Betty Friedan was born Bettye Naomi Goldstein on February 4, 1921 in Peoria, Illinois, USA and died on her 65th birthday of congestive heart failure. Her father ran a jewellery shop, and her mother was editor of a women’s page in local newspaper, a job she gave up when falling pregnant with Betty. Her mother’s subsequent struggle with becoming a full-time homemaker and mother was brought home when her father began suffering heart trouble and her mother took over the running of the shop. Betty noticed how much happier her mother seemed to be, and even credits this development with helping alleviate the colitis her mother had previously suffered.
As a student in Peoria, later as an undergraduate at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts and during her post-graduate studies at UC Berkeley, Betty became increasingly positive the traditional role she seemed destined for was not one she wished to live out. Always politically active in Marxist and Jewish circles, editor for a newspaper at Smith College, Betty declined an offer of a PhD fellowship in Psychology to work as a journalist for politically left-leaning and union newspapers, including The Federated Press (1943-46) and United Electrical Workers’ UE News (1946-1952).
Shortly after beginning work at UE News, Betty married Carl Friedman (the "m" was dropped after they were married) in 1947, and in 1952 Betty became a freelance journalist. There were three children of the marriage; Emily, Daniel and Jonathan. Her marriage ended in divorce in 1969 and whilst she wrote in her autobiography that Carl had beaten her (with corroborative interviews from friends), Betty later qualified this claim by saying on Good Morning America that "I almost wish I hadn't even written about it, because it's been sensationalized out of context. My husband was no wife-beater, and I was no passive victim of a wife-beater. We fought a lot, and he was bigger than me." Carl himself claimed that the accusations of abuse were unfounded.
The inspiration for “The Feminine Mystique” came from interviews with fellow Smith graduates, which Betty later expanded to other female colleges such as Radcliffe, and personal interviews with many more women. This foundation led to her groundbreaking work, and the overwhelming response Betty got from publication led to her co-founding the National Organisation of Women (N.O.W.) in 1966, and she was President of the organisation until 1970.
In 1969 Betty co-founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now known as NARAL), and remained a staunch advocate for legal abortion rights throughout her life. In 1971 she co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, a national multi-party group dedicated to supporting and recruiting women who wished to seek political office (elected or appointed), with other major feminist leaders such as Gloria Steinem, with many of whom she was to have a fractious relationship.
However, Betty was not without controversy herself, and was credited with coining the phrase “the Lavender Menace” to describe lesbian activism within feminism, issues which she felt were separate to and not part of the feminist movement; this position she later altered publicly at a Women's Conference held in Houston, Texas, in 1977. To ratify the United Nations Platform for Women she seconded the motion supporting lesbian rights, a motion which was resoundingly passed. Betty’s works have also been criticised by many for focusing too strongly on the experience of white, middle-class women and ignoring the experiences of those outside of that box.
Whilst remaining politically active throughout her life, Betty also continued to write for magazines, contributing a regular column to McCalls magazine between 1971-1974, together with numerous posts for New York Times Magazine, Harpers, Ladies Home Journal and Family Circle amongst others.
Betty remained a controversial figure politically and
personally for her entire lifetime, known to be abrasive, egoistic and selfish. Her obituaries note this, whilst qualifying this by many such as Germaine Greer and her former husband Carl acknowledging how such a personality was essential for the time in which she was writing and the topics which she was covering.
Whatever one’s opinion on the person and the politics, she is acknowledged as a major figure in feminist politics and awareness, and “The Feminine Mystique” is accredited by historians to have been a prime, if not the, impetus for second wave feminism.
Other books by Betty Friedan:
§ It Changed My Life (1976)
§ The Second Stage (1981)
§ The Fountain of Age (1993)
§ Beyond Gender (1997)
Sources and references:
“The Feminine Mystique”, Betty Friedan 1963 W.W. Norton & Co.
“Life So Far”, Betty Friedan 2000 Simmons & Schuyster
Interview with Betty Friedan
Review of a study of Betty Friedan’s work:
FOTW No. 7 by Kayla Calkin, “This is What a Feminist Looks Like Facebook” group
Blog by Tina Price-Johnson