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A renowned figure in the women’s movement, Betty Friedan gained prominence in the early 1960s for her nonfiction work, The Feminine Mystique (1963). A bestseller, her book has been credited with revitalizing interest in the women’s movement and she herself co-founded the National Organization of Women (NOW). In addition to women’s rights, Friedan was also interested in labor rights, minority rights, and the problem of discrimination against the aged.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Encouraged to Write
Betty Friedan was born Betty Naomi Goldstein in Peoria, Illinois, on February 4, 1921, one year after women in the United States won the right to vote. She was the daughter of Harry and Miram (Horowitz) Goldstein. Her father was a Russian Jewish immigrant and a jeweler, while her mother had been a journalist until her marriage. The eldest of three children, Friedan was raised in comfort for much of her childhood and encouraged to strive for excellence in all she did.
When the Great Depression hit, her parents struggled to support the family. Her parents fought more, with her mother lashing out at her father. Friedan then became determined to find the fulfillment for herself that her mother never did achieve.
Encouraged by her mother to become a journalist, Friedan began writing for her school newspaper in junior high school. She continued to write in high school, where she also started a campus magazine with a male classmate. Graduating from high school at the age of seventeen, she went to Smith College, where she proved to be a gifted student.
There, Friedan studied psychology and served as the editor of the school’s newspaper. After her graduation with a psychology degree summa cum laude in 1942, Friedan entered graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley. After one year of study, she won a research fellowship to complete her PhD. However, faced with the necessity of sacrificing marriage and motherhood in pursuit of an academic career, as well as her boyfriend’s threat to break up with her if she took it, she turned down the fellowship.
Reporter, then Domestic Life
After breaking up with the boyfriend, Friedan left California and moved to New York City. There, she found employment at a Greenwich Village workers’ newspaper as a reporter. Covering strikes and labor disputes, Friedan learned about discrimination in the workplace—not only by employers against male workers but also by employers and unions against women. She also became politically active in New York City.
Within a few years, Friedan met and married Carl Friedan. The couple soon had their first child, Daniel, and she took a year’s maternity leave from her newspaper job. Friedan returned to her post a little reluctantly, but she was fired from this position after requesting a second maternity leave after the birth of her son Jonathan. Friedan’s employers felt she could not be a good mother and work all day. During this period in time, it was common practice for employers to fire women when they became pregnant.
Leaving New York, the couple found a home in the suburbs, and Friedan prepared to settle into a full-time career as a mother. She also gave birth to a third child, Emily. Before long, though, she began to feel frustrated about her role. Friedan then became a freelance writer for women’s magazines, such as Cosmopolitan and Parents. Her early articles were frequently about women as wives and mothers. When she tried to sell stories about women who were living outside of traditional roles, she was told that such profiles were not really what American women wanted to read.
Noticing that editors frequently eliminated references to her subjects’ careers from her articles as well, Friedan began interviewing housewives about their lives. She was also influenced by learning that many of her talented former classmates from Smith College were extremely frustrated by their restrictive roles as mothers and wives in the mid-1950s. Friedan wrote an article on the subject for McCall’s, but because of its pessimistic tone, the magazine decided not to run it. Other women’s magazines turned it down or would only run it with substantial revisions, so she decided to expand it into a book.
The Feminine Mystique
This research formed the basis of what would become her best-known work, The Feminine Mystique (1963). In the book, she argues that the ”feminine mystique”—the belief that women gained fulfillment only from marriage and motherhood—was responsible for the boredom, fatigue, and dissatisfaction that has pervaded the lives of many American women. Although women gained the right to vote in 1920, they were still largely discriminated against over forty years later, finding their abilities to contribute to society limited by chauvinism in the home and the workplace. The book sold over three million copies by 1966 and sparked the feminist movement.
Recognized as a leader by women, Friedan began lecturing throughout the country, explaining her ideas for change and dispelling the myth that women should be totally satisfied with just being wives and mothers. Also continuing to work as a journalist, Friedan was covering the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women when she discussed with other women the idea of an organization like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to protect women’s rights.
NOW and Political Activism
In 1966, Friedan co-founded the National Organization of Women (NOW) and served as its president until 1970. Under her guidance, NOW lobