Friedan, Betty (1921—)

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Friedan, Betty (1921—)

Author of The Feminine Mystique, the book that launched the feminist movement in the United States, who fought for equal rights for women and founded the National Organization for Women (NOW). Name variations: Bettye. Pronunciation: FREE-dan. Born Bettye Naomi Goldstein on February 4, 1921, in Peoria, Illinois; daughter of Harry Goldstein (owner of a jewelry store) and Miriam Horwitz (local newspaper reporter and housewife); attended Smith College, B.A. in psychology, 1942; married Carl Friedan, in June 1947 (divorced 1969); children: Daniel Friedan (b. 1948); Jonathon Friedan (b. 1952); Emily Friedan (b. 1956).

Family lived in Peoria, Illinois; graduated Central High School (June 1938) as one of five valedictorians; attended and graduated Smith College with honors (1942); attended graduate school at University of California at Berkeley for one year; moved to New York City after father's death (1943); married (1947) and had three children; founded NOW (1966) and became its first president; served as head of unofficial NOW delegation to final U.N. Conference for Women in Kenya (1985); death of her mother (1988).

Selected writings:

The Feminine Mystique (W.W. Norton, 1963); It Changed My Life (Random House, 1976); The Second Stage (Summit Books, 1981): The Fountain of Age (Simon and Schuster, 1993).

Women were granted the right to vote in the United States in 1920, when the 19th amendment was passed. Despite this major breakthrough, women's lives were very different then. Few women worked. Those who had jobs expected to keep them only until they married. Most people were sure that women's place was in the home and that women were unsuited for work. As a result, even if they had to work, there were few positions available for them outside domestic labor. Major universities excluded women or segregated them in special courses, and there were only a handful of women's colleges. Although individual women did sometimes get an education and find productive work, those who did so rarely married. The majority of women in the Western world accepted the role of wife and mother, subservient to their husbands and dependent on them for support.

Betty Naomi Goldstein was destined to change this world. She was born on February 4, 1921, less than one year after women were granted the right to vote. Not a pretty child, she found growing up in the small midwestern town of Peoria, Illinois, difficult. She needed glasses for her weak eyes, and braces to straighten her teeth and legs. Friedan excelled in school work, however, and that interest compensated for what she and her family perceived as her lack of good looks. But when she became a teenager, intellectual success seemed less important. Her friends were going out on dates and joining high school sororities.

One of Betty's biggest disappointments at the time was not being invited into a sorority. The reason had nothing to do with her appearance, or her popularity. In fact, she had many friends and had organized clubs of her own throughout her school years. Her exclusion was due to the fact that she was Jewish. For that same reason, her family could not join the local country club, even though her father was a successful and respected merchant in Peoria. That kind of prejudice had a lasting effect on Friedan and made her feel like an outsider. At Smith, a fine women's college in New England, she excelled in her studies but still felt unpopular and unloved. She longed for a boyfriend of her own, someone that "loved her best," but she rarely had a date and felt too insecure to develop relationships with young men.

As she had during her high school years, Friedan concentrated all her energies on academics. She organized a literary magazine, worked on the college newspaper, and took interesting summer courses. When she decided to major in psychology, she became a favorite of the department. At graduation, she was singled out as one of the four top students who finished summa cum laude (with highest praise). She was elected to two academic honor societies and was awarded a fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley to continue her studies in psychology.

Despite all these positive developments, however, Friedan's life was crammed with tension and conflicts. She had never gotten along with her mother. Now, the relationship with her father was also deteriorating. When Harry Goldstein died in 1943, only three weeks after

their last bitter quarrel, Betty was hurt and confused. It took her many years to make sense of the profusion of emotions she felt at his death.

In addition to family problems, Friedan was frightened and worried about her choices as an adult woman. These fears led her to abandon her graduate studies after only one year, leaving behind a promising career in psychology. Part of the reason for this decision was Betty's own doubts about her life. Following the prevailing thinking of the time, Friedan believed that a woman could not combine a career with marriage and family; a woman who chose to work had to give up the love of a man and the satisfaction of motherhood. Friedan was not prepared to make that choice. Instead, she left Berkeley and traveled across the country to New York City, joining a group of women friends from college who were working in Manhattan, the center of the city, and sharing an apartment.

It was not difficult for a woman to find a job in 1943. Because so many young men were off fighting in World War II, women were now being encouraged to enter the work force—at least temporarily. Friedan found employment as a reporter for a small newspaper published by an electrical union. She even managed to keep her job after the war was over.

