"The Comfortable Concentration Camp": The Significance of Nazi Imagery in Betty Friedan's the Feminine Mystique (1963)

Article excerpt

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. …