Betty Friedan's secret Communist past

January 18, 1999
by David Horowitz

Why has this feminist icon continued to cover up her years as a party activist? What is it with progressives? Why do they feel the need to lie so relentlessly about who they are? Recently Rigoberta Mench 's autobiography was exposed as a complete hoax. Now it's Betty Friedan's turn to be revealed as a feminist fibber.

In a new book, "Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique", Smith College professor Daniel Horowitz (no relation) establishes beyond doubt that the woman who has always presented herself as a typical suburban housewife until she began work on her groundbreaking book was in fact nothing of the kind. In fact, under her maiden name, Betty Goldstein, she was a political activist and professional propagandist for the Communist left for a quarter of a century before the publication of "The Feminist Mystique" launched the modern women's movement.

Professor Horowitz documents that Friedan was from her college days, and until her mid-30s, a Stalinist Marxist, the political intimate of the leaders of America's Cold War fifth column and for a time even the lover of a young Communist physicist working on atomic bomb projects in Berkeley's radiation lab with J. Robert Oppenheimer. Her famous description of America's suburban family household as "a comfortable concentration camp" in "The Feminine Mystique" therefore had more to do with her Marxist hatred for America than with any of her actual experience as a housewife or mother. (Her husband, Carl, also a leftist, once complained that his wife "was in the world during the whole marriage," had a full-time maid and "seldom was a wife and a mother").

It is fascinating that Friedan not only felt the need to lie about her real views and life experience then, but still feels the need to lie about them now.

Although Horowitz, the author of the new biography, is a sympathetic leftist, Friedan refused to cooperate with him once she realized he was going to tell the truth about her life as Betty Goldstein. After he published an initial article about Friedan's youthful work as a "labor journalist," Friedan maligned him, saying to an American University audience, "Some historian recently wrote some attack on me in which he claimed that I was only pretending to be a suburban housewife, that I was supposed to be an agent."

This was particularly unkind because Friedan's professor-biographer is such a fellow-traveler himself that he bends over backwards throughout the book to sanitize the true dimensions of Friedan's past. Thus he describes one character in the book, Steve Nelson, as "the legendary radical, veteran of the Spanish Civil War and Bay Area party official." In fact, Nelson was an obscure radical but an important apparatchik (later notorious for his espionage activities in the Berkeley Radiation Lab) who was in Spain as a Party commissar to enforce the Stalinist line.

Professor Horowitz also bends over backwards, and at length, to defend Friedan's lying as a response to "McCarthyism." When she makes the ridiculous accusation that he is going to use "innuendoes" to describe her past as a justification for refusing to grant him permission to quote from her unpublished papers, he is all-too understanding. The word "innuendoes," he explains, was often used by people "scarred by McCarthyism."

Reading this reminded me of a C-Span "BookNotes" program on which Brian Lamb asked the president of the American Historical Association, Eric Foner, about his father, Jack. Foner claimed that Jack Foner was a man "with a social conscience" who made his living through public lectures and who, along with his brothers Phil and Moe, was persecuted during the McCarthy era. When Lamb asked Foner why they were persecuted, Foner responded that his father had supported the loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War. But no one was actually persecuted for siding with the Spanish Republic in the Spanish Civil War. The Foner brothers, on the other hand, were fairly famous Communists, one a Communist Party labor historian and another a Communist Party union organizer and leader. It is a fact that, on orders from Moscow, Communist-controlled unions in the CIO opposed the Marshall Plan's effort to rebuild Western Europe. The Marshall Plan, it should be recalled, was in part designed to prevent Stalin's empire from absorbing Western Europe as it had its satellites in the east. That's why socialists like Walter Reuther purged the reds from the CIO and also why Communists like Foner's uncle came under FBI scrutiny -- i.e., why they were "persecuted" in the McCarthy era. That Communists, like the Foners, lied at the time was understandable. They had something to hide. But why are their children lying to this day? And why are people like Friedan lying long after they have anything to fear from McCarthy committees and the like?

Surely no one seriously believes that people who reveal their Communist pasts these days have anything to fear from the American government. Angela Davis, for example, was once the Communist Party's candidate for vice president and served the Soviet empire until its very last gasp. Her punishment for this is to have been appointed one of only seven "President's Professors" at the state-run University of California, and to be officially invited at exorbitant fees by college administrations all across the country to give ceremonial speeches on public occasions.

Folk singer Pete Seeger, who has been a party puppet his entire life, is a celebrated entertainer and was honored recently at the Kennedy Center with a Freedom Medal by the president himself. In the midst of the Vietnam War, Jane Fonda incited American troops to defect in a broadcast she made from the enemy's capital over Radio Hanoi. She then returned to the United States to win an Academy Award and eventually become the wife of one of America's most powerful media moguls, where she oversaw a 24-episode CNN special purporting to be a history of the Cold War. Bernadine Dohrn, leader of America's first political terrorist cult, who once officially declared war on "Amerika," and who has never conceded even minimal regret for her crimes nor hinted at the slightest revision of her views, has just been appointed to a Justice Department commission on children. The idea that America punishes those who betray her is laughable, as is the idea that leftists have anything to fear from their government if they tell the truth. So why the continuing lies? The reason is this: The truth is too embarrassing. Imagine what it would be like for Betty Friedan (the name actually is Friedman) to admit that as a Jew she opposed America's entry into the war against Hitler because Stalin told her that it was just an inter-imperialist fracas? Imagine what it would be like for America's premier feminist to acknowledge that well into her 30s she thought Stalin was the Father of the Peoples, and that the United States was an evil empire, and that her interest in women's liberation was just a subtext of her real desire to create a Soviet America. No, those kinds of revelations don't help a person who is concerned about her public image.

Which is why it probably has seemed better just to lie about this all these years. The problem, however, is that lying can't be contained. It begets other lies, and eventually becomes a whole way of life, as President Clinton could tell you. One of the lies that the denial of one's Communist past begets is an exaggerated view of McCarthyism. Fear of McCarthyism becomes an excuse that explains everything. That McCarthyism was some gigantic "reign of terror" (to use Carl Bernstein's sappy analogy), as though thousands lost their freedom and hundreds their lives while the country itself remained paralyzed with fear for a decade is simply not true. McCarthy's personal reign lasted but a year a half, until Democrats took control of his committee. Being an accused Communist on an American college campus in the '50s, moreover, was only marginally more damaging to one's career opportunities than the accusation of being a member of the Christian Right would be on today's politically correct campus, dominated as it now is by the tenured left. Bad enough, but reign of terror, no.

The example of Betty Friedan should be a wake-up call to the rest of us to insist that people be candid about their politics and about calling things by their right names. Otherwise, we are going to continue being inundated with books from the academy with ludicrous claims like this: "In response to McCarthyism and to the impact of mass media, suburbs, and prosperity, a wave of conformity swept across much of the nation. Containment referred not only to American policy toward the U.S.S.R. but also to what happened to aspirations at home. The results for women were especially unfortunate. Even though increasing numbers of them entered the work force, the Cold War linked anti-communism and the dampening of women's ambitions." If you believe that, there is a bridge I have to sell you. On the other hand, at least according to Friedan's biographer, that's exactly what Friedan has sold American feminists: "With 'The Feminine Mystique,' Friedan began a long tradition among American feminists of seeing compulsory domesticity as the main consequence of 1950s McCarthyism." Well, perhaps it's not American feminists Friedan has sold this bizarre version of reality to, so much as American Communists posing as feminists and unsuspecting young women whose only understanding of this past will come from their tenured leftist professors.


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