During those postwar years, Betty Goldstein met Carl Friedan, newly returned from the army. The two liked each other immediately and soon Carl moved into her apartment. In 1947, they were married and within a year their first son, Daniel, was born. Though problems in the marriage surfaced almost immediately, Betty pushed them aside, hoping things would improve.

Once Daniel came along, there was no room in their tiny Manhattan apartment, and the family moved to Queens, a suburb of New York City. Here, Friedan got her first taste of being a full-time housewife and mother. She soon learned it was not what she wanted; she needed the challenge and excitement of the work world. Friedan returned to her old job at the union newspaper, but when she became pregnant for the second time she knew she would have to stop working. In the 1940s and '50s, pregnant women were not accepted in the workplace, and there was no arrangement for pregnancy leave.

Jonathon was born in 1952; four years later, a daughter, Emily came along. Friedan found a lovely old house for her growing family in a suburb north of New York City. She kept herself busy decorating their new home, doing freelance journalism, and organizing programs in the children's school. Her relationship with Carl was not perfect, but it was eclipsed by involvement with the children. Though the days were filled with productive activities, Friedan felt dissatisfied and unsuccessful. These feelings influenced her to take on a new project.

In 1957, she was asked by the alumnae association of Smith to prepare a questionnaire for her classmates at their 15th college reunion. The purpose of this survey was to find out how a Smith College education had affected the lives of the graduates. What had they done with that education? Did it make them happier? Were they better wives and mothers as a result of it? Friedan plunged into the project. She was sure the answers to her questions would refute the popular beliefs that had surfaced in the 1950s. Many prominent sociologists and psychologists were insisting that education was bad for women; it made them unhappy with their natural role and caused them to compete with men. Friedan would prove otherwise. She would show that education was good for women; that it made them happier, more productive, better wives and mothers. She worked hard preparing the questionnaire and her old classmates responded with honest and thoughtful answers.

Back home, after the reunion was over, Friedan began to analyze the results. She discovered that most of the Smith alumnae she interviewed had lives very similar to hers and felt very much the same as she did. Each woman seemed to be asking the question: "Is this all there is to my life?" Friedan began thinking: Was it possible that all the theories of the modern day experts were wrong? Did women need more than the support of a man and children to care for? Such a revolutionary idea contradicted centuries of established tradition and volumes of expert opinion. Forging ahead with more research and analysis, she spent five years reading articles and interviewing women from all walks of life.

"We had no image of our own future, of ourselves as women," wrote Friedan. Women were taught to identify themselves as someone else's wife or someone else's mother. If they had a loving husband and a family, they were supposed to be happy. But most women found that insufficient. Whether they knew it or not, women needed their own identity, their own accomplishments. Friedan first called this feeling of conflict and unease "the problem that has no name." Later, she dubbed it "the feminine mystique," a phrase that became the title of her book. For many women, The Feminist Mystique, published in 1963, turned the world upside down.

As word of her new ideas spread throughout the country, Friedan's life changed. Suddenly, she was a celebrity, invited to speak at universities and major organizations and asked to write articles and grant interviews. Not all the reaction was positive. She was often jeered on the lecture platform and attacked on radio and television talk shows. Newspapers made fun of her looks with cruel remarks, calling her "the feminine mistake." Friedan took it all in stride. There was enough positive reaction to satisfy her. Many reviews praised her book and her ideas. But most important for her were the letters of gratitude she received from individual women whose lives had changed because of her work.

The Feminine Mystique was published at a time when the United States was experiencing many changes. The civil-rights movement, organized in the 1950s, had succeeded in passing several new laws guaranteeing equality for African-Americans. This success had brought the concept of equal rights to the forefront. Women began to demand changes in laws and in social customs that would allow them increased opportunities.

At first, neither the government nor private groups took women's demands seriously. The thought that women could fill the same jobs as men and mingle in what were then all-male business associations seemed preposterous. Although women had managed to be included in the new civil-rights law passed in 1964, that law was not being enforced for them. Friedan kept hearing complaints from women working in government jobs and in universities. Despite the legal guarantees, they were still being passed over for promotions and paid less wages than men for the same work. Women feared that if they complained they would be fired.

It was time to organize. At a National Conference of State Commissions on the Status of Women, held in Washington, D.C. in June 1966, a small group of women got together. Realizing that the government did not intend to do anything tangible about their needs and complaints, they decided to do it themselves. They would create a movement parallel to the civil-rights movement for blacks. Betty Friedan seemed to be the natural choice to lead such a group. She had no job to lose and could speak independently.

