Betty Friedan Biography

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(History of the World: The 20th Century)

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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.

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...

(The entire section is 2,147 words.)