A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Friedan was labor journalist as well as feminist leader

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Aug. 26, 27 or 28

This Labor Day during the 50th anniversary year of the publication of Betty Friedan’s landmark “Feminine Mystique,” one wonders, “What if more people had known about Friedan’s background – especially her years as a labor journalist around the infamous Red Scares of post-war America?”

Too few realize that Friedan, born and raised in Peoria as Bettye Naomi Goldstein, was a reporter and editor in high school and college, and an advocacy journalist covering equality for working women and various progressive causes for years before “Feminine Mystique.” From 1942 into 1952, Friedan was a reporter for unions’ Federated Press. Then she was a staffer for seven years at UE News, a publication of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

James Lerner, former UE News editor, in his book “Course of Action” recalls, "It was a loss to American history that a remarkable journalist and feminist leader failed to bring forward the seminal contributions that labor ideals and struggles had made to feminism in the 20th century.”

Now recalled mostly for “The Feminine Mystique,” about the unfulfilled lives suburban women faced, Friedan graduated from the all-female Smith College, studied for a year at Berkeley, then declined an offer to remain there in order to work as a labor journalist. That led her to UE, then the most progressive union in the nation, one accused of being led by communists, a charge that was exaggerated but not completely false.

“[Friedan] and I frequently covered stories of broad national interest to union members, including equal rights for women in the workforce,” Lerner wrote. “She wrote a number of important articles on women's wages, among them several pieces on wage discrimination against women in the electrical industry.”

Friedan also wrote articles about rank and file union members and minorities, and she criticized conservative interests that she saw as undermining reform. In 1943, she blasted an agenda supported by the National Association of Manufacturers to weaken labor, reverse the New Deal, and let businesses operate however they pleased.

Some of her best journalism at UE published as a 39-page pamphlet, 1952’s “UE Fights for Women Workers.” Foreshadowing ground she’d cover in “Feminine Mystique,” she described ads that show women working in GE kitchens, watching Sylvania TVs or using Westinghouse washers. Friedan wrote, "Nothing is too good for her – unless she works at GE, Westinghouse or Sylvania, or thousands of other corporations."

Describing physical woes caused by factory speedups, less-pay-for-equal-work and the glass ceiling shutting off promotions to better-paying jobs, the uncredited Friedan earned praise for the analysis. Historian Lisa Kannenberg, unaware of the pamphlet author’s identity, in 1990 said it was "a remarkable manual for fighting wage discrimination that is, ironically, as relevant today as it was in 1952."

Ending with a 10-point program for women's rights in the electrical industry, which included access to all skilled jobs and pay equity, the pamphlet’s recommendations were adopted at UE's 17th convention.

“For Friedan herself, the fight for justice for women was inseparable from the more general struggle to secure rights for African Americans and workers,” wrote biographer Daniel Horowitz.

Why isn’t this background better known? Blame Joe McCarthy. An onslaught of anticommunist attacks on unions by the House Un-American Activities Committee and McCarthy’s Senate hearings in the late 1940s and early ’50s greatly weakened the UE. Its membership topped 600,000 in 1946, but by 1950 was down to 71,000, and that decline eventually forced cutbacks that resulted in Friedan’s layoff.

Also, Friedan feared tying her growing acclaim in the ’60s to those dark days. Anti-communism was still used to attack the Civil Rights, anti-war and student movements and, as Horowitz noted, “Had Friedan revealed all in the mid-1960s, she would have undercut her book's impact, subjected herself to palpable dangers, and jeopardized the feminist movement.”

Unfortunately, had the public realized the ties between Friedan’s early work as a labor journalist along with her feminist writings, there may have been a better understanding of the solidarity of those movements, and better outcomes to derailed or defeated campaigns as different (yet connected) as the Equal Rights Amendment and the Employee Free Choice Act.

Friedan herself seemed to realize this in 1997, when she reflected and speculated to journalist Judith Warner that the greatest threat to the future of the women’s movement wouldn’t be “age-old sexism, persistent stereotypes, gender expectations or unfairly shared caretaking duties. The larger danger would be the tilt in our national values that occurred in the last decades of the 20th century: ‘the culture of corporate greed,’ the downsizing and downgrading of formerly solid middle-class jobs and ‘the sharply increased income inequality between the very rich … and the rest of us, women and men’.”

[PICTURED: The union pamphlet written by Betty Friedan (then Goldstein)]

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