BETTY FRIEDAN – CHAMPION FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS

By Joseph Collins, Staff Writer

Betty Friedan A groundbreaking writer and activist, Betty Friedan was one of the most influential women of the 20th century.  Best known for her book, “The Feminine Mystique,” which examined the frustrations and discontent of women in the modern world, Friedan became a leading advocate for women’s rights in the work place and beyond.  The organization she co-founded, National Organization of Women (NOW), sought to “bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society, exercising all privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.”  The strike she organized in 1970, calling for equal rights for women, was successful beyond her wildest dreams in reinvigorating and expanding the feminist Feminine Mystiquemovement.  Finally the six books Betty Friedan authored in her lifetime were considered highly influential in the women’s rights campaign, and she strongly supported and encouraged the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s. With her powerful ideas and relentless activism, Betty Friedan is credited with helping to launch second-wave feminism in the United States – a movement that took the struggle for equality beyond legal rights and into issues such as the role of women in the family and in the workplace.

Betty Friedan with NOW buttonsBy pushing the conversation about women’s rights in a new direction, Betty Friedan understood that she was going up against cultural norms and customs that had been in place for centuries. And although she knew the struggle wouldn’t be easy, she persisted nonetheless, hoping to build a better world for future generations of women. Her vision of a more fair and equal society motivated her to dispel the popular myth of the time that suggested women could only find true fulfillment by becoming “happy homemakers.”  She hoped for an America where women could have the same opportunities as men to follow their own individual passions, seek fulfillment outside the family, and contribute to the country in meaningful and gratifying ways. 

“A woman has got to be able to say, and not feel guilty, ‘Who am I? And what do I want out of life?’ She mustn’t feel selfish and neurotic if she wants goals of her own, outside of husband and children.”

DISSATISFACTION IN AMERICA

Downtown Peoria, Illinois during the 1920s
Peoria, 1920s

Bettye Naomi Goldstein (Friedan) was born on February 4th 1921 in Peoria, Illinois to Harry Goldstein, a jewelry store owner, and Miriam Goldstein, writer for a newspaper society page. From an early age, Friedan had a passion against injustice stemming from her resentment of the anti-Semitism she experienced. They were feelings that stayed with her throughout her life, and later motivated her to take action on behalf of the women’s rights movement.

Betty Friedan went to Peoria High School, where she wrote for the school paper, laying the groundwork for her skills as a professional writer. After graduating in 1938, she went on to attend Smith College, an all-female liberal arts college located in Massachusetts.  An exceptional bright and diligent student, Friedan won a scholarship for outstanding academic performance in her first year at the school. By her third year, she became editor-in-chief of the college newspaper.  Over time, she became increasingly engaged in the politics of the era, which was reflected in the school paper she ran.  Under her guidance, the editorial columns increasingly criticized the injustice of the Vietnam War and addressed other political and social issues, sometimes causing controversy on campus. After graduating in 1942 with a degree in psychology, Friedan did a year of graduate work at the University of California, and then moved to the east coast to settle down in New York City.

Friedan with husband, Carl, and son Daniel

Over the next 5 years, she worked as a journalist at various publications, mostly left-leaning and labor union publications, which reflected her own personal politics. Eventually, she met Carl Friedan, a NY theater producer, and they fell in love. The couple was married in 1947, and they had 3 children together. Although it was initially a loving marriage, the relationship deteriorated over time. By 1969, they divorced after 22 years of marriage, and Betty Friedan remained single for the rest of her life.

Who knows what women can be,” she once said, “when they are finally free to become themselves?

One of the main problems with the marriage was that the lifestyle made Betty Friedan feel anxious and disaffected. Living the life of a suburban housewife, she found her self becoming increasingly restless. Although she managed to do some freelance writing on the side, she felt largely unfulfilled, under-utilized, and deeply dissatisfied. As a student of psychology, she began to wonder why she felt this way and was curious to find out if other women shared her feelings.

In 1957, for her 15th college reunion, she circulated a survey to her classmates, to try and gage how satisfied they were with their current lives. She discovered that a significant number of women shared the same sense of dissatisfaction with their lives.  Intrigued, Betty Friedan began looking deeper into the problem, hoping to uncover some underlying causes.

