeling "marginal," with "the sense of being an outsider, apart, special, not like the others." Though she attended Sunday School and enjoyed family seders, she quickly became disconnected with the religious elements of Judaism. A month before her confirmation, she announced to her rabbi that she no longer believed in God. The rabbi told her to keep it to herself until the ceremony was over. "Actress that I am," Friedan recalled years later, "I gave the flower offering, raising my eyes to the heavens."[17]

It was about this time that the first "real trauma" of her life erupted. "The other girls all got into high school sororities, and I didn't, and they 'dropped me.' They made me feel like I was a leper." Throughout her teenage years she was isolated and "terribly lonely." Friedan blamed this rejection partly on her shyness and perceived unattractiveness, but mostly on "being Jewish"—on not being "one of 'them'."[18] The painful experiences of her youth strengthened her social conscience. "Ever since I was a little girl," Friedan muses, "I remember my father telling me that I had a passion for justice. But I think it was really a passion against injustice which originated from my feelings of the injustice of anti-Semitism."[19]

When Friedan was 17, she had vowed to herself that "if they don't like me at least they're going to have to respect me...."[20] She made good on that vow at Smith College, becoming editor of the newspaper, starting a literary magazine, and graduating summa cum laude. Yet even at Smith Friedan encountered anti-Semitism and the phenomenon of the anti-Semitic Jew. In her freshman year, just before the outbreak of World War II, she lived in a house with four wealthy Jewish girls from Cincinnati; when the president of the college initiated a petition urging President Roosevelt to relax the immigration quotas for refugees from Nazism, offering to admit college-aged girls among them to Smith, many of Friedan's housemates argued against the proposal. But Friedan was most shocked by the fact that the four Cincinnati girls refused to sign the petition—"they were the type that spoke in whispery voices ... because they did not want to be known as Jews."

In a short story she later wrote entitled "The Scapegoat," Friedan dramatized the plight of "Shirley," not, as Wouk portrayed her in Marjorie Morningstar, a sexual tease who matures into a bourgeois housewife, but an all-too-Jewish college girl who has a nervous breakdown when she is scorned by fellow Jews who curry favor with their Gentile housemates. Friedan's professor commented that although the theme was somewhat familiar, the "factor of race prejudice, and the less usual device of having it written by a Jewish girl," were "probably to the good."[21] Upon graduating, Friedan came home to speak at Peoria's Reform Synagogue on "Affirming One's Jewishness"—turning anti-Semitism "against oneself instead of affirming one's identity." The talk was "strong meat" for the community but one which helped her come to terms which the anti-Semitism which she believed had been the "dominant menace" of her childhood.[22]

While she continued to associate Peoria with anti-Semitism, by the time Friedan left college—where she had dazzled friends and teachers with her brilliance and experienced a virtual transformation of personality, her awkward shyness disappearing—Friedan had ceased to imagine that her Jewishness was a detriment to achievement. Nonetheless, the experience of childhood "marginality" could not be erased: periodically even at Smith she could feel "awkward," painfully isolated, and ugly. A lifelong battle with asthma began; the condition was so severe that in her sophomore year she burst one lung. Beneath the surface of her image as "big woman on campus" lay unadorned "panic."[23]

When Friedan left Smith, she dropped the "e" from her first name, perhaps signalling that she was no longer the girl from Peoria.[24] Yet at the University of California at Berkeley, where she began postgraduate work in psychology in 1942, her panic grew worse. The top student in her research group, Friedan discovered that her brilliance frightened away potential suitors. Blaming her achievements for "keeping [her] from love," she quit her studies and moved to Greenwich village to take up newspaper work. When, after a while, she found herself having affairs with "various maimed men" and suffering from terrible writing blocks, she began psychoanalysis. The treatment did not touch upon issues regarding Friedan's gender or ethnic identity, but it did allow her to vent "hatred of [her] mother."

