You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Sheryl Sandberg is No Betty Friedan

What a new movement doesn't get about the origins of feminism

Betty Friedan certainly deserves all the post-mortem attention she is receiving on the golden anniversary of the publication of The Feminine Mystique. No woman did more to spur the feminist awakening of the 1960s and 70s. If she were still alive, Friedan, who never tired of being famous, would be reveling in the new surge of acclaim for her book’s passionate, yet erudite, analysis of “the problem that has no name.”

Yet a lot of that praise is based on misconceptions that would have riled the author. The prevailing assessment of Friedan seems to be that she was a typical middle-class white liberal who was primarily concerned, as Gail Collins puts it, with correcting the way that “intelligent, well-educated women were kept out of the mainstream of American professional life.” Indeed, that's the banner that Sheryl Sandberg, the COO at Facebook, is now claiming to raise in Friedan's name. Evoking The Feminine Mystique, Sandberg recently launched a new “movement” to win for women in the corporate world the status and earnings they deserve—a project that begins according to the New York Times, with a “video on how to command more authority at work by changing how they speak and even sit.”

This is not the kind of change Friedan hoped her book would inspire. The movement she had in mind throughout her long career as an activist had little or nothing in common with the lavish self-help scheme that Sandberg now proposes to finance. The Feminine Mystique, Friedan wrote in her memoir, was intended to bring about “monumental social change” that “would be very threatening to those who couldn’t deal with that change, men and women.” Yes, she might tell Sandberg, every professional woman should get the best job she can. But demolishing gender inequality requires a more radical, pro-labor perspective than entrepeneurs in Silicon Valley—of either gender—would be inclined to indulge.

Friedan developed her critique of what is now called sexism as a Marxist journalist during the 1940s and early 1950s. In editorials for the Smith College weekly, she advocated a union for housemaids and attended a summer course at the Highlander Folk School, where labor organizers went for training. After graduating in 1942, she spent nearly a decade reporting on the problems of working-class women, both black and white, for the Federated Press, a kind of left-wing AP, and for the UE News, the organ of the United Electrical Workers. Friedan wrote slashing critiques of the lack of child-care at wartime plants and about women who earned far less pay for the same manufacturing work as men. She “thought of myself as a revolutionary” and considered joining the Communist Party, whose members ran the UE at the national level.

By the mid-1950s, Friedan began having children and switched to writing for such high-circulation magazines as McCall’s and the Ladies’ Home Journal about unhappy suburban women. These articles became the basis for her celebrated best-seller. But she still sprinkled elements of an anti-capitalist analysis into The Feminine Mystique: Big corporations who peddled cosmetics and household cleansers helped keep women in their “underused, nameless yearning, energy-to-get-rid-of” place. She compared the alienation of housewives to the alienation of wage-earners at assembly-line jobs. One will probably not find such structural critiques among Sandberg’s suggestions for self-improvement.

Indeed, Friedan could be so strident in her focus on economic equality that she clashed with feminists who cared as much, if not more, about smashing the taboos and repealing the laws against sexual freedom and identity. In the late 1960s, when younger members of the National Organization for Women, which she co-founded, demanded that the organization make it a priority to champion the rights of lesbians, Friedan stridently denounced the “lavender menace.” She feared the media would brand NOW a cabal of “man-haters” and divert it from its main task of battling against gender discrimination at the workplace, for equal pay, and guaranteed child care. Some feminists never forgave her for this rejection of identity politics.

Sandberg also seems primarily concerned with the economics of gender. But there's a key difference: Friedan didn’t share a view from the corporate boardroom. Her first political home was the labor movement, and she found her way back to it in the mid-1990s. Then in her 70s, Friedan participated with gusto in campus teach-ins to promote the new, reform-minded leadership of the AFL-CIO. “I have a pretty good historic Geiger counter,” she told a packed audience at Columbia University. “It clicked thirty years ago” when The Feminine Mystique helped create the modern women’s movement. “And that counter is clicking again, because I think we are on the verge of something new: a movement for social justice” which might “transcend the separate interests, the special interests, even the very good interests of identity politics that have been at the cutting edge of democratic progress.” Friedan wasn't able to realize her vision of justice—such is the fate of American leftists. But it was always a far cry from the individualized notion of justice proferred by Sandberg.

Not least because Friedan may just have been ahead of her time. A growing number of feminists are now arguing that the inequalities of gender are intertwined with the injuries of class. In our era of prolonged austerity, they point out, female wage-earners tend to suffer the most. While the ranks of nurses, homecare workers, and waitresses are increasing, most still earn less than do men in the same industries.

Feminists in New York have also taken up the cause of paid sick leave, which close to a million local workers currently do without, most of them women. This puts activists at odds with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who hopes to become the first female and first openly gay mayor of the city. "Making life fairer for all women,” declared Gloria Steinem, “seems more important than breaking a barrier for one woman.” Forty years ago, during the raging dispute about lesbianism, she and Betty Friedan were on opposite sides. But they would be marching together now.

Would Sheryl Sandberg be out there with them? Perhaps the more important question is whether the marchers would have any use for her.

Michael Kazin’s most recent book is American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. He teaches history at Georgetown and is co-editor of Dissent.