Betty Naomi Goldstein Friedan commended women who chose to become wives and mothers, but she also believed that domesticity shouldn’t be the only path available to the female sex. After marrying and having children of her own, Friedan published her thoughts on the subject, and the result was a feminist manifesto that inspired generations of women to seek separate identities and equal rights in society.
Born and raised in Peoria, Ill., Friedan learned her place in the world at an early age. Her mother, Miriam, was an impeccable housewife, but also a woman deeply dissatisfied with her lot in life. She lived in a time when married women simply did not work, and was forced to give up her career as a women’s page editor at a local newspaper after she wed. Friedan’s father, Harry Goldstein, also promoted the belief that “a woman’s place was in the home.” He once caught a young Betty walking with an armload of books she’d checked out from the library, and told her it was unladylike for a girl to read so much. When Betty was naughty, he’d ground her from her books for an entire day.
Although Friedan became her high school’s valedictorian and graduated from Smith College summa cum laude, she also placed her own desires second to those of her male counterparts and children. Friedan did her graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, but turned down a prestigious fellowship in psychology so as not to outshine her boyfriend’s achievements. She wed her husband, Carl Friedan, five years later, and spent the majority of their 22-year marriage at home raising their three children. The couple divorced in 1969.
The world in which Friedan lived was also decidedly sexist. She lost one job to a returning World War II veteran in 1947. While she was given a maternity leave to have her first child in 1949, Friedan was fired and replaced by a man when she asked for another leave to have her second child in 1954. Friedan then stayed home and raised her family in a big Victorian house in Grandview-on-the-Hudson, N.Y. She wrote freelance articles for women’s magazines in her spare time, one of which focused on her 15-year college reunion.
To research the piece, Friedan conducted an in-depth survey of alumni and learned that the majority of her well-educated classmates had become suburban housewives. Many were frustrated by years spent child-rearing and doing chores, drugged themselves with tranquilizers or were simply ignored by society. For five years, Friedan examined her research, then used the data to write and publish the book, “The Feminine Mystique,” in 1963.
The book challenged the belief that women were supposed to derive fulfillment through the achievements of their husbands and children, and laid the groundwork for the modern feminist movement. It sold more than 600,000 hardcover copies and 2 million in paperback, and was ranked No. 37 on a 1999 New York University survey of 100 examples of the best journalism of the twentieth century. Some women viewed the book as a call to arms. Others were outraged at Friedan’s commentary, and responded by kicking her out of the school car pool and making fun of her looks.
Friedan took her own words to heart and returned to the workplace. She believed the women’s movement needed to come into the forefront of American consciousness while still remaining in the mainstream of thought. She eschewed women who burned their bras, hated men and rejected family life outright. Instead, Friedan called on society to grant women a position of equality — in health care, pay scales, promotion opportunities and political clout.
In 1964, Friedan moved her family to New York City and began lobbying the federal government to enforce the Civil Rights Act as it applied to sex and not just race, religion and national origin. Two years later, she co-founded the National Organization for Women and served as its first president. Friedan became an outspoken advocate for legal and safe abortion, and demanded maternity leave without workplace recriminations. She led the 500,000-person Women’s Strike for Equality in New York City in 1970, on the 50th anniversary of women winning the right to vote. She also helped force the airlines to change their policies that permitted only female flight attendants and required them to resign once they married or turned 32.
In later years, Friedan became a popular speaker and a visiting professor at New York University, Cornell University and the University of Southern California. She continued writing as well, publishing four more books and a memoir. Her 1993 text, “The Fountain of Age,” focused on how society mistreats the elderly.
Friedan died on Feb. 4, her birthday, of congestive heart failure. She was 85.