In 1947, Betty married Carl Friedan, a returning G.I. interested in theater. For a while, she was extraordinarily happy. In fact, however, she had begun to repeat her mother's pattern, looking down upon a husband who was less educated than she and retreating from her own work. As Friedan recalled, " 'Career woman' in the fifties became a pejorative, denoting a ball-busting man-eating harpy, a miserable neurotic witch from whom man and child should flee for very life."[25] There would be three children, three suburban homes, and part-time work as a journalist, but the marriage soured and Friedan's self-esteem plummeted. Although after college, she had been "very political, very involved, consciously radical .. concerned about the Negroes, and the working class, and World War III," now "Dr. Spock .. took the place of politics.[26] "With all my high-powered education and brilliant promise," Friedan admitted,

I too embraced and lived that feminine mystique. Determined that I would find that feminine fulfillment which had eluded my mother, I first gave up psychology fellowships and then even newspaper reporting jobs. I lived the life of the suburban housewife that was everyone's dream at that time.[27]

Friedan's awakening came after she spent a year analyzing alumnae questionnaires about the experiences of her Smith college classmates 15 years after graduating. When magazine editors turned down the article that resulted, Friedan determined to write a book.[28] Completed five years later, The Feminine Mystique shocked even Friedan's agent, who refused to handle it, and the publisher printed a small first edition.

Although the unhappy housewives Friedan portrays in The Feminine Mystique have no specific ethnicity, there is an almost exact convergence between the portrait of Miriam Goldstein that appears in Friedan's memoirs and the women of her 1963 book. Moreover, these housewives resemble many of the Jewish mothers in the 1950s and 1960s fictions of Herman Wouk and Philip Roth—Marjorie Morningstar, Goodbye Columbus, and Portnoy's Complaint—books that defined the Jewish American Princess and Jewish American Mother in the popular mind. Like Miriam Goldstein, the Mesdames Morgenstern, Patimkin, and Portnoy are members of the new Jewish, suburban middle-class; pushy and materialistic, they dominate their families, living through their children and belittling their weak and ineffectual husbands. Though they belong to Hadassah and other Jewish or community charities, neither these volunteer activities nor their families provide adequate scope for their innermost desires. The failure to realize their potential is destructive to all around them. Based on these characters, Wouk and Roth would have agreed with Friedan's comment in The Feminine Mystique that "there is something dangerous about being a housewife."[29]

But whereas Wouk and Roth indict Jewish women for the crass materialism and smothering excesses which they see as symptomatic of the Jewish middle-class' rise to postwar prosperity, Friedan, as a daughter, is more able to empathize with the plight of women like her mother. Whatever the timing or mix of sources involved in the development of her feminist consciousness, Friedan's breakthrough was to acknowledge that the feminine "mystique" was not an individual—and not a Jewish—problem. She recognized her mother's "impotent rage" as a "typical female disorder" perpetuated by Freudian psychoanalysts, functionalist sociologists, advertisers, business leaders, educators and child development experts.[30]

The Feminine Mystique, and Friedan's subsequent establishment of the National Organization of Women, assured her a leading role in the women's rights movement and eventually facilitated her return to Judaism. Having rejected religion early in life and identified with an "agnostic, atheistic, scientific, humanist" tradition, she had no feeling for the spiritual "mystery of being Jewish." Friedan's sons were given "aesthetic bar mitzvahs" appropriate to Rockland County where most Jews were Unitarians; her daughter did not receive confirmation or Bat Mitzvah. Feminism, however, by leading her to explore her gendered identity, started her journey to reevaluate her religious heritage. After the 1970 suffrage anniversary march when she publicly connected the reform of patriarchal Judaism to feminist goals, Friedan took her first trip to Israel as part of her attempt to "get in touch with my Jewish roots." She was shocked, however, to find herself attacked by the Israeli press as a radical "women's libber" and generally treated as a "leper"; Golda Meir, then prime minister, refused to see her, a particularly disappointing affront since Friedan had met with the Pope and many world leaders.[31] But Friedan made contact with a few women eager to confront the gender inequalities in Israel; along with other prominent American feminists, she worked with them over the next years helping to start a women's rights movement in Israel.

