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The Woman Who Changed History: Betty Friedan

Updated on March 17, 2016

Betty Friedan

The Woman Who Changed History: Betty Friedan

Born February 4, 1921 in Peoria, Illinois, Betty Goldstein was the daughter of Harry, who owned a jewelry store, and Miriam Goldstein, a stay at home wife. When Harry became ill and was unable to continue working, Miriam began writing a column for the society section of the local newspaper, and young Betty couldn’t help but notice how much happier her mother seemed when she was working. Betty herself took up writing as well, working in her high school’s newspaper and when she attended Smith College she became editor-in-chief of the college paper there. In 1942, she graduated summa cum laude with a degree in psychology.

Betty had wanted to pursue a career in psychology, but she eventually turned down a lucrative position, she claimed, in order to marry a man (possibly her future ex-husband Carl Friedan, though I didn’t find any hard proof of that) who said that he didn’t think he could cope with it if she became more successful than he did. By the late 1950s, Betty was married to Carl Friedan and had three children, and she helped to support her family by writing articles for women’s magazines about things like breastfeeding and being married to a millionaire. In 1952 she was dismissed from her job writing for The United Electrical Workers' UE News when she became pregnant with her second baby.

At that time, 95% of women were married, more than in any other generation. According to one college textbook in use then, “Except for the sick, the badly crippled, the deformed, the emotionally warped and mentally defective, almost everyone has an opportunity to marry.” There was great societal pressure for young women to marry as soon as possible (fallout from the post-World War II job crisis, when men serving overseas came home and were looking for jobs, and many women were pushed out of their positions so the men could take those jobs), and it was considered a shame if a woman wanted to work rather than settle down. While working at the magazine Mademoiselle, an editor told Betty that college girls were no longer eager to get into the publishing business. “The girls we bring in now,” the editor said, “… seem almost to pity us.” When asked why, the editor could only speculate, “Because we’re career women, I suppose.”

Betty Friedan and NOW

Betty Friedan (second from left) and members of NOW including Margurite Rawalt and Barbara Ireton.
Betty Friedan (second from left) and members of NOW including Margurite Rawalt and Barbara Ireton.

At about the same time it occurred to Betty that women’s magazines had a narrow view of women and wives because after World War 2 the women writers for the magazines had to quit in order to raise their children, and all of their positions were then filled by men who had their own vision of domestic bliss. For example, an article in Ladies’ Home Journal praised a woman who said that she “never tried to enter into a conversation when the men were talking,” and “never disputed her husband in anything.” A story in a 1958 issue of McCall’s featured a woman who was worried that her husband would leave her to marry a widow who acted utterly helpless. In order to keep her husband, the wife pretended to hear noises at night that frightened her, so that her husband, acting as the protector, would get up to secure the household. Because the wife acted so frightened and helpless, her husband decided to stick around. This is just one of very many stories in these magazines that made women fearful that their husbands would abandon them if they didn’t become docile, obedient servants and baby-machines and enjoy it. (Even Superman comics featured stories where Lois Lane would become more subservient to men, as if it were for her own good.)

Betty received a commission from McCall’s magazine to write an article refuting the bestselling book Modern Woman: The Lost Sex, which argued that higher education would get in the way of women’s natural roles as wives and mothers. Betty planned on writing an article about college and domestic life complimented each other, but when she attended her fifteenth college reunion, she was stunned to learn that her friends and classmates weren’t happy at all; they were married with families, but they had educations that enabled them to enrich their lives, but weren’t allowed to use their skills. They were miserable … and so was she.

Betty reworked the article, writing that women were frustrated being only mothers and wives and wanted to do more with their lives and education, but it was rejected by both McCall’s and Redbook. Determined to show the world her work, Betty rewrote the article, turning it into the blockbuster The Feminine Mystique, a book that focused on the frustrations of bored, oppressed housewives and women everywhere, addressing the problem of educated, capable women being forced to choose between a career and husband. She called it “The Problem That Has No Name” and wrote, “The problem laid buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States.” She filled the book with powerful writing, surprising statistics and thought-provoking anecdotes, and her suggestion of a solution—that women need jobs—struck a nerve with those women who were unhappy with suburban life and those whose children had grown up and moved away and left their mothers with nothing to do.

