In one of the most shocking passages of her 1963 feminist classic, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan claimed that "the women who 'adjust' as housewives, who grow up wanting to be 'just a housewife,' are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps.... " (1) Friedan went on to explore this analogy for several pages, and then continued to use the phrase "comfortable concentration camps" to refer to suburban homes throughout the rest of The Feminine Mystique.
Scholars have since castigated Friedan for her inaccuracy and insensitivity in developing the concept of the "comfortable concentration camp." Feminist scholar bell hooks, for example, has charged Friedan with "narcissism, insensitivity, sentimentality, and self-indulgence." (2) Historian Daniel Horowitz called Friedan's comparison "problematic," "trivializing," "careless and exaggerated." (3) And Friedan herself has backed away from her imagery, saying in her recent memoir, "I am ashamed of that analogy.... The American suburb was no concentration camp." (4) Indeed, in a 2001 interview, Friedan refused to discuss her camp analogy in any detail, repeating several times that she had made an error in judgment. (5)
There is no question that Betty Friedan's analogy was an exaggerated and flawed one, as she herself now recognizes. The Nazi regime publicly confined, starved and tortured its victims in camps, and selected Jewish victims for mass extermination. This psychological and physical destruction was obviously wholly different from, and much more extreme than, the psychological devastation that was wreaked by suburban homes, which privately confined and socially marginalized middle class women.
Nonetheless, it is intellectually unsatisfying to dismiss this powerful analogy merely as inaccurate or sensational, or to accept Friedan's disavowal of the analogy without probing further. Friedan's analogy offers historians an important window into the impact of the Holocaust on American Jewish thinkers, as well as the impact of the Holocaust in larger American culture. By comparing Nazi concentration camps to American suburban homes in 1963, Friedan demonstrated that American Jewish intellectuals were not only conscious of the devastation of the Holocaust earlier than most historians have recognized, but that these intellectuals were also vocal about the Holocaust, using it to shape American public opinion in ways that most historians have thus far overlooked.
In describing the impact of the Holocaust on American Jews and especially on Jewish intellectuals, historians have typically emphasized Jewish reticence in discussing the Holocaust before the Six Day War in 1967, as well as the Holocaust's strong impact on American Jewish identity and support for Israel after 1967. (6) Historians have only recently begun to describe as significant discourse surrounding the Holocaust before 1967, or the variety of ways in which American Jews have interpreted and used the Holocaust to address non-Jewish subjects. (7)
Friedan's analogy demonstrates that most historians have neglected to examine a distinct period of Holocaust consciousness in the late 1950s and early to mid-1960s, a time when some American Jewish thinkers who had come of age during the Nazi era publicly emphasized the evils of Nazi concentration camps, not as an expression of their personal Jewish identity or a justification of Israeli military policy, but instead, as a means of expressing prevalent intellectual concerns with bureaucracy, alienation, and conformity and criticizing American society from a liberal perspective. (8) Within this earlier period of Holocaust consciousness, and during an era in American history shaped by a spirit of social commitment and cultural transgression, American readers--both Jews and non-Jews--were inspired and engaged by such uses of Nazi concentration camps, not repelled or insulted. Indeed, during this era, in part because of works like The Feminine Mystique, Nazi concentration camps became, for many liberal readers in the United States, appropriate and valuable symbols for exploring inhumanity on an American landscape.
Issues of language have made this earlier era of Holocaust consciousness difficult to explore. The term, "the Holocaust," as well as the narrative that we currently understand the term to describe--the persecution and extermination of six million Jews--did not develop in the United States until the late 1960s. Americans were, to be sure, familiar with the mass murder of Jews in Nazi Europe; newspapers, magazines and newsreels had reported this extermination both during and after the war, and books like The Diary of Anne Frank and William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich had kept news of Jewish extermination present in American media during the 1950s. (9) Nonetheless, mainstream American scholars and journalists had not yet labeled the persecution and extermination of Jews as a discrete narrative with a name. (10) The study of Holocaust consciousness before 1967 has been hampered by emphasis upon the word "Holocaust," and by the assumption that Americans' current understandings of the event were shared by Americans in earlier generations. In order to clarify the significance of language in Holocaust consciousness, this article will generally avoid the word "Holocaust" when discussing 1960s thought and culture, relying instead upon the language that was used at the time of The Feminine Mystique, and using the term, "the Holocaust," to refer only to historians' more recent understandings of the event.
