Betty Friedan and the Holocaust

by Rafael Medoff

Betty Friedan, the American feminist leader who died last week at 85, was strongly influenced by her experiences with antisemitism and by what she saw as the parallels between society’s treatment of Jews and its treatment of women.

Friedan’s first book, The Feminist Mystique, published in 1963, was a stinging critique of the submissive roles that women were pressured to assume in U.S. society. It quickly became a best-seller. Three years later, she helped found the National Organization for Women, which became the leading force for feminism.

Friedan’s experiences with antisemitism as a young woman helped shape her later views. Born Bettye Naomi Goldstein in Peoria, Illinois, she was the daughter of a Russian Jewish immigrant and was deeply discomfited by the social exclusion her family experienced in small-town America.

While still wrestling with her own Jewish identity as a freshman at Smith College in 1938, Friedan unexpectedly found herself embroiled in the debate over the plight of Germany’s Jews. In the wake of the Kristallnacht pogrom, college president William Allen Neilson urged the students to sign a petition asking President Roosevelt to let German Jewish girls enter the U.S. outside the immigration quotas, in order to enroll at Smith.

Each student house held its own discussion on whether to sign. “A number of girls spoke against it, about not wanting any more Jews at Smith,” Friedan later recalled. There were four older, well-to-do Jewish girls in her house– “the type that spoke in whispery voices and became utterly anemic because they did not want to be known as Jews,” as she put it. “I expected them to speak up [in favor of the petition], but they didn’t. Finally, despite being only a freshman from Peoria, I spoke, urging that we open our doors to those girls fleeing persecution.” Despite her plea, the petition was rejected by a large margin.

Friedan, a psychology major, spent the summer of 1940 at the University of Iowa, working with the famed German Jewish refugee psychologist Kurt Lewin. She was profoundly influenced by Lewin’s pioneering studies of Jewish self-hatred. In 1941, Friedan published a short story in a Smith College magazine about two assimilated Jewish girls who collaborate with a group of antisemitic girls in the abuse of a Jewish student. It was based on an episode at Smith in which Friedan herself had failed to aid a Jewish girl who was being mistreated. Friedan later described the writing of the short story as a cathartic experience which “freed” her “from being an anti-Semitic Jew.”

Years later, reflecting on the factors that shaped her views as a feminist, Friedan indicated that Lewin’s writings about how scapegoating of Jews caused Jewish self-hatred had influenced her view that society’s scapegoating of women caused women to internalize sexist images. She also made a connection between the mistreatment of Jews and the mistreatment of women In The Feminist Mystique, using Bruno Bettelheim’s studies of the Nazis’ dehumanization of Jews to build her case that American society was dehumanizing women. She referred to suburban homes as “comfortable concentration camps,” but later retracted that phrase, writing in her autobiography that “I got carried away … The American suburb was no concentration camp.”

February 2006