Friedan created more in-depth questionnaires and began conducting personal interviews to further her research.  Eventually, she started writing and submitting articles for what she called “the problem that has no name.” It wasn’t long before she started receiving a huge response from women readers eager to express their unhappiness with their circumstances.  Betty Friedan soon realized she had amassed an enormous amount of information on the subject of the American woman’s dissatisfaction with their lives in modern America.  After reading through all of the research she had gathered, she decided to write a full-length book about the problem, hoping to raise awareness nationwide and create a sense of solidarity, so women would realize they were not alone. While she knew the book could become important, she had no idea that it would go on to become a ground-breaking publication that would inspire a whole new generation of women to pursue greater freedom and equality for women.

THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE

When Friedan’s book, “The Feminine Mystique,” was released in 1963, it became an immediate sensation, generating a huge amount of publicity and sparking a new national discussion. For women throughout the country, it was a revelation, shining a light on deep-seated feelings they had been wrestling with in private for years. It was also controversial, as it encouraged women to step out from under their husband’s shadow and head out into the world to seek personal fulfillment.  The title of the book refers to what Betty Friedan called “the problem that has no name,” a term she used to describe the American woman’s general sense of unhappiness with their lot in life as stay-at-home homemakers. Friedan maintained that women struggled with feelings of worthlessness resulting from the acceptance of a designated role that requires women to remain intellectually, economically, and emotionally dependent on their husbands. In Friedan’s view, women suffered from a subtle form of discrimination forced on them by a system that called on them to live their lives vicariously through their spouses and their children, with no real lives of their own.   

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women,” wrote Friedan in her book.  “It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning (that is, a longing) that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States.  Each suburban house wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries … she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — “Is this all?

The book, translated into several languages, struck a chord with millions of women around the world. Over time, it became an international phenomenon that transformed popular attitudes about the capabilities of women and their proper role in society. At the heart of the book was the notion that the role of housewife was too constricting and limiting for many women, trapping them in a monotonous life of menial work that was not intellectually or emotionally stimulating. For these women, their true capabilities were not being fully utilized, leaving them feeling unfulfilled. Furthermore, they were left with no identity of their own, aside from their role as mother and wife. Although many commentators and psychologists disagreed with Betty Friedan’s basic premise, she maintained that women were being held back by the limitations inherent in being a modern suburban housewife. She argued that women were just as capable of doing any kind of work men could do outside of the house, and she encouraged women to seek personal growth and accomplishments beyond the family.

Inspired by Friedan’s book, women all over the world began demanding more for themselves, advancing their education and pursuing new activities outside the home. For many, the ideas in Friedan’s book finally put into words what they had been feeling for years. As such, it opened doors for them and provided them with the justification they needed to pursue their true passions. Some women became politically active and started lobbying congress to change laws that they found objectionable. Others pursued professional careers that enabled them to use their full intellectual capabilities. For millions of women around the world, the book and its insights were completely transformative.

But Friedan’s impact extended well beyond her best-selling book. She also began building new institutions to help support women who were interested in pursuing a new, more independent lifestyle. In 1966, Friedan co-founded the National Organization of Women (NOW), a women’s rights group dedicated to achieving equal rights and equal opportunities for women in all stations of life. In addition to NOW, Friedan founded several other important institutions for change, including the First Women’s Bank and Trust Company and the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL). In 1971, she joined together with feminist icon Gloria Steinem and co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, a grassroots organization dedicated to supporting the election of women to all levels of government. The more politically active Friedan became, the more determined she became to make lasting changes that would open new opportunities for women.

Friedan (right) with Steinem (left) and politicians Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm

EQUAL RIGHTS FOR WOMEN

Once NOW was fully up and running, Betty Friedan and her colleagues wasted no time in using the organization to promote social change. One of their major goals was to end sex discrimination in the work place, an issue that Friedan had personally experienced when she was let go from her job because she was pregnant. At the time, it was fairly common for employers to fire women from their positions if they became pregnant, based on the notion that women could not be mothers and career professionals at the same time. While that notion seems archaic by modern standards, it is only because of the work that NOW initiated that we look at things differently today.

As president of NOW, Betty Friedan also pushed for a range of other important initiatives, including  greater representation of women in government, child-care centers for working mothers, and legalized abortion (which was still outlawed in many states at the time). For many women, NOW spoke directly to their needs and desires. And with new members joining every day, NOW soon became the largest and most successful organization in the history of the US women’s rights movement.

NOW also took up the cause of the Equal Rights Amendment, a powerful piece of legislation that was first presented to congress in 1921.  Though it was discussed half-heartedly for many years, it was never really pushed forward for a vote.  By the late 1960s, Friedan and NOW fully supported the amendment and campaigned for its passage.With the growing popularity of the women’s rights movement, Friedan was hopeful that the ERA might finally be signed into law. And indeed, the efforts of NOW helped to push the amendment forward, getting it closer to passage than it had ever been before.

Congress passed the ERA in 1972, sending it to the states for a final vote before it could officially become a Constitutional Amendment. To get ratified, the ERA needed the support of no less than 38 states – and by 1977, 35 states had voted to support it. With momentum building, ratification seemed inevitable. However, a last minute campaign to stop the amendment – largely led by conservative Phyllis Schlafly  prevented the ERA from getting the full number of states. Unfortunately, as of this writing, there is still no federal law fully implementing equal rights for women.  Only on the local and state level do such laws exist. Although NOW brought the ERA close to ratification, it could not finalize passage.

In 1970, Betty Friedan stepped down from her role as president of NOW, but remained actively busy in her campaign to bring about full equality for women.  That same year, on the 50th anniversary of the women’s suffrage amendment to the constitution, she organized a national march in New York City.  The event, called the Women’s Strike for Equality, saw Friedan lead some 20,000 women through the city streets, calling for equal opportunity in employment and education, the establishment of child care centers and abortion rights. 

In almost every professional field, in business and in the arts and sciences, women are still treated as second-class citizens,” said Friedan.  “It would be a great service to tell girls who plan to work in society to expect this subtle, uncomfortable discrimination-tell them not to be quiet, and hope it will go away, but fight it. A girl should not expect special privileges because of her sex, but neither should she “adjust” to prejudice and discrimination.

PASSING AND LEGACY

Throughout the 1970s, Betty Friedan continued to advocate for women’s rights and gender equality, addressing numerous political rallies and conventions. In 1982, Friedan wrote a second book on feminism, called “The Second Stage,” an examination of the current status of the women’s rights movement. In the book, she called attention to a wide range of obstacles that continue to hold women back. She encouraged women to more aggressively focus on issues of economic equality, especially equal pay. She also emphasized the importance of affordable child care, urging women to involve men more in the responsibilities of housework, allowing women more time to explore their own personal needs and development.

Friedan remained active as an advocate for women’s equality throughout the later years of her life. However, her activism came to an end on February 6th, 2006, when she passed away from congestive heart failure in her home in Washington, D.C. at the age of 85. Some of the many awards and honors she received for her contribution to the women’s rights movement include, the Eleanor Roosevelt Leadership Award (1989), National Women’s Hall of Fame inductee (1993), and one of Glamour Magazine’s “75 Most Important Women of the Past 75 Years (2014).”

Betty Friedan’s contribution to the advancement of women’s equality cannot be overstated. Her activism and her books, especially “The Feminine Mystique,” had a tremendous influence  not only on the movement itself, but on other feminist leaders throughout the world, from educators, writers and activists, to journalists, anthropologists, union leaders and more.  Thanks to Friedan’s efforts, the women’s movement in the US surged forward in the 1960s, achieving a wide range of victories for equality. These victories transformed attitudes and reinvigorated mass movements around the world, encouraging women from all walks of life to stand up for their rights and demand greater equality and freedom. 

“It is easier to live through someone else than to complete yourself,” said Friedan.  “The freedom to lead and plan your own life is frightening if you have never faced it before. It is frightening when a woman finally realizes that there is no answer to the question ‘who am I’ except the voice inside herself.”  She later went on to say, “The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own.  You can have it all, just not all at the same time.