Betty Friedan was one of the early leaders of the women’s rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s in the USA. Her book, The Feminine Mystique, is a founding text of modern feminism and is considered as one of the most influential books of the 20th century.
Bettye Naomi Goldstein was born in in Peoria, Illinois, in the United States, on February 4, 1921. She was the oldest of three children of Harry Goldstein, a Russian immigrant who built a jewellery business in the 1880s, and Miriam Horowitz Goldstein, a Hungarian immigrant who worked as a journalist until Betty was born. Miriam Goldstein had been prevented from attending Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, by her parents, but she supported Betty who graduated summa cum laude from Smith College in 1942 with a degree in psychology.
After her graduation in psychology, Betty spent a year at University of California, Berkeley, on a graduate fellowship to train as a psychologist. During that time, she dropped the ‘e’ from her name.
When World War II intensified, Betty became involved in a number of political causes. She left the graduate programme after a year and moved to New York, where she spent three years as a reporter for the Federated Press. After that she became a writer for the UE News, the media organ for the United Electric, Radio, and Machine Workers of America. During this period she started getting involved in various labour and union issues. Her interest in women’s rights also emerged during this time as she penned union pamphlets arguing for workplace rights for women.
In 1947, Betty married Carl Friedan, with whom she had three children in 1948, 1952 and 1956. She spent her next 10 years as a housewife and a mother in the suburbs of New York, while doing freelance work for a number of magazines.
In 1963, Betty finally organised her findings illuminated more by her personal experiences in her landmark book, The Feminine Mystique.
According to Britannica, in 1957 Betty circulated a questionnaire among her Smith College classmates. Through this she found out that most of them were deeply dissatisfied with their lives. She spent five years planning and carrying out an extensive series of studies on this topic. She formulated detailed questionnaires, conducted interviews, and discussed her results with psychologists.
Betty held interviews with women across the country, charting the metamorphosis of white, middle-class women from the independent, career-minded ‘New Woman’ of the 1920s and 1930s, to the housewives of the post-war era who were expected to find total fulfilment as wives and mothers.
In 1963, Betty finally organised her findings illuminated more by her personal experiences in her landmark book, The Feminine Mystique. This book became an instant bestseller, and it is still regarded as one of the most influential non-fiction books of the 20th century. Its title was a term she coined to describe “the problem that has no name”. She stated that it was a feeling of personal worthlessness resulting from the acceptance of a designated role – a role that requires a woman’s intellectual, economic, and emotional reliance on her husband.
The Feminine Mystique helped transform public awareness and brought many women into the forefront of the women’s movement.
According to Betty, women as a class suffered from more or less subtle forms of discrimination. She went on to argue that they were the victims of false values under which they were urged to find personal fulfilment. They were deprived of identity and were expected to devote their life cheerfully to their husband and children. She heavily criticised the glorification of this restricted role of wife-mother.
The Feminine Mystique helped transform public awareness and brought many women into the forefront of the women’s movement. It also propelled Betty Friedan into its early leadership. According to Women’s History, in October 1966, along with Pauli Murray and Aileen Hernandez, Betty co-founded the National Organisation for Women (NOW). Betty was its first president.
As the President of NOW, she started campaigns to end sex-classified employment notices, for greater representation of women in government, for childcare centres for working mothers, and for legalised abortion. She also authored NOW’s mission statement: “…to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.”
Betty was a busy activist in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1969, she helped in the formation of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, which was later renamed the National Abortion Rights Action League, and more recently to NARAL Pro-Choice America. Though she stepped down from the presidency of NOW in March 1970, Betty continued to be active. On August 26, 1970, she organised the Women’s Strike for Equality on the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage to create awareness about gender discrimination. She co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971 and stated that it was organised “to make policy, not coffee.” In 1973, Betty became the director of the First Women’s Bank and Trust Company.
According to Women’s History, when more diverse voices emerged within the movement, Betty was criticised for focussing on issues faced by primarily white, middle-class, educated, heterosexual women. Some feminists criticised her for cooperating with men. This alienated her from younger, radical and visionary feminists.
In 1976, Betty published It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement, and, in 1981, The Second Stage, an assessment of the status of the women’s movement. The Foundation of Age, published in 1993, addresses the psychology of old age and urged a revision of society’s views that aging means loss and depletion. Betty’s other books include the memoir Life So Far, published in 2000.
Betty died in 2006 of congestive heart failure.
Betty Friedan remained an ardent, visible, and important advocate for women’s rights throughout her life. Some regard her as the “mother” of the modern women’s movement.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
Can you think of how the National Organisation for Women influenced the life of women in the 1970s and 80s?
How would you describe the contributions of Betty Friedan in the growth of the modern women’s movement?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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