Betty Friedan – Encyclopedia of U.S. History

Betty Friedan was born on February 4, 1921, just one year after women
in the United States won the right to vote. Friedan’s parents encouraged
her to excel in everything she did, and she grew up a self-confident, intelligent young woman with plans to graduate from college and raise a
College and beyond
Friedan’s mother, a former newspaperwoman, encouraged her daughter
to become a journalist. Friedan began writing for her junior high school newspaper and continued writing throughout
high school. She entered Smith College in
Massachusetts at seventeen. While there, she
continued to develop her writing skills but also
followed her interest in psychology by majoring
in the field. She graduated with honors in 1942.
The following year, she moved to Berkeley,
California, to study at the University of
California. After one year, she was offered a
scholarship to study for her Ph.D. Friedan
turned down the offer for fear that it would
delay marriage too long. Friedan moved to New
York City in 1944 and became a newspaper reporter.
Becomes political
The workers’ newspaper Friedan wrote for covered labor union strikes and disputes. With
World War II (1939–45) just beginning, many
American men were overseas; this left women at home to take over men’s
jobs. Friedan investigated discrimination in the workplace, both by employers against male workers and by employers and unions against
women. Women were paid a fraction of what men received to do the
same jobs. When men returned from the war, women often were fired
from their jobs without warning and expected to go back to lives spent
inside the home. Labor unions did not take women’s complaints seriously, and the women had nowhere to turn.
During this time, Friedan became politically active by attending antiwar rallies. She also helped arrange illegal abortions for women she
knew. She met Carl Friedan in 1947. They married shortly thereafter
and had a son.
Friedan continued to work for the newspaper until 1949. When she
asked for a second maternity leave (time off to have a baby), she was
fired. Again, she was struck by the unfair, unequal treatment of men and
women: Men were allowed to have families and careers; women were
forced to choose between the two. Friedan became a full-time wife and
mother, and soon she and her husband had a third child. Revelations
As her life as a homemaker progressed, Friedan developed a theory on
women. To her it was a myth that women should be completely satisfied
with their roles as wives and mothers and that women are abnormal if
they want a career or an identity separate from the family. At that time,
U.S. society told women this was how they should live their lives, but
Friedan felt incomplete.
To admit feeling dissatisfied was not something women easily did in
the mid-1950s. Instead, they suffered silently, often to the point of depression. When Friedan learned that many other women felt the same
way, she was glad to know that she was not alone, and she also knew she
must write about the problem. She developed a questionnaire about
women’s issues and sent it to other Smith College graduates.
Friedan organized the data she collected from the questionnaire and
wrote an article, which was rejected by male editors of every women’s
magazine to which she sent it. They told her only “sick” women felt dissatisfied being full-time wives and mothers. Friedan persisted; while her
children were in school, she wrote a book based on her findings. She
conducted interviews and did five years of research. In 1963, she labeled
the silent suffering that millions of women were experiencing “the feminine mystique.”
Leads a movement
When Friedan finally found a publisher for The Feminine Mystique, the
company issued only a few thousand copies because it had low expectations for sales. However, sales were phenomenal, and by 1966 the book
had sold three million copies.
Friedan’s book advised women to develop an identity besides that of
mother and wife, while continuing to care for their families. She encouraged them to fight for equal respect and equal pay for the work they performed. She never planned to launch a revolution, but that is exactly
what she did. Friedan began the modern women’s liberation movement
in the United States with her groundbreaking book.
She began traveling around the country, giving lectures that explained her ideas for change. Not content to simply criticize, Friedan offered solutions to women’s predicament in society. She was in favor of professional training and shared jobs, the development of on-site day
care centers, and an end to sexual discrimination.
Friedan recognized the need for national organization if women were to
make real progress on these issues. She and several other women activists
met in June 1966 to structure the first formal organization of the
women’s movement. The National Organization for Women (NOW)
was officially established on October 29, 1966. Friedan became its first
president, an office she held through 1970. By that time, NOW was
making great strides in its campaign for equality. Although her professional life was flourishing, Friedan’s marriage had fallen apart. She divorced in 1969.
Friedan next focused on political reform by promoting the Equal
Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and by teaching and writing. She often was at odds with other women’s liberation leaders whom
she believed were advocating not equality, but instead a turning of the
tables against men. Friedan saw this as hurting the women’s movement;
she wanted the focus to be on choices and equal opportunities for everyone—both women and men.
Humanist of the Year
Friedan was named Humanist of the Year in 1975 for her efforts in promoting equality of the sexes. Though she continued to push for passage
of the Equal Rights Amendment, the bill was repeatedly defeated and
still had not passed by the time of her death in 2006.