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Equal pay for equal work, the right to an abortion, and a woman running for president were considered radical ideas not too long ago. Now they are embraced by the vast majority of Americans—women and men alike.
Many feminists deserve credit for this dramatic transformation, but none more than Betty Friedan.
Born 100 years ago on February 4, 1921, Friedan is best known as the author of The Feminine Mystique, the 1963 best-selling book that catalyzed the second-wave feminist movement that emerged in the 1960s. (The first wave was the crusade for women’s suffrage that led to the 19th Amendment in 1920). The book helped to change attitudes about gender inequality, and identified what Friedan called the “problem that has no name.” Feminists, many of whom were veterans of the civil rights movement and steeped in analyses of racism, later labeled that problem “sexism.”
Like many feminists, Friedan was not only a writer: she was an organizer and an institution builder. She was instrumental in founding organizations that helped to build a movement for gender equality: the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (later renamed the National Abortion Rights Action League, or NARAL) in 1969, and the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.
Younger generations of Americans may know Friedan as the sharp-tongued activist played by Tracy Ullman in last year’s nine-part TV series Mrs. America. A foil to conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, the series depicted Friedan as a difficult, self-centered, and abrasive personality, jealous of other charismatic feminists like Congresswoman Bella Abzug and Ms. Magazine founder Gloria Steinem.
It also portrayed Friedan as a cautious activist concerned that the movement was becoming too radical for mainstream American women. But that was wrong: Friedan was a radical. But her goal, and her genius, was figuring out how to make radical ideas sound like common sense. Today, her ideas are now accepted as normal: that women should earn equal pay for equal work; that sex discrimination should be illegal; that women should run corporations, newspapers and TV stations, universities, and major labor unions.
Born Bettye Naomi Goldstein in 1921, Friedan was raised in a prosperous, immigrant family in Peoria, Illinois. Despite their affluence, the Goldsteins were marginalized. Although Bettye had both Jewish and non-Jewish friends growing up, she was turned down for membership in a high school sorority because she was a Jew, and Jews were banned from joining the prestigious Peoria Country Club. Friedan recalled that her “passion against injustice originated from my feelings of the injustice of anti-Semitism.”
Bettye also had to overcome the efforts to suppress her intelligence. The Goldsteins worried that her interest in reading—her friends called her “Bookworm”—made her seem too intellectual and unfeminine, and would be a social handicap. When she came home from the library loaded down with books, Bettye’s father told her, “It doesn’t look nice for a girl to be so bookish.” After reading about Marie Curie, the French researcher who won Nobel Prizes in both physics and chemistry, Bettye considered pursuing a career in science, but a teacher warned her to lower her ambitions and to consider becoming a lab technician, receptionist, or nurse.
Bettye’s academic promise, leadership skills, and rebellious spirit blossomed when she arrived at Smith College in 1938, amid the political ferment catalyzed by the Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe. She was one of the few Jewish students at Smith, a college that attracted many upper-class women from socially prominent families. But she thrived there. Some Smith professors challenged students to confront society’s injustices, while radical and progressive speakers, including Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, pacifist A.J. Muste, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and folklorist Alan Lomax, urged Smith students to think broadly.
A look at Goldstein’s college years shows just how radical she became once she left Peoria. As editor of the weekly student newspaper, Bettye embraced radical ideas and the labor movement as an instrument for progressive change. When maids at the college went on strike, Bettye featured sympathetic stories. Her editorials challenged her privileged classmates to wake up to issues of social justice, workers’ rights, and fascism. The summer after her junior year, Bettye spent eight weeks at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a radical training center for activists, participating in a writing workshop and taking classes about unions and economics. In 1942, Goldstein went to graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, and dropped the “e” at the end of her first name, but dropped out in 1944 and migrated to the East Coast’s most famous radical community, New York City’s Greenwich Village.
It is often overlooked that in the 1940s and 1950s many of the leading figures of second wave of feminism—including Friedan, Bella Abzug, Ella Baker, Esther Peterson, Gerda Lerner, Pauli Murray, Aileen Hernandez, and others—were involved in left-wing groups and labor unions, where they debated “the woman question,” particularly the concerns of working-class and Black women. In New York, Goldstein found reporting jobs with two left-wing outlets: the Federated Press, which provided news stories to union newspapers, and the UE News, the weekly paper of the progressive United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. Her stories were popular and showed a talent for humanizing class, race, and women’s issues.
In 1947 she married Carl Friedan, an actor and stage producer. The first of their three children was born the following year; in 1952, when she became pregnant with her second son, Friedan left the UE News. Like many middle-class women in postwar America, she volunteered for a variety of community activities, though some—like participating in rent strikes—were unconventional. Frustrated by conventional domesticity, and by the fact that she was not contributing financially to the family or using her considerable professional talents, she began a freelance writing career, mostly for women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan.
In 1957, Friedan and two friends prepared a survey of their Smith College classmates prior to their 15th reunion. They asked about such topics as decision-making in the family, hours of housework, feelings about being a mother, number of books read in a year, interests outside the home and agreement, or not, with a husband’s politics. And it included more open-ended questions “that we had not asked ourselves out loud before,” Friedan recalled.
Two-hundred women responded. Friedan found that the classmates who seemed most happy and fulfilled were those who did not conform to the “role of women” and that those who were most dispirited were traditional housewives. Friedan wrote an article from the survey called “Are Women Wasting Their Time in College?” She sent it to several women’s magazines, but they rejected it. The male editor of Redbook replied: “Only the most neurotic housewife will identify with this.”
Frustrated, but convinced she was onto something important, Friedan expanded the article into a book. She argued that women were trapped by their domestic lives. They became helpless, with no privacy, cut off from the outside world, doing soul-killing work. Friedan also exposed the myriad ways that advertisers, psychiatrists, educators, and newspapers patronized, exploited, and manipulated women.
The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, struck a nerve. It quickly became a best-seller and a manifesto for a new wave of women’s rights activism. The Feminine Mystique spent six weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. The first paperback printing sold 1.4 million copies. McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal, magazines with a combined readership of 36 million, published excerpts. As a result, Friedan became the de facto spokeswoman for this “second wave” of feminism.
Friedan’s agenda for change in The Feminine Mystique seemed quite modest, especially for someone with her background in radical politics. She mostly encouraged women to get an education and prepare themselves for a career beyond housework. She wrote about the problem of workplace discrimination, but barely mentioned the issues of childcare and maternity leave. The book had little to say about the problems confronting poor and working-class women or women of color—issues she had written about for Federated News and UE News.
The Feminine Mystique made Friedan a public figure. Flooded with letters from women whose eyes had been opened, she was asked to speak at colleges, in front of women’s groups, and elsewhere across the nation. But it was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a social movement had grown up around her, that Friedan embraced the more radical feminism that reflected her earlier commitments: the right to an abortion, protection against sexual violence and domestic abuse, the criminalization of sexual harassment and rape, the demand for affordable childcare, equality with men in terms of access to financial credit and other aspects of economic life.
In these appearances, Friedan described herself as an “educated housewife.” She made no reference to her experience in the left-wing movements of the late 1930s through the early 1950s. Friedan believed that she and the book would have more credibility if she was seen as someone who shared the frustrations of other middle-class suburban women. In 1963 the hysteria of McCarthyism and the Red Scare was still a lingering force in American politics and culture. Friedan understood that her past associations with Communist and radical groups could undermine her reputation.
In the aftermath of the book’s success, Friedan quickly connected with a small network of liberal, professional women who were involved with the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, which had been created in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy at the suggestion of Eleanor Roosevelt. They talked about creating a women’s version of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the influential civil rights organization.
In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion and sex, and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Feminists–-including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a Rutgers University law professor and ACLU attorney–-used the new law to fight for women’s equality at work and in society. In 1966, NOW was formed to lobby and organize for the civil rights of women. Friedan was elected president, a position she held until 1970. She became the first media celebrity of the women’s liberation movement and its de facto spokeswoman.
NOW became the engine of a new drive for women’s equality. In 1970, the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that guaranteed women the vote, Friedan helped organize the Women’s Strike for Equality. The next year, Friedan joined Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and others to form the National Women’s Political Caucus to support women in running for office. The feminist organizations Friedan built also made women a force in the Democratic Party, giving women in and out of office influence over party platforms, beginning with the 1972 election. In 1984, Friedan was elected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, where she would see Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro nominated as vice-president, becoming the first woman on a major party’s national ticket.
As the movement she founded grew, other feminists took these ideas and transformed the nation. By the 1970s, feminist lawyers led by Ginsburg established the concept of sexual harassment, equal right to credit and workplace benefits, and the constitutional right to birth control and abortion. Feminist intellectuals created college courses and wrote books on women’s history, literature, and politics, assembling their intellectual interests as women’s studies programs. Feminists fought for equal admission to the schools that would give them a foothold in the professions.
In 1960, when Friedan was writing The Feminine Mystique, only about 7 percent of medical students were women, compared to over half of medical students today. In 1963, 4.2 percent of all first-year law students were women: today, the number is 54 percent. In 1963, only 18 women served in the House of Representatives and two women in the Senate, constituting just 4 percent and 2 percent of Congress members in the House and Senate respectively. Today, there are 119 Congresswomen (27 percent) and 24 women Senators (24 percent). And although women still organize to elect other women, men are now more willing to vote for women candidates than ever before.
The Obama administration lifted the ban on women in combat. Although gender roles in families are hardly equal, more men in couples share housework and child rearing than was the case several decades ago. Thanks in part to Title IX of the U.S. Education Act of 1972, as well as changing norms, giving girls an equal opportunity to play competitive sports is now widely (if not entirely) accepted.
Friedan, who died in 2006 at age 85, would be proud of the progressive changes that her book and activism inspired. But were she alive today, she would be the first to note that women’s equality has still not been achieved. Women in Congress are still a minority. Thirty-seven women make up 7 percent of the CEOs of Fortune 500 corporations—an all-time high, but hardly a sign of corporate America’s feminism. Then there is the wage gap: women working full time are paid 82 cents to every dollar earned by men, and 11.5 percent of American women, compared with 9.4 percent of men, live in poverty. The U.S. is one of the few industrialized countries that does not provide paid maternity leave or universal child care.
Throughout her life, Friedan continued to write books, among them The Second Stage (1981), The Fountain of Age (1993), Beyond Gender (1997), and Life So Far (2000). She may no longer be a household name, but thanks to The Feminine Mystique and the movement it spawned, her influence is evident in every American institution—families, workplaces, the military, the media, universities, and sports.
A century after her birth, Betty Friedan’s radical ideas are common sense, and that’s a victory not just for feminists, but for everyone.
Peter Dreier is an E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College.