At the final luncheon of the National Conference, while the official presentations were being made, Friedan and a handful of other women delegates sat together at a table whispering and jotting down ideas. When the luncheon was over, they had written out, on a paper napkin, the goals of their new organization: "… to take the actions needed to bring women into the mainstream of American society now. Full equality for women, in full and equal partnership with men. NOW—the National Organization for Women."

As national president of NOW, Betty Friedan was launched on a new career. Together with her executive board, she tackled some of the problems that had faced women for centuries. As she said in her first press conference: "Discrimination against women is as evil and wasteful as any other form of discrimination."

At a National Convention, the organization drafted its own Bill of Rights. It included support for the Equal Rights Amendment as well as federal tax deductions for child care and money to aid women who wanted to return to school. Friedan did not want to include the right to choose an abortion, considering it too controversial. Other members insisted, however, and that, too, was included in NOW's Bill of Rights.

After tonight, the politics of this nation will never be the same. By our numbers here tonight … we learned … the power of our solidarity, the power of our sisterhood.

—Betty Friedan

Women from all over the country responded to the goals of NOW. Among those goals was a commitment to end discrimination of women in the workplace and grant them equal opportunity for jobs. In order to accomplish this, Friedan and her colleagues launched a campaign to end listing jobs in newspapers by sex. As a result of that effort, "Help Wanted, Male" and "Help Wanted, Female" disappeared from the want ads and were replaced in all publications by "Help Wanted."

Young women began to demand—and get—access to all-male specialty high schools and colleges. Consciousness-raising groups were organized, allowing women to share problems and ideas with other women and to become sensitized to the social patterns that had created those problems. NOW fought for pregnancy leaves and for the right of a married woman to continue working. Members organized sit-ins in major restaurants and private clubs, demanding that women be allowed to enter and be served with or without a male escort.

At the first of those sit-ins, at the Oak Room of New York's Plaza Hotel, Friedan showed up late. After a violent fight with her husband, she needed extra time to hide a black eye, and numerous other bruises, under make-up and dark glasses. But she was too busy and too frightened to deal with a divorce. It took her several more years before she gathered the courage to divorce Carl and face life as an unmarried woman.

After two years as national president, it was time for Friedan to step down and make room for new leaders. However, her commitment to NOW did not end. One of her greatest successes was the March for Women's Equality which she planned and helped organize. It was set for August 26, 1970, the 50th anniversary of the women's suffrage amendment. With a budget of only $10,000, she managed to organize women's marches and related events in several major cities throughout the country.

The most important and well-attended march was in New York City. Friedan arrived in time to lead "a sea of people" down Fifth Avenue from Central Park to the 42nd Street Library where a grandstand had been set up. Ignoring the rush-hour traffic and the orders by police that the group must stay on the sidewalks, Friedan shouted as loud as she could: "Take the streets!" Thousands followed her. They filled the broad avenue with a solid wall of marching women and urged those on the sidelines to join them. By the time they reached the speaker's podium, 15 blocks away, it was estimated that more than 10,000 women and a small number of men had marched in support of women's rights. As Friedan ascended the platform to address the cheering crowd, she felt a new pride and excitement in being a woman. "After tonight," she said, "the politics of this nation will never be the same. By our numbers here tonight … we learned … the power of our solidarity, the power of our sisterhood."

The Women's March for Equality was a high point for the women's movement and for Betty Friedan. It also marked the end of what later would be called the "Golden Age" of feminism. The March, along with the other early successes of NOW, attracted many more women to the struggle for equal rights. Those who joined often had a variety of ideas and differing opinions about how to achieve their goals—opinions with which Friedan disagreed. For example, support for lesbians, an open animosity towards men, and political alliances with the liberal left were ideas that tended to divide the women's movement and make it more vulnerable to outside attack from mainstream, anti-feminist groups.

Friedan objected to these developments. Even her divorce from Carl in 1969 could not make her condemn all men. "This is not a bedroom war," she insisted. "Men are not the enemy." Despite her protests—or perhaps because of them—Friedan found herself being squeezed out of the inner circle of NOW and rejected by new feminist organizations and projects. These were being led by more charismatic and outspoken women such as journalist Gloria Steinem and Congresswoman Bella Abzug . Friedan was excluded from involvement in Ms., the first feminist magazine. She did maintain some influence in the early organization of the Women's Political Caucus but was soon excluded from its leadership, too.

