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Betty Friedan was a catalyst in the development of the women’s movement in the United States in the 1960s. In 1963 her book The Feminine Mystique was published, and it provided a clarion call to women—especially suburban housewives—to move beyond their lives in the home and to actively pursue careers as well as social and political equality. Several decades later, the book had sold more than three million copies.
The daughter of a Russian immigrant who owned a successful jewelry store in Peoria, Illinois, and a mother who gave up a newspaper career to raise her children, Bettye (as she was named at birth) attended Smith College, graduating with honors in 1942. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she dropped the “e” in her first name and attended the University of California, Berkeley, to pursue a graduate degree in psychology. She left the university in response to pressure from a boyfriend, eventually moving to New York, where she began writing for labor newspapers. She married Carl Friedan in 1947 (they divorced in 1969), and they moved to the suburbs of New York City, where she raised three children (Daniel, Emily, and Jonathan).
In preparation for her fifteenth college reunion, Friedan surveyed her classmates and discovered a vague but poignant dissatisfaction with their seemingly pleasant suburban lives. She extended her survey to alumna of other women’s colleges and also interviewed numerous women; the results of her investigation provided the basis for The Feminine Mystique. The book galvanized women across the nation, particularly white women, and Friedan entered the national spotlight as an assertive spokeswoman. In 1966 she was one of the founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW), serving as its first president, a position she held until 1970. NOW provided women with a national platform to discuss their concerns, to advocate for political rights, and to engage in social and political activism. In 1969 Friedan was one of the founders of NARAL Pro-Choice America, an organization that advocates for abortion rights, and in 1971 she helped to found the National Women’s Political Caucus.
Friedan authored six subsequent books, the last of which was a memoir. In her later books, she began to advocate for a broad movement for the working class, people of color, and gays and lesbians. She was a visiting professor at Columbia University, Temple University, and the University of Southern California. In the years just before her death, she worked with the Institute for Women and Work at Cornell University.
The Feminine Mystique remains a highly influential book, although much of its argument, focused on conditions in the 1960s, is now the source for more recent forms of feminism, and thus it is ironically both essential reading and dated. While her unflagging efforts on behalf of women focused attention on gender disparities, she achieved notoriety in the women’s movement by calling lesbian feminists “the lavender menace” because they provided an easy target for critics who prophesied the demise of the family. Although The Feminine Mystique was focused on the conditions of suburban mothers, one of her cofounders of the National Women’s Political Caucus, Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977), was a key African American activist in the long and bitter struggle for civil rights in Mississippi and political recognition in the national Democratic Party.
The first extensively organized effort for women’s rights occurred in the 1800s and early 1900s when women fought for the right to vote. Betty Friedan was an architect of the second organized effort in the 1960s.
- Friedan, Betty. 2000. Life So Far. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Hennessee, Judith Adler. 1999. Betty Friedan: Her Life. New York: Random House.
- Horowitz, Daniel. 1998. Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique: The American Left, The Cold War, and Modern Feminism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
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