Sunday, May 08, 2011


The day of cards, candy and phone calls restores the debate over the most-analyzed figure in American society--Mom--and recalls my intense relationship with Feminism's "Mother of Us All"--Betty Friedan.

In early 1957, as a free-lance writer, she suggested an idea: At her fifteenth college reunion, she would pass out a questionnaire asking classmates how they felt about their lives. I assigned her to do an article about it.

That questionnaire became the Holy Writ of the Women’s Movement, prompting Betty to write ”The Feminine Mystique.” In the following decades, as the last man to edit a mass magazine for women, I worked with Betty as a contributing editor and became embroiled in the struggles of those who changed the lives of American women forever.

As The Mother told it, I almost killed the Woman’s Movement in utero. In the “The Feminine Mystique,” she says I rejected it before birth, confirming the venality of men who edited women’s magazines, one of the book’s themes. It is not exactly what happened.

In the 1950s Betty was a housewife and part—time writer, who was “getting strangely bored writing articles about breast-feeding and the like.” Actually, those she did for me were paeans to suburban life, which were edited to tone down her exuberance for the joys of housewifery and motherhood.

Then came the questionnaire. Her classmates said they were dissatisfied with being wives and mothers when their education had prepared them for worldly accomplishment.

In “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty wrote that she submitted an article to me, and I told her agent, ‘Betty has gone off her rocker. She has always done a good job for us, but this time only the most neurotic housewife could identify.’” Thus thwarted, she told her agent, “I’ll have to write a book to get this into print.”

Nice story, embellished over the years with references to me as “an old friend” whose betrayal was particularly painful.

But there was no article. Instead, Betty sent her book outline with the theme that “the women who ‘adjust’ as housewives, who grow up wanting to be ‘just a housewife’ are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in concentration camps-—and the millions more who refused to believe that the concentration camps existed.”

If I used the word “neurotic,” I was being polite. I might have said “paranoid.”

In any event, there were no hard feelings. Betty interviewed me for the book, and I spent hours answering questions. After it was published, there were hard feelings. She had taken what I said and twisted it to fit the tunnel vision of a polemic. Writing a novel like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to arouse a revolution is one thing, but making a “sociological” argument with tendentious research is another.

The Simon Legrees of “The Feminine Mystique” were the editors of women’s magazines: “The men and women who make the editorial decisions often compromise their own very high standards in the interest of the advertising dollar.”

The immediate response of those compromisers was to publish parts of her book in the four largest, bringing it to the attention of millions of women. They saw her provocations only as good copy to sell magazines.

I was not one of them. I took the book seriously and I took it personally. So when the Women’s National Press Club asked me to appear with Betty at a meeting in Washington--although it seemed an invitation to a bear-baiting, with guess-who as the bear——I accepted. Now, with “The Feminine Mystique” a landmark, it might be tempting to soften my criticism. To insure against that, here are excepts, word for word:

“Let’s start with this sweeping assertion from the book:
’In the fifties, it was simply taken for granted by editors, and accepted as an immutable fact of life by writers, that women were not interested in politics, life outside the United States, national issues, science, ideas, adventure, education or even their own communities, except where they could be sold through their emotions as wives and mothers.’

”In 1954 Redbook’s articles about McCarthyism won the Benjamin Franklin Award of the University of Illinois. We have published at least 25 articles on race relations, prejudice in churches, integration conflict in Nashville and in New Orleans, as well as the first national profile of Martin Luther King. We dealt with religion in the schools, birth control and abortion, welfare programs, Federal Aid to Education, farm foreclosures, legalized gambling, labor racketeering, the honesty and competence of Congressmen as well as censorship of books, films and television.

“The number of articles on community problems is staggering. One, about how citizens of Peoria drove racketeers out of their town, was written by Betty Friedan.

“Mrs. Friedan says: ‘An editor of Redbook ingeniously tried to bring the bomb down to the feminine level by showing the emotions of a wife whose husband sailed into a contaminated area’...In five years we have published 20 articles on peace, nuclear testing, fallout hazards, survivors of Hiroshima, and an article, “Are We Powerless to Prevent War?“ based on interviews with Adlai Stevenson, Walter Lippmann and others.

Of course, women’s magazines have grave shortcomings. It’s one thing to acknowledge the limits of an editor’s imagination, intelligence and courage. It’s something else again to call it dishonesty.

”And that is what the book does: ‘In 1960 the editors of a magazine geared to the happy young housewife ran an article asking, ‘Why Young Mothers Feel Trapped.’ As a promotion stunt they invited young mothers with such a problem to write in the details, for $500. The editors were shocked to receive 24,000 replies. Can an image of woman be cut down to the point where it becomes itself a trap?’

“This ignores the fact that we had been dealing with this subject for years, had announced our intention of running the articles as a monthly series [N.B. It ran almost 20 years] and that the Harvard School of Public Health based a study on 1,000 of the manuscripts. But according to ‘The Feminine Mystique,’ it has to be a ‘promotion stunt’ and the editors dim-witted enough to be ‘shocked’ by the response.

“It’s mischievous to tell a woman who is happy to stay home and take care of her children she has been brainwashed into giving up her birthright. It’s irresponsible to insist that ‘even if a woman does not have to work to eat, she can find identity only in work that is of real value to society——work for which, usually, our society pays.’

“Last month we published parts of a new book, “The Creative Woman” by Dorothy Goldberg, an artist and wife of a Supreme Court Justice. Let me end with a passage: ‘In a free society a woman should have freedom to choose whether or not she prefers to be at home or work. She should not have to work as a matter of sheer economic necessity. Nor should she have a feeling of guilt if she chooses to work.’

“Mrs. Goldberg is willing to let each woman find her own way. Can anyone really quarrel with that?”

I said this to editors, writers and broadcasters who had had to fight prejudice against women to get where they were. I was not tarred and feathered. In fact, I was applauded and it was Betty who had to answer hostile questions.

After our duet in Washington, we became a popular team on TV and radio. Far from resenting my criticism, Betty became friendlier with each appearance. I finally realized I was spending a lot of time promoting her book.

While Betty was making the rounds for “The Feminine Mystique,” she often ran into Helen Gurley Brown, who
was plugging her book, “Sex and the Single Girl.” Their messages were poles apart, but the “angry battler for her sex” (as Life styled Betty) and the eye-batting expert on getting men into bed both learned a prime lesson of celebrity: shamelessness.

Ridiculed by program hosts and audiences, they kept coming back for more. Fame is not for the thin-skinned. Then, to Betty’s disappointment, I retired from our act. My annoyance was gone, and I began to see that reasonable arguments seldom lead to social change. Howls of pain sometimes do, and "The Feminine Mystique" did.

Five years later, when we were opposing the war, Betty and I did a half-hearted reprise of our old routine in exchange for air time to talk about Vietnam. But it wasn’t the same. The passion was gone.

Later, Betty wrote a monthly column for me in McCalls, and we remained good friends for the rest of her life. Now, with all those old arguments forgotten, new generations of women are finding new solutions in new times.

Happy Mother's Day to them all.


Kewalo said...

If you were the editor of "Redbook" all those years ago I want to say thank you. It was my all time favorite magazine and I never missed an issue. You printed the very best short stories and it was with sadness I watched the magazine change over the years.

So God bless you sir, for giving me so many hours of pleasure.

hking said...

Great post!!