The Betty Friedan Mystique

Betty Friedan, author of the landmark The Feminine Mystique, died five years ago today on her 85th birthday. We took a look back at her life and the impact of her work.

Born Betty Naomi Goldstein in 1921 in Peoria, Illinois, Friedan was the daughter of two working parents. Her father was a prosperous jeweler while her mother had been editor of the women’s page of the local newspaper before giving it up when she had children. Friedan believed that quitting her career to become a housewife embittered her mother for the rest of her life.

Jewish, outspoken and intelligent, Friedan felt marginalized growing up in suburban America. She took an early interest in Marxism and was a committed writer for much of her youth, working at her high school paper and later launching a literary magazine with six of her friends. She attended prestigious Smith College on academic scholarship, where she was editor-in-chief of the college newspaper and wrote several poems for various campus publications.

After graduating with a degree in psychology, Friedan attended UC-Berkeley to study under influential developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, but quit her studies under pressure from a young physicist she was in a relationship with at the time. When their relationship ended, she moved to Greenwich Village.

She wrote for leftist and union publications, and in 1947 married theatre director (and later advertising executive) Carl Friedan. With her husband, Friedan moved to the suburb of Rockland and wrote occasional freelance pieces for women’s magazines, but mostly gave up her career to raise her three children.

The book that would change her life – and the lives of women throughout the entire country, if not the Western world – was begun as a 15-year anniversary survey of her former classmates at Smith. In doing the survey, Friedan had been hoping to show that pursuing higher education does not make women unfit for domestic life. Instead, she found educated middle-class women of her generation afflicted with “a problem that has no name.”

“Gradually, without seeing it clearly for quite a while, I came to realize that something is very wrong with the way American women are trying to live their lives today,” Friedan wrote in the preface. “I sensed it first as a question mark in my own life, as a wife and mother of three small children, half-guiltily, and therefore half-heartedly, almost in spite of myself, using my abilities and education in work that took me away from home.”

Published in 1963, the book was an immediate best-seller (eventually selling more than 3 million copies) and generated a firestorm of controversy. Mixing history, psychology and economics with first-hand interviews with women across the U.S., Friedan exploded the 1950s myth of the June Cleaver-esque happy housewife, showing that a great many women felt stifled by such a limited role, one which robbed them of personal fulfillment and drove them to a despair they tried to escape through extramarital affairs, prescription tranquilizers and sometimes even suicide. (Is it mere coincidence that the unhappy 1960s housewife in Mad Men is named Betty?)

Following the watershed success of the book, and moved by the strong reaction to it by women around the country who told Friedan it had changed their lives, she relocated to Manhattan and in 1966 helped found the National Organization of Women, a group intended to fight for women’s rights in the same way the NAACP fought for the rights of black people. NOW championed equal pay for equal work, the end of sex-segregated help wanted ads, maternity leave and legalized abortion. In 1970, NOW organized a hugely successful Women’s Strike for Equality, which saw 50,000 people march along 5th Avenue in Manhattan. That year Friedan and other leading feminists helped block the nomination of G. Harold Carswell to the U.S. Supreme Court because his judicial record showed a streak of racial discrimination and anti-feminism. In 1971, together with Gloria Steinem and many other leading feminist thinkers and activists, she helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus, a bipartisan group committed to supporting women seeking elected office.

As the movement grew more radical, Friedan was criticized for not embracing lesbian politics, and for concerning herself chiefly with the struggles of white, upper middle class women rather than those faced by women of color. After many legislative successes, NOW faced its biggest political defeat when the Equal Rights Amendment failed to gain ratification a decade after it was approved by Congress.

Friedan was criticized by fellow feminists – sometimes more for her abrasive, imperious demeanor than her political positions – and some critics and academicians argue that she sometimes distorted her own past and didn’t give enough credit to thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir and Mirra Komarovsky, who’d decades earlier reached many of the same conclusions Friedan did about women’s place in the world.

But given the amount of good she helped women achieve in the late 20th century, five years after Friedan’s death these complaints seem like mere quibbles. “The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person,” she once wrote, “is by creative work of her own. There is no other way.”

With The Feminine Mystique and her subsequent works, Friedan not only found herself, she helped change the very fabric of society.