The study of Holocaust consciousness before 1967 has also been hampered by scholarly tensions surrounding definitions of Jewish identity. Since historians have emphasized to such a strong degree the connections between Jewish identity and consciousness of the Holocaust, they have overlooked different ways in which Jews might be conscious of European Jewish destruction, without that consciousness necessarily being the expression of Jewish identity that scholars anticipate finding. Scholars have typically relied upon sociological models to understand Jewish identity as an expression of ritual behavior and social networks that can be quantified and evaluated. (11) By contrast, recent theoretical work encourages scholars to understand Jewish identity as a more fluid, less well-defined entity that individuals continually construct in relationship to history, power, and culture. (12) However, Betty Friedan's decision to develop her concentration camp analogy fits neither of these models perfectly, and suggests that historians who study non-practicing, unaffiliated Jews in the United States may need to search for a new way to understand the Jewish identities of their subjects. Friedan, a non-practicing, unaffiliated Jew, did not engage in most of the ritual behavior that sociologists use to determine Jewish identity, nor did she consciously construct her Jewish identity as she developed the idea of the "comfortable concentration camp." Nonetheless, she did use her personal experiences and intellectual understandings of antisemitism, shaped during the Nazi era, to explore the oppression of women in America.
To understand the origins and significance of Friedan's concentration camp analogy, it is first important to understand the analogy in more detail, as well as its context within the larger work. Friedan's central argument in The Feminine Mystique was that, after World War II, American cultural outlets--women's magazines, colleges, and the advertising industry--had exalted the "feminine mystique," a glorified image of women as mothers and housewives in the home. This mystique, she argued, silently stifled women's growth and denied women's humanity by limiting them to their suburban homes and to a life of domesticity. Only by resisting the mystique and breaking away from domesticity by finding productive work could American women grow as human beings.
In one of her final chapters, entitled, "Progressive Dehumanization: The Comfortable Concentration Camp," Friedan brought to a horrifying conclusion her argument that domesticity denied women's humanity: she developed a five-page analogy between suburban homes and Nazi concentration camps. To do so, she relied exclusively on Bruno Bettelheim's 1960 book, The Informed Heart. Bettelheim, a Jewish survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald, emphasized the psychological dehumanization of inmates in concentration camps, arguing that even more important than the Nazis' physical violence was their psychological violence. Bettelheim claimed that one of the SS's major goals in the concentration camps was to "break the prisoners as individuals, and to change them into a docile mass from which no ... act of resistance could arise." (13) To this end, the SS purposely "destroy[ed] all personal autonomy," by forcing inmates to become obedient children, who performed useless labor and even needed permission to use the toilet. (14) As their personalities disintegrated, Bettelheim argued, prisoners actually did regress to childhood, lying, boasting, and even becoming inordinately interested in defecation and urination. (15) In the "final adjustment" to the camps, he said, these childlike inmates began to "identify with the enemy," to adopt the values of the SS themselves by terrorizing new prisoners and enforcing SS rules. (16) "The ultimate realization" of SS goals, Bettelheim suggested, was the extermination camp, where prisoners, deprived of all human dignity, chose to commit "suicide" by "walking to the gas chamber." (17)
Intellectuals and politicians had considered Bettelheim one of the preeminent experts on the concentration camps in the United States since i943, and his work influenced such writers as James T. Farrell and Dwight Macdonald. (18) Betty Friedan followed in this tradition, and liberally borrowed Bettelheim's language and analysis to argue that suburban housewives, like concentration camp prisoners, were dehumanized by their pointless work. Just like Bettelheim's camp inmates, Friedan claimed, suburban women "have become dependent, passive, childlike; they have given up their adult frame of reference to live at the lower human level of food and things. The work they do does not require adult capabilities; it is endless, monotonous, unrewarding." (19) Moreover, suburban women, just like concentration camp inmates, assisted in the destruction of their own humanity. By adjusting to the life of a housewife, "a woman stunts her intelligence to become childlike, turns away from individual identity to become an anonymous biological robot in a docile mass." (20) In the final stages of docility, Friedan argued, a dependent woman became parasitic, "preyed upon by outside pressures, and herself preying upon husband and children." (21) Just as dehumanized concentration camp inmates internalized the SS guards' values and began to attack other prisoners, American women internalized their inferiority, and they turned their aggression against their loved ones, and against themselves. (22)
It is perhaps surprising for the current reader to realize that Betty Friedan's striking analogy between women and concentration camp inmates did not refer at all to Jews. Friedan never actually mentioned the destruction of European Jewry in The Feminine Mystique. Although she at times conflated "gas chambers" with "concentration camps," referred to prisoners who were "exterminated," and at one point called the destruction of women "genocide," she never mentioned Jews in her discussion of any of these. (23) Moreover, Friedan did not identify herself as Jewish anywhere in her book. The Feminine Mystique included only a few passing references to Jews throughout its 365 pages, and none suggested the author's background. (24) Indeed, Friedan had considered herself an unaffiliated, even "agnostic" Jew for years when she published The Feminine Mystique, and she did not openly address her Jewish …