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Friedan, Betty — (1921-2006)

Betty Friedan: Author, Activist and Feminist

 Photograph of Betty Friedan. She is seated and wearing a dark top with a necklace. [View Image]
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Betty Friedan
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID cph 3c15884

Introduction: Women’s rights leader and activist Betty Freidan was born in 1921 to Russian Jewish immigrants.  A summa cum laude graduate of Smith College in 1942, Friedan trained as a psychologist at University of California, Berkeley, but became a suburban housewife and mother in New York, supplementing her husband’s income by writing freelance articles for magazines.  After conducting a survey of her Smith classmates at a 15-year reunion, Friedan found that most of them were, like she was, dissatisfied suburban housewives.  After five more years of researching history, psychology, sociology and economics, and conducting interviews with women across the country, Friedan charted American middle-class women’s metamorphosis from the independent, career-minded New Woman of the 1920’s and ‘30’s into the housewife of the postwar years who was supposed to find fulfillment in her duties as mother and wife.  This research turned into The Feminine Mystique (1963), a book regarded as one of the most influential nonfiction books of the twentieth century as it helped ignite the women’s movement of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, transforming American society and culture. She also helped advance the women’s rights movement as one of the founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW). She advocated for an increased role for women in the political process and is remembered as a pioneer of feminism and the women’s rights movements.

Early Years: Bettye Naomi Goldstein was born February 4, 1921 in Peoria, Illinois to Harry and Miriam (Horwitz) Goldstein, whose Jewish families were from Russia and Hungary.  Her father, Harry, owned a jewelry store in Peoria, and Miriam wrote for the society page of a newspaper when Friedan’s father fell ill. Her mother’s new life outside the home seemed much more gratifying. As a young girl, Friedan was active in both Marxist and Jewish circles; she later wrote how she felt isolated from the latter community at times, and felt her “passion against injustice…originated from my feelings of the injustice of anti-Semitism”. She attended Peoria High School and became involved in the school newspaper. When her application to write a column was turned down, she and six other friends launched a literary magazine called Tide, which discussed home life rather than school life.

Betty attended Smith College in Northhampton, Massachusetts. She finished her studies in psychology in 1942. After college she attended the University of California at Berkeley to continue her studies.  But her boyfriend at the time did not want her to get an advanced degree in psychology. He apparently felt threatened by her success.  So Betty left California and her boyfriend.  She moved to New York City and worked as a reporter. Between 1943 and 1946 she wrote for The Federated Press.

Career: In 1947, Betty Goldstein married Carl Friedan, a theater director who later became an advertising executive.  They had a child, the first of three. Between 1946 and 1952 she worked for the United Electrical Worker’ UE News. Friedan was dismissed from the union newspaper UE News in 1952 because she was pregnant with her second child.

In 1957, Friedan started research that was to have far-reaching results.  Her class at Smith College was to gather for the fifteenth anniversary of their graduation. Friedan prepared an opinion study for the women.  She sent questions to the women about their lives. Most who took part in the study did not work outside their homes. She thought that her former college classmates might also be dissatisfied.  She was right.  Friedan thought these intelligent women could give a lot to society if they had another identity besides being homemakers.

Friedan completed more studies. She talked to other women across the country.  She met with experts about the questions and answers.  She combined this research with observations and examples from her own life.  The result was her book, “The Feminine Mystique,” published in 1963. The book attacked the popular idea of the time that women could only find satisfaction through being married, having children and taking care of their home. Friedan believed that women wanted more from life than just to please their husbands and children. The book said women suffered from feelings of lack of worth. Friedan said this was because the women depended on their husbands for economic, emotional and intellectual support.

“The Feminine Mystique” was a huge success.  It sold more than three million copies.  It was reprinted in a number of other languages.   The book helped change the lives of women in America. More women began working outside the home. More women also began studying traditionally male subjects like law, medicine and engineering. Betty Friedan expressed the dissatisfaction of some American women during the middle of the twentieth century. But she also made many men feel threatened. Later, critics said her book only dealt with the problems of white, educated, wealthy, married women. It did not study the problems of poor white women, single women or minorities.

In 1966, Betty Friedan helped establish NOW, the National Organization for Women.  She served as its first president.  She led campaigns to end unfair treatment of women seeking jobs. Friedan also worked on other issues.  She wanted women to have the choice to end their pregnancies.  She wanted to create child-care centers for working parents. She wanted women to take part in social and political change.  Betty Friedan once spoke about her great hopes for women in the 1970s:

“Liberating ourselves, we will then become a major political force, perhaps the biggest political force for basic social and political change in America in the seventies.”

Betty Friedan led a huge demonstration in New York City for women’s rights. Demonstrations were also held in other cities.   A half-million women took part in the “Women’s Strike for Equality” on August 26,1970.  The day marked the fiftieth anniversary of American women gaining the right to vote.

A year after the march, Friedan helped establish the National Women’s Political Caucus.  She said the group got started “to make policy, not coffee.”  She said America needed more women in public office if women were to gain equal treatment. In 1981, Betty Friedan wrote about the condition of the women’s movement.  Her book was called “The Second Stage.”  Friedan wrote that the time for huge demonstrations and other such events had passed.  She urged the movement to try to increase its influence on American political life. Some younger members of the movement denounced her as too conservative.

Friedan wanted a national guarantee of that equal treatment. She worked tirelessly to get Congress and the states to approve an amendment to the United States Constitution that would provide equal rights for women. The House of Representatives approved this Equal Rights Amendment in 1971. The Senate approved it the following year. Thirty-eight of the fifty state legislatures were required to approve the amendment.  Congress set a time limit of seven years for the states to approve it. This was extended to June 30, 1982.  However, only thirty-five states approved the amendment by the deadline so it never went into effect. The defeat of the E.R.A. was a sad event for Betty Friedan, NOW and other activists.

As she grew older, Friedan studied conditions for older Americans.  She wrote a book called “The Fountain of Age” in 1993. She wrote that society often dismisses old people as no longer important or useful. Friedan’s last book was published in 2000.  She was almost eighty years old at the time.  Its title was “Life So Far.”

Betty Friedan died on February 4, 2006 at the age of 85. Betty Friedan once told a television reporter how she wanted to be remembered:

“She helps make it better for women to feel good about being women, and therefore she helped make it possible for women to more freely love men.”


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National Women’s History Museum:

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Social Welfare History Project. (2015). Betty Friedan: Author, activist and feminist. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from

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