Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1719

Article abstract: Betty Friedan’s first book energized thousands of women and helped to initiate the feminist movement in the late 1960’s. Since that time, she has been a leader in the continuing struggle for women’s rights.

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Early Life

Betty Naomi Goldstein was born on February 4, 1921, to jeweler Harry Goldstein and former journalist Miriam Horowitz Goldstein in Peoria, Illinois. She remembers the fact that her mother gave up a career in journalism to be a housewife. This, she believes, explains her mother’s enthusiastic encouragement of young Betty’s journalistic endeavors in high school, college, and beyond.

Betty graduated from Smith College in 1942, summa cum laude, and later did graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley. After college, she worked in New York City as a reporter for a labor press. It was wartime, and women were encouraged to fill jobs while the men were overseas as soldiers.

Once the war ended, however, women were expected to give up their jobs so that the returning veterans could find work. She lost her reporting position and had to find work as a researcher. This was a “woman’s job,” which involved doing the research and often much of the writing for articles that were then published under the male authors’ bylines.

In the postwar era, women were expected to return to their traditional domestic roles—to get married, settle down, and have children. Thus began a time when women were presented with idyllic visions of being happy housewives at home in the suburbs raising families and caring for their homes and husbands. Betty accepted this vision, married Carl Friedan in 1947, and had three children: David, Jonathan, and Emily. She had, however, kept her job, taking a year’s maternity leave after her first child’s birth. When she requested her second leave, however, she was fired.

Friedan now tried to live up to the ideals of the day, working very hard to find the feminine fulfillment her mother had never found in domestic life. Eventually moving to a house on Long Island, Friedan reared her family, but she also continued to write, contributing articles to several women’s magazines.

Life’s Work

A popular topic in the media began to be the notion that women’s education was not preparing them adequately for their roles as women. That is, women went to colleges where they received educations they would never be able to apply in careers, since their proper role as women was to be housewives. Too much education was making them discontent with this role in life. The focus was on the inappropriateness of women’s education, but Betty Friedan began to see that what was wrong was not the education but the role that limited the choices of educated women.

Based on a 1957 survey she had been asked to conduct among her fellow classmates from Smith College, Friedan wrote an article for McCall’s on this issue, but her work was rejected by the male editor as too unbelievable. She was then asked to write the same information for Ladies’ Home Journal. When the article went to print, however, it had been changed to say the very opposite of what Friedan had originally written. Redbook also considered and refused to do the story. Betty Friedan realized that she would have to write a book to get her ideas into print, because they threatened the very identity of women’s magazines.

In her first book, The Feminine Mystique (1963), Friedan coined this now-famous term to describe the prescribed female role of the post-World War II years. The book caused shock waves throughout the country, because thousands of American women identified immediately with her words. These women were to become part of the energy that would instigate the feminist movement beginning in the late 1960’s.

By 1966, Friedan, sensing that words were not enough, began putting her energies into organizing for women’s rights. In that year, she attended a conference in Washington, D.C., of all the state Commissions on the Status of Women. Because of the frustrations of these women delegates at their inability to have any impact on the government, they began at that meeting organizing what was to become NOW, the National Organization for Women. Friedan wrote NOW’s statement of purpose. The organizing conference of the new group was held in October of 1966, with about three hundred members, and Friedan was elected the first president, a post she held until 1970, a year after her divorce in May, 1969.

Continuing her activism, she became a major organizer of the Women’s Strike for Equality, which took place on August 26, 1970, the fiftieth anniversary of the date women were granted the right to vote. During this time, Friedan was arguing against what had been termed “sexual politics,” which included anger at males as oppressors of women, notions of female separatism, and vocal support of lesbianism as a political issue. Her argument against sexual politics was that it was divisive and that it diverted attention away from the real political and economic issues of most women.

In 1971, Friedan helped organize and was the coconvenor of the National Women’s Political Caucus, formed to encourage and support women and pro-women candidates for public office. By 1972, however, she was beginning to back out of political activism, focusing her energies on writing, speaking, and teaching. In that year, she was invited to teach as a visiting professor at Temple University. This was followed by invitations to Yale in 1974 and Queens College of the University of the City of New York in 1975.

At this point, Friedan was exploring ideas about what she called the “second stage,” which she defined as the sex-role revolution that must include men. This new focus was reflected in the course titles at Temple, Yale, and Queens: “The Sex-Role Revolution, Stage II.”

In 1975, Betty Friedan was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association, and she received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Smith College. The following year saw the publication of her second book, It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement (1976). In this book, Friedan described her work over the previous years and included a journal of her experiences.

Her third book, The Second Stage (1981), further explored Friedan’s growing concern with the need to overcome the polarization between the sexes and to achieve the human wholeness that she saw as the ultimate promise of feminism. In addition, she was concerned about a damaging myth she saw growing in American culture—that of the superwoman who could have it all: career, marriage, and family. Her book argued that the time for reacting against male dominance and focusing on work outside the home was passing as women’s goals were being won, and that now women needed to begin to unite with men in building a new society of male-female equality.

Although it was a logical extension of her previous work and concerns, this book unleashed a great controversy. Many feminists turned on Friedan, saying that she had betrayed the women’s movement by buying into popular ideas about the importance of the traditional family and the need to gain the approval of men.

Betty Friedan’s next book was The Fountain of Age (1993). This book was undertaken as a way to understand her own denial and dread of aging, but in the process of her research she found a major contradiction between the typical view that aging is a time of loss and debility and the realities of the lives of the aging people she interviewed.

She notes that for women the process of aging is changing because of the changes in the ways women are defining themselves (changes that she herself helped bring about with her leadership in the feminist movement). She calls the new generativity that both women and men are experiencing as they grow older the fountain of age, in a play on the idea of the fountain of youth.

Summary

Betty Friedan’s effect on the American women’s movement has been immeasurable. Since she first gave voice to the dissatisfaction of housewives caught in the postwar ideology of the “feminine mystique,” throughout her work in founding and leading movements such as the National Organization for Women, and into her later years as her ideas have focused first on the second stage and then on aging, she has always been willing to be controversial, has always followed her own star, and has always spoken for many who identify with her insights.

Betty Friedan has taught at New York University and the University of Southern California, was named George Mason Professor of Social Evolution at Mount Vernon College, and continues to lecture worldwide. Her personal papers have been collected at the Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College.

Bibliography

Behm, Barbara. Betty Friedan: Speaking Out for Women’s Rights. Milwaukee: Gareth Stevens, 1992. This book discusses Betty Friedan’s impact on the women’s movement and her views of women’s rights.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton, 1963. This book, Friedan’s first, chronicles her own experiences and those of many other women in trying to live up to the feminine ideal of the American postwar era.

Friedan, Betty. The Fountain of Age. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. In this book, Friedan explores concepts of aging—discovering that the process of growing older carries positive connotations for many people and giving many insights into her own life experiences.

Friedan, Betty. It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement. New York: Random House, 1976. Perhaps the most autobiographical of Friedan’s books, this work documents her activism in the women’s movement and presents various entries from her journal.

Friedan, Betty. The Second Stage. New York: Summit Books, 1981. Like all of Friedan’s books, this one gives the reader further insight into her life and personal journey as well as into her thoughts on the progress of the women’s movement, which she believed, at the time she wrote this work, was entering a second stage.

Krichmar, Albert. The Women’s Rights Movement in the United States, 1848-1970: A Bibliography and Sourcebook. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1972. This useful book provides a wealth of material regarding the women’s movement in which Friedan played so important a part.

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