By now the civil rights movement had reached its peak, with many changes made to American law and society that gave equal rights to African-American … men. African-American women still faced discrimination because of their sex, as did the many white women who helped with the civil rights movement. Added to the anger at the hypocrisy and ingratitude in the matter, there were many women who were angry that they had lost their jobs to men when they returned from the war, or who had been forced to quit or were fired when they became pregnant, and still had little in the way of equality to men despite the fact that they can work, learn and serve just as well as men. These women flocked to The Feminine Mystique, but it wasn’t enough. They wanted a change. They wanted their equality and freedom.

In 1966, fifteen angry women met with Betty in her hotel room to talk about forming a new organization—a kind of NACAAP for women. After hours of discussion, debate and arguments, with a statement of purpose written out on a paper napkin, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was born and women’s liberation began.

Women’s libbers (short for liberators—the term “feminist” hadn’t been coined yet) were met with a mixture of amusement and repulsion, even some fear. Many people believed that NOW and similar organizations wanted to turn all men into second-class citizens, essentially reversing the gender roles that until that point had been considered natural and normal. Betty was quick to refute the claims, stating that “women don’t want to be equal to unfree men.” Women’s liberation meant nothing if there were ever any repressed groups—women and men should be and are supposed to be equal in all things.

Unfortunately, women’s liberation, while designed to make all women equal in rights, freedoms and punishments as all men, had an unpleasant side effect: radical splinter groups began popping up, led by extremely angry, hateful women who wanted total domination over men. Valerie Solanas, leader of the extremist women’s liberation group SCUM, or Society for Cutting Up Men (you can’t see me facepalming as I write that), attempted to kill the pop artist Andy Warhol and wrote pamphlets encouraging women to kill all men or for wives to at least abandon their husbands and stop having sex.

In the spring of 1970, Betty, now president of NOW, proposed that a protest march be held on in New York on August 26, the 50th anniversary of last state of the union (Tennessee) approving the ratification of the 19th Amendment (giving women the right to vote) to draw attention to the inequality, sexism and misogyny faced by women. The plan was to march down 5th Avenue, the traditional parade route in Manhattan, but the mayor refused to allow them to do that, telling them to march on the sidewalks instead. Betty was worried about the success of the march, if anyone would even attend, and the morning of the 26th she was nearly late for her own rally due to the unusually heavy traffic in the city. She couldn’t figure out why until she “rounded the corner into the park and saw not hundreds but thousands of women and men and babies and grandmothers beginning to mass. When the march spilled pout of the park onto Fifth Avenue I was in the front row between Judge Dorothy Kenyon, a suffragette leader in her eighties … and one of the young radicals in blue jeans, We kept jumping up to look at the marchers behind us, but we could never see where the march ended … I waved my arms over my head and yelled, ‘Take the street!’ … What a moment that was.”

Betty and NOW worked hard to change many aspects of women’s lives and rights in America and around the world. They worked for the legalization of abortion, the passing of Title IX and the Equal Pay Act, forced the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to stop ignoring claims of sex discrimination, pushed for more employment among poor African-American women and men, and stopped the nomination of G. Harold Carswell to the Supreme Court for his sexist and racist beliefs. Betty also began putting higher emphasis on stopping pornography and on addressing rape as a serious crime. Early in her life Betty admitted that she was uncomfortable with homosexuality and was hesitant to admit lesbians into NOW as it would just lend credence to critics that women’s liberation was just a bunch of man-hating gay women trying to get their own way, but she eventually permitted lesbians to join. As time went on, Betty became more comfortable with homosexuality and even fiercely rebuked China’s attitude towards lesbian women. Betty’s husband Carl, whom she had divorced in 1969, said of her, “She changed the course of history almost singlehandedly. It took a driven, super aggressive, egocentric, almost lunatic dynamo to rock the world the way she did.”

Betty stepped down as president of NOW in 1969, leaving her oft-rival Gloria Steinem in charge. Betty continued to work in the women’s rights movement, publishing a follow up book to The Feminine Mystique called The Second Stage, about how women could balance their family life with their newfound freedoms.

Betty died in her home in Washington D.C. of heart failure on February 4, 2006, her 85th birthday.

Betty Friedan works cited:

Faces of Feminism, by Sheila Tobias

America’s Women, by Gail Collins

“Betty Friedan,” _Friedan

“Betty Friedan,”

“Betty Friedan,”

National Organization for Women (NOW)


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