Betty Friedan contributed greatly to feminism in the United States through her work as an author and women’s rights activist. She organized the Women’s Strike for Equality, helped establish the National Women’s Political Caucus, and encouraged the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment. Betty Friedan wrote several novels, but The Feminine Mystique stands as her most famous and influential work.
Early Years and Education
Betty Friedan was born as Bettye Naomi Goldstein in Peoria, Illinois on February 4, 1921. Her parents, Harry and Miriam (Howitz) Goldstein, were Jewish immigrants from Russia and Hungary, respectively. Friedan started at Peoria High School and attempted to start a column in the school’s newspaper. When they denied her request, she and friends started their own literary magazine, Tide.Friedan began university in 1938 at Smith College where she excelled academically. She became chief editor of the school’s newspaper in 1941.<ref.Horowitz, 2000</ref> In 1942, she graduated summa cum laude with a degree in psychology. She then spent a year doing graduate studies at the University of California, Berkley with Erik Erikson. Betty Friedan’s political activism grew along with her Marxist acquaintances and her definition of feminism.
Betty Friedan encountered many radical thinking intellects during her studies that encouraged her own progressive mentality.
Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Other Writings
Betty Friedan worked as a journalist immediately after graduating. She wrote for different left-leaning publications, including The Federated Press from 1943 to 1946 and the United Electrical Workers’ UE News from 1946 to 1952. She wrote frequently on the controversial House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1952, Friedan left UE News after becoming pregnant with her second child and started writing for a variety of magazines, even Cosmopolitan.
Betty Friedan developed the idea for The Feminine Mystique during her 15th college reunion in 1957. She surveyed her fellow graduates regarding their experiences during their university education, post-graduation, and current lives. The articles she published from these surveys received a welcome response from housewives feeling the same disappointment after abandoning careers and education to marry and have children.
Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, expanded on these articles. She explored the function of women in industrial societies and the struggles of modern housewives. Her main character dropped out of university at the age of 19 to become an unhappy suburban homemaker raising four children. She discussed her own fears of living alone since she never saw a woman successfully raise a family and keep life outside of the home. Betty Friedan’s definition of feminism clashed with modern thought and argued that women could perform and succeed in any type of career as men. Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique reignited the fight for women’s rights and significantly influenced future events while achieving bestseller status. She followed up the novel with an article called “Women: The Fourth Dimension” published in June 1964 in the Ladies’ Home Journal.Friedan wrote five other books, including Beyond Gender, The Second Stage, The Fountain of Age, It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement, and an autobiography called Life So Far.
All her books came from her personal life experiences and those around her.
Women’s Rights Advocate and Political Figure
Betty Friedan helped found and served as the first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. NOW began after Friedan and other activists tried to address the rampant employment discrimination based on sex and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)’s failure to uphold Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They attempted to introduce a resolution at the Third National Conference of State Commissions on the Status of Women, but were denied. NOW officially came into being in October 1966 at the NOW Organizing Conference.
NOW and Friedan advocated for their original platform of enforcing Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and began lobbying for the Equal Pay Act of 1963 as well. They also transformed the EEOC’s lax attitude towards claims of gender discrimination. They lobbied and succeed in granting women the same benefits of affirmative action as blacks in a 1967 Executive Order. They also influenced the EEOC’s 1968 decision, confirmed in the United States Supreme Court, that ended gender-segregated wanted ads. NOW advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion legalization, and national daycare. Friedan’s insistence on using Title VII alienated her from NOW when several African-American members and many of NOW’s leaders argued African-Americans of both genders needed jobs more than middle and upper-class women. In 1969, she resigned as President of NOW.
Friedan remained active in NOW and in 1970 together they influenced the United States Senate of President Richard Nixon’s nominee for Supreme Court, G. Harrold Carswell, who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. She then organized the Women’s Strike for Equality on August 26, 1970, drawing 20,000 marchers to New York City and raised national awareness regarding the equal opportunity for women in education and the workforce.
Personal Life and Death
Betty Friedan married in 1947 to Carl Friedman, a theater producer and divorced in May of 1969. They produced three children together, Daniel, Emily, and Jonathan. Betty Friedan died of congestive heart failure on February 4, 2006, in her Washington, D.C. home.
Farber, D. (2004). The Sixties Chronicle. Legacy Publishing.
Fox, M. (2006, February 5). Betty Friedan, Who Ignited Cause in “Feminine Mystique,” dies at 85. U.S.
Friedan, B., & Quindlen, A. (2002). The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, W. W. & Company.
Henderson, M. (2007). BETTY FRIEDAN (1921–2006). Australian Feminist Studies, 22(53), 163–166. doi:10.1080/08164640701361725
Horowitz, D. (2000). Betty Friedan and the Making of “The Feminine Mystique”: The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism. United States: University of Massachusetts Press.
Makers. (2013, June 30). NOW’s 47th Anniversary: Celebrating its Founders and Early Members.
Spender, D. (1985). For The Record: Making and Meaning of Feminist Knowledge. London: The Women’s Press.
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