At home, Friedan began to explore her relationship with the American Jewish community, becoming co-chair of the American Jewish Congress' Task Force on Jewish Women. Unhappily, she found that organized leaders seemed as disturbed by feminism as had Israelis. Even though Jewish women had been prominent in the women's rights movement, Jewish leaders seemed more profoundly threatened by feminism than non-Jews.[32]

Friedan's journey back to Judaism continued with her participation in a havurah and her study of Jewish texts. As a newly self-aware Jewish feminist, she was concerned about myriad issues facing Jewish women, including the perpetuation of "obscene" travesties about the Jewish mother. Friedan wants to "take back" the denigrating images of possessive, manipulating Jewish mothers spooning out chicken soup to control their children's lives and show Jewish women as strong, energetic, and nurturant as they have been throughout history. "I hereby affirm my own right as a Jewish American feminist to make chicken soup," she declares, "even though I sometimes take it out of a can."[33] Thus in later life she has joined the modern aspirations of feminism with the popular emblems of her Jewish heritage, understanding that the myth of a controlling, aggressive Jewish mother has been as dangerous to the self-esteem of Jewish women (including her own) as the earlier "feminine mystique" was to all women.


1. Naomi Braun Rosenthal, "Consciousness Raising: From Revolution to Re-Evaluation," Psychology of Women Quarterly, Vol. 8, no. 4 (Summer 1984): 318. [return]

2. For an account of her speech at the march, see Betty Friedan, "Women and Jews: The Quest for Selfhood," Congress Monthly, February/March, 1985, p. 7, and Frances Klagsbrun, "Marching in Front," Hadassah Magazine, Nov. 1993, p. 24. [return]

3. Klagsburn, "Marching in Front," p. 24; Friedan, "Women and Jews," p. 7. (two separate quotes, joined with ....) [return]

4. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: W.W. Norton, 1963). [return]

5. The account of Friedan's life is taken from her "Autobiography," Schlesinger Library, "Women and Jews: The Quest for Selfhood"; "Jewish Roots"; and Friedan, "It Changed My Life": Writings on the Women's Movement (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1985), pp. 6-19. [return]

6. Friedan, "It Changed My Life," p. 6. [return]

7. Friedan, Autobiography, Schlesinger Library. [return]

8. Friedan, "It Changed My Life," p. 6. [return]

9. Friedan, Autobiography, Schlesinger Library. [return]

10. Interview with Paul Wilkes, New York Times, in Stone, "Friedan at 55," [return]

11. Friedan, Autobiography, Schlesinger Library. [return]

12. Ibid. [return]

13. Ibid. [return]

14. Friedan, "It Changed My Life," pp. 5-6. [return]

15. Stone, "Friedan at 55," p. 11; Friedan, Autobiography, Schlesinger Library. [return]

16. Friedan, "Women and Jews," p. 8. [return]

17. "Jewish Roots," p. 25. [return]

18. Betty Friedan, "Claiming My Roots in Peoria," July 21, 1978, typescript, and Autobiography, Schlesinger Library. [return]

19. Stone, "Friedan at 55," p. 11. [ch "dom menace"] [return]

20. Friedan, Autobiography, Schlesinger Library. [return]

21. Ibid. [return]

22. Stone, "Friedan at 55"; Autobiography. [return]

23. Friedan, Autobiography, Schlesinger Library. [return]

24. This suggestion is made by Daniel Horowitz in his reassessment of Friedan's feminism. See his "Rethinking Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique: Labor Union Radicalism and Feminism in Cold War America," American Quarterly, Vol. 48, no. l (March 1996): 1-42. [return]

25. Friedan, "It Changed My Life," p. 11. [return]

26. Ibid., pp. 9, 14. [return]

27. Ibid., pp. 6-7. [return]

28. Ibid., p. 17. [return]

29. Ibid., p. 305. [return]

30. Wilkes interview, in Stone, "Friedan at 55." [return]

31. [Israel trip, Friedan papers.] [return]

32. Friedan, "The Quest for Selfhood," p. 9. [return]

33. Ibid., p. 9. [return]


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Jewish Women's Archive. ""Betty Friedan, Feminism, and Jewish Identity", from Joyce Antler, The Journey Home...." (Viewed on February 28, 2024) <http://jwa.org/weremember/friedan-betty/antler>.