An open conflict with Steinem and Abzug at the Democratic National Convention in 1972 marked the beginning of the end of Friedan's public role in the movement. Though she remained involved for a few more years, her position was eroding. When she lost an open election at the First National Women's Conference held in Houston, Texas, in 1977, Friedan accused the organizers of altering the election results so that she would not be on the steering committee. She retained a lawyer and fought for new elections, but the case could not be proved outside of court and Friedan dropped the issue.

Those years were the most difficult. Friedan had thrown her considerable energy and talent into the women's movement. Now it had rejected her and her efforts. Her reputation as a woman who was difficult to work with, who always demanded the limelight and had to have things her way, became a major excuse for her rejection. Another reason was her identification with the upper-middle class. Friedan and NOW were both accused of a lack of interest in the problems of minority and poor women.

Throughout the 1970s, Friedan maintained a column in McCall's, a mainstream woman's magazine, and traveled in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, lecturing and visiting foreign dignitaries and feminist leaders. She wrote a second book, It Changed My Life, which was published in 1976. However, her early accomplishments seemed to have been forgotten.

Betty Friedan never rejected the basic philosophy of the women's movement that she had been so instrumental in shaping. She remained optimistic about the goals of feminism and was active in trying to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in her home state of Illinois, but those years, from the mid-1970s until 1980, represented a low point in her life. She overcame her disappointments and insecurities partly through group encounter, a method of self-exploration which was popular at that time. Urged on by her son Jonathon, she also developed a renewed interest in Judaism. Another support for Friedan during that time was a small group of friends with whom she shared a vacation home and holiday celebrations. This group, which she would later refer to as "a family of friends," largely replaced her own family.

By the beginning of the 1980s, as she approached her 60th birthday, Friedan's life had changed once more. She was less in the limelight, no longer on the cutting edge of feminism, but she was more at peace with herself, and comfortable and respected in the academic world. From her new vantage point, she perceived feminism as a movement that had gotten off track, creating a false dichotomy between women's interests and the interests of the family. As a result, she began writing a third book about women and the direction of the women's movement. Published in 1981, The Second Stage drew a tirade of criticism from feminists throughout the country. Friedan wrote that women have to move on to a new partnership with men. Women should not be imitating men or competing with them. Both sexes had to work together for a just society.

Many feminists saw Friedan's philosophy as a betrayal of their goals. Most women were not yet ready for the "second stage," they claimed. Friedan made it seem as if the battle was won, and there was no longer a need for feminism. Her opinions turned the leadership of the movement solidly against her, but the mainstream now began to feel more comfortable with Betty Friedan and her ideas. She was welcomed into the literary and academic world, chosen as author of the year by the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and granted a fellowship at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Friedan realized that her strong point was in organizing and inspiring others. She was not good at "fighting defensive battles where I simply tried to hold on to my own power."

In 1985, Betty Friedan was asked to lead the unofficial NOW delegation to the final U.N. Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya. That same year, she accepted an offer from the University of Southern California to be joint visiting professor at the School of Journalism and Women's Studies. Friedan now began an alternating schedule, with half a year in California and the other half in New York, where she maintains a permanent residence.

Friedan was in California in the spring of 1988 when news of her mother's death reached her. Organizing the memorial service, she attempted, with the help of her friends, to make peace with her negative feelings about her mother.

Betty Friedan reached her 70th birthday in February 1991. Called the "Mother Superior" of the women's movement, her popularity was once again on the rise. To mark the 25th anniversary of the last wave of feminism, Friedan was invited to speak, debate and write articles for major publications. Now a grandmother as well as a recognized founder of the movement, she remains optimistic and positive about women's accomplishments.

Friedan's most recent book, The Fountain of Age, appeared in 1993 and suggests that she has moved into new territory but has retained the old lessons. In The Feminine Mystique, she wrote that men and women need the same things to be happy: "work and love." Now she is demanding that same privilege for another group. "Old age is a new period for human growth," she wrote, pointing out that "work and love" should be a goal for older people also. Now in the last stages of her own life, Betty Friedan claims to have achieved that goal. "When you love your work," she says, "you have everything."


Friedan, Betty. It Changed My Life. NY: Random House, 1976.

Henry, Sondra, and Emily Taitz. Betty Friedan: Fighter for Women's Rights. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1990.

suggested reading:

Cohen, Marcia. The Sisterhood: The True Story of the Women Who Changed the World. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1988.

Hennessee, Judith. Betty Friedan: Her Life. NY: Random House, 1999.


Correspondence, papers, and memorabilia located in the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Emily Taitz , Professor of Women's Studies at Adelphi University, Garden City, New York, and co-author of several biographies and collections, including Remarkable Jewish Women (Jewish Publication Society)