Betty Friedan (1921-2006)
Women's rights leader and activist Betty Freidan was born in 1921 to Russian Jewish immigrants. A summa cum laude graduate of Smith College in 1942, Friedan trained as a psychologist at University of California, Berkeley, but became a suburban housewife and mother in New York, supplementing her husband’s income by writing freelance articles for women’s magazines.
After conducting a survey of her Smith classmates at a 15-year reunion, Friedan found that most of them were, like she was, dissatisfied suburban housewives. After five more years of researching history, psychology, sociology and economics, and conducting interviews with women across the country, Friedan charted American middle-class women’s metamorphosis from the independent, career-minded New Woman of the 1920's and ‘30's into the housewife of the postwar years who was supposed to find fulfillment in her duties as mother and wife. This research turned into The Feminine Mystique (1963), a book regarded as one of the most influential nonfiction books of the twentieth century as it helped ignite the women’s movement of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, transforming American society and culture. The overwhelming response of readers who were similarly dissatisfied in that role led Friedan to co-found the National Organization for Women in 1966 to work towards increasing women’s rights. She helped found and lead other women’s groups, such as the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. As a leader of these organizations, Friedan was influential in helping change outdated laws that were disadvantageous to women, such as sex-segregated help-wanted ads and hiring practices, unequal pay, and firing a woman who was pregnant instead of providing her with maternity leave.
Within the diverse women’s movement, Friedan received criticism for focusing too much on issues facing primarily white, middle-class, educated, heterosexual women. Radical feminists also critiqued Friedan for working with men. Friedan insisted that the women’s movement had to remain in the American mainstream, otherwise they would be dismissed and nothing would change. In the end, Friedan’s mainstream attitude provided a balance to other women’s rights leader’s more radical attitudes.
Since the 1970s, Friedan published several more books, taught at New York University and the University of Southern California, as well as lectured widely at women’s conferences around the world.
Friedan’s vision, passion, foresight, and hard work helped created a society where women are more equal to men and have more choices when deciding how to live their lives. Friedan has made a lasting impact on American society. She passed away in 2006.
- Reprinted from a 2006 NWHM press release
- PHOTO: Smith College