Betty Friedan was an American writer, activist and feminist, and a leading figure in the women’s movement in the US. Her 1963 book ‘The Feminine Mystique’ is often credited with sparking the second wave of American feminism in the 20th century.
Betty was born Bettye Naomi Goldstein on February 4th 1921 in Peoria, Illinois, to Harry and Miriam Goldstein, whose Jewish families were from Russia and Hungary. Harry owned a jewellery store in Peoria, and Miriam wrote for the society page of a newspaper. As far as Betty could tell, her mother’s life outside the home seemed much more gratifying.
Following her mother’s example, Betty became involved in her school newspaper, but when her application to write a column was turned down, she and 6 other friends launched a literary magazine called Tide. She attended an all-female college in 1938, and won a scholarship prize in her first year for outstanding academic performance. In 1941 she became editor-in-chief of the college newspaper. The editorials became more political under her leadership, taking a strong anti-war stance and occasionally causing controversy. She graduated with a major in psychology in 1942.
In 1943 she spent a year at the University of California for graduate psychology work, and became more politically active. She stated that her boyfriend at the time had pressured her into turning down a Ph.D fellowship for further study and abandoning her academic career. After leaving the university she became a journalist for leftist and labor union publications, but was dismissed in 1952 as she was pregnant with her second child, having married theatre producer Carl Friedan in 1947 (they were divorced in 1969). Thereafter Betty became a freelance writer for various magazines.
For her 15th college reunion in 1957, Betty conducted a survey of college graduates, focusing on their education and satisfaction with their current lives. She started publishing articles about what she called ‘The problem that has no name’, and received passionate responses from housewives, grateful that they were not alone in experiencing the problem.
‘The shores are strewn with the casualties of the feminine mystique. They give up their own education to put their husbands through college only to be left in the lurch 10 to 15 years later by divorce. It’s not that easy for a woman of 45 or 50 to move ahead in a profession and make a new life for herself and her children alone.’
Betty expanded on this topic in 1963 and published a book entitled ‘The Feminine Mystique’. In it she described the depressed suburban housewife who dropped out of college aged 19 to get married and raise 4 children. She wrote that she had never seen a positive female role-model who worked outside the home but also looked after a family. She asserted that women were just as capable as men for any type of work. She struck a chord with American women, who began lobbying for the reform of oppressive laws and social views that restricted women. The book was a bestseller, and Betty went on to 6 other books.
In 1966 Betty co-founded and became the first president of the National Organisation for Women, which advocated fiercely for legal equality between women and men. In 1970 she organised the National Women’s Strike for Equality and led a march of about 20,000 women in New York City. She also founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, and together with other leading feminists of the day founded National Women’s Political Caucus. She pushed the feminist movement to focus on equality in employment as well as provision for child care so that both women and men could balance family with work. She wrote a book in 1980, The Second Stage, about family life, focusing on women having conquered social and legal obstacles.
Betty was famously ‘abrasive’, and could be subject to screaming fits of temper. Her ex-husband Carl Friedan has been quoted as saying ‘She changed the course of history almost single-handedly, and that it takes a driven, super-aggressive , egocentric, almost lunatic dynamo to rock the world the way she did.’
Betty died of congestive heart failure at her home in Washington on her 85th birthday, February 4th 2006.