Betty Friedan's secret Communist past

Why has this feminist icon continued to cover up her years as a party activist?

Published January 18, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

What is it with progressives? Why do they feel the need to lie so
relentlessly about who they are? Recently Rigoberta Menchú'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

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.

By David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

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