Betty Friedan (born 1921) was a women's rights activist, author of The Feminine Mystique, and a founding member of the National Organization for Women, the National Abortion Rights Action League, and the National Women's Political Caucus.
Betty Friedan appeared suddenly in the national limelight with the publication of her first book, The Feminine Mystique, in 1963. It became a national best seller and propelled Friedan to a leadership position in the burgeoning movement for women's liberation. In that book Friedan identified a condition she claimed women suffered as the result of a widely accepted ideology that placed them first and foremost in the home. Attacking the notion that "biology is destiny," which ordained that women should devote their lives to being wives and mothers at the expense of other pursuits, Friedan called upon women to shed their domestic confines and discover other meaningful endeavors.
Friedan was herself well situated to know the effects of the "feminine mystique." She was born Betty Naomi Goldstein in 1921 in Peoria, Illinois, the daughter of Jewish parents. Her father was a jeweler, and her mother had to give up her job on a newspaper when she married. The loss of that potential career affected her mother deeply, and she urged young Betty to pursue the career in journalism that she was never able to achieve. The daughter went on to graduate summa cum laude from Smith College in 1942. She then received a research fellowship to study psychology as a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. Like her mother, she did some work as a journalist, but unlike her mother she did not end her career to build a family. She married Carl Friedan in 1947, and during the years that she was raising their three children she continued her freelance writing. After her husband established his own advertising agency they moved to the suburbs, where Friedan experienced what she later termed the "feminine mystique" first hand. Although she continued to write she felt stifled in her domestic role.
In 1957 Friedan put together an intensive questionnaire to send to her college classmates from Smith 15 years after graduation. She obtained detailed, open-ended replies from 200 women, revealing a great deal of dissatisfaction with their lives. Like Friedan herself, they tried to conform to the prevailing expectations of wives and mothers while harboring frustrated desires for something more out of life. Friedan wrote an article based on her findings, but the editors of the women's magazines with whom she had previously worked refused to publish the piece. Those refusals only spurred her on. She decided to investigate the problem on a much larger scale and publish a book. The result of her effort was The Feminine Mystique, which became an instant success, selling over three million copies.
Friedan began her book by describing what she called "the problem that has no name." In words that touched a sensitive nerve in thousands of middle-class American women, she wrote, "the problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material … she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—'Is this all?"'
With the publication of The Feminine Mystique Betty Friedan rose to national prominence. Three years later in 1966 she helped found the first major organization established since the 1920s devoted to women's rights, the National Organization for Women (NOW), and became its first president. Under Friedan's leadership NOW worked for political reforms to secure women's legal equality. The organization was successful in achieving a number of important gains for women. It worked for the enforcement of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of sex. As a result of the organization's efforts, the Equal Opportunities Commission ruled that airlines could not fire female flight attendants because they married or reached the age of 35, nor could employment opportunities be advertised according to male or female categories.
NOW also lobbied for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which had remained dormant since it was first introduced in Congress by Alice Paul in 1923. In addition, the organization called for federally funded day care centers to be established "on the same basis as parks, libraries and public schools." NOW also worked to achieve the legalization of abortion and the preservation of abortion rights. Friedan was among the founders of the National Abortion Rights Action League in 1969. Finally in 1973 the Supreme Court legalized abortions. Deaths of women resulting from abortions dropped by 60 percent.
In 1970 Friedan was one of the most forceful opponents of President Nixon's nomination of G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court. She argued before the Senate Judiciary Committee that in 1969 Carswell defied the Civil Rights Act by ruling in favor of the right of employers to deny jobs to women with children. That same year, at the annual meeting of NOW, she called for a Women's Strike for Equality, which was held on August 26—the 50th anniversary of the day women gained the right to vote. Women across the country commemorated the day with demonstrations, marches, and speeches in 40 major cities. Friedan led a parade of over 10,000 down Fifth Avenue in New York City.
The following year Friedan was among the feminist leaders who formed the National Women's Political Caucus. During the next several years she moved away from central leadership in the movement to concentrate on writing and teaching. She wrote a regular column for McCall's magazine and taught at several colleges and universities, including Temple University, Yale University, Queens College, and the New School for Social Research.
Friedan became an influential spokeswoman for the women's movement nationally as well as internationally. In 1974 she had an audience with Pope Paul VI in which she urged the Catholic Church to "come to terms with the full personhood of women."
As the women's movement grew and new leaders emerged with different concerns, Friedan's centrality in the movement dwindled. Nevertheless, she remained an out-spoken feminist leader for many years. In 1977 she participated in the National Conference of Women in Houston, Texas, and called for an end to divisions and a new coalition of women. Her writing, teaching, and speaking continued throughout these years, as her ideas concerning the feminist movement evolved. In 1976 she published It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women's Movement, which was followed by her 1981 book, The Second Stage. In that publication Friedan called for a shift in the feminist movement, one that would address the needs of families and would allow both men and women to break from the sex-role stereotypes of the past.
In 1993, Friedan released The Fountain of Age, in which she began to explore the rights of the elderly and aging, just as she had once become attuned to women's issues. Friedan's focus is not on mere economics, but rather on helping the elderly find fulfillment in their latter years. In The New York Times she said, "Once you break through the mystique of age and that view of the aged as objects of care and as problems for society, you can look at the reality of the new years of human life open to us."
In 1996 new scholarship arose about Friedan's life when Daniel Horowitz published a controversial article in American Quarterly. Horowitz, who teaches at Friedan's alma mater, Smith University, draws a link between Friedan's feminism and her undergraduate years at Smith during the 1940s. Horowitz presents a new outlook on the work of Friedan, who has often said her feminism first emerged during the 1960s; in his article, Horowitz makes a strong case that it can be traced to the 1940s. But regardless of the time that Friedan's feminism first surfaced, she remains a significant influence on societal expectations and equality for women.
Further Reading on Betty Friedan
Betty Friedan's own writings are the best source of information on her life and work. She wrote extensively in popular magazines and was interviewed numerous times after 1963. She published four books: The Feminine Mystique (1963), It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women's Movement (1976), and The Second Stage (1981), and The Fountain of Age (1993).