One of the most common and enduring criticisms of The Feminine Mystique is that Friedan does not say anything about working class women or minorities. Ironically, these issues were at the forefront during Friedan’s former years as a labor journalist.
It is little known that years before Betty Friedan (Goldstein) published her groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique about the unfulfilled and empty lives of suburban housewives, she advocated for equal rights for industrial working women, aligning herself with a significant portion of the progressive labor movement.
Between 1942 and 1952, Friedan spent three years as a reporter for the Federated Press, a syndicator of stories for labor unions. She then worked for seven years with UE News, the paper of the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE). She married Carl Friedan and had her first child while working at UE News.
UE was known for its militancy in support of workers’ rights for women and minorities, its strong negotiated contracts and for the fact that it survived the relentless anticommunist attacks on labor organizations by The House Un-American Activities Committee and the McCarthy hearings from the late 1930s through the 1950s.
In his memoir Course of Action: A Journalist’s Account from Inside the American League Against War and Fascism and the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) 1933-1978, James Lerner, editor of the UE News, describes his longtime working relationship with Friedan when she was a staff writer at the publication.
The following excerpt is a revelation of how Friedan vigorously espoused feminist principles, long before she penned The Feminine Mystique. A link to a 39-page pamphlet she wrote in 1952 called “UE Fights for Women Workers” is at the conclusion of this passage.
Lerner begins by introducing Katherine Beecher, another woman writer and activist on the UE News staff:
“When I went to work for UE News in 1940, Katherine Beecher, a Vassar graduate, was also on the UE staff. She and editor Tom Wright met when she began working at the paper and later got married. Katherine was named for her great aunt, the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Beecher (as she preferred to be called) extended her work on the paper to bring more attention to women. She helped the wives of union members build an organization of their own, known at that time as the UE Ladies Auxiliary. This type of worker support organization was common in the labor movement and provided invaluable assistance to workers, both men and women, especially during strike activities when wages stopped coming in and workers were away from home for extended periods on picket lines. The women often helped set up and run strike kitchens, joined in the union’s political action efforts and picket lines and took classes to understand union history and policies.
“Another memorable associate I worked alongside in my early years with UE News was Betty Goldstein, later well known as Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. At the height of the union’s growth during the war, UE News was putting out a 12-page weekly tabloid with a circulation of about half a million copies. In 1942, Goldstein, a Smith College graduate who had previously worked at Federated Press, a national labor press service, joined UE News as a reporter.
“For many years, once a week, first Beecher and later Goldstein, would join me at a Greenwich Village print shop in early evening to wait for our managing editor, Tom Wright, to deliver a last-minute story or editorial. It was often long past midnight before we completed the paper’s makeup and read the page proofs. After taking maternity leave in 1949 to give birth to her first child, Goldstein returned to UE News for another three years.
“Goldstein 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.
“In 1952, a large decline in union membership took place at UE in the aftermath of the witch-hunts of the McCarthy period. Both Betty Goldstein and Katherine Beecher were laid off during staff reductions. Professor Daniel Horowitz of Smith College noted in his book, Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique (University of Massachusetts, 1988, p. 141), that “Friedan later claimed that she lost her lost her job at UE when she was pregnant with Jonathan, her second child, because the union failed to honor its commitment to maternity leaves.” Beecher, the other mother on staff with small children, had already used the union’s pregnancy policy twice when she gave birth to her two children, as did Betty with her first child. Whatever Friedan’s own memory was of her layoff at the paper, my experience at the time was that all layoffs were directly related to the drastic decline in the union’s membership.
“Sometime after Friedan left the employ of UE News, she came to its office in New York City and asked that her address be taken off the UE mailing list. She made it clear that she did not want to continue to be identified with UE during the McCarthy period by receiving mail from the union.
“When Friedan later published her feminist writings beginning in the 1960s, she failed to credit her research and writing on women in the labor movement as a precursor to her books on feminism. She did not acknowledge that the struggle for women’s rights in the labor movement and her own documentation of that struggle as a labor journalist at UE were important precedents to the American feminist movement in the twentieth century. Friedan’s failure to credit the labor movement for its historic steps in securing women’s rights later became the subject of renewed controversy and analysis. In the American Quarterly of the American Studies Association dated March 19, 1996, Daniel Horowitz discussed the controversy in an article entitled “Rethinking Betty Friedan and the Feminist Movement: Labor Union Radicalism and Feminism in Cold War America.”
“For myself and colleagues at UE who worked so closely with Betty on union and women’s labor issues for many years, 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 twentieth century.”
One of the most common and enduring criticisms of The Feminine Mystique is that Friedan does not say anything about working-class women or minorities. Ironically, these issues were at the forefront during her years as a labor journalist.
In 1952, Friedan wrote a 39-page pamphlet entitled “UE Fights for Women Workers” in which she systematically describes the blatant exploitation of women workers. The opening lines reveal an intriguing forecast of The Feminine Mystique published 11 years later. She paints a picture of “advertisements across the land” that “glorify” the American woman in her “gleaming” GE kitchen, her Westinghouse laundromat, and her Sylvania television. “Nothing is too good for her unless she works at GE, Westinghouse, or Sylvania, or thousands of other corporations.”
The industry practices that Friedan then details include physical problems for women caused by plant speedups, the double wage standard, which meant less pay for equal work and lack of access to higher paying jobs. She notes such practices make it especially difficult for women to make a living wage. The pamphlet concludes with a 10-point resolution advocating for women’s rights in the electrical industry that was adopted at UE’s 17th convention. This forceful statement ranges from wage equality and access by women to all skilled jobs, to issues of day care centers, the elimination of discrimination against minority women and preparation of women for leadership roles.
Had Friedan chosen to reveal the connection between her early stalwart work for women as a labor journalist and her later feminist writing and activism, perhaps there would be a fuller understanding today of the trajectory of the feminist movement and its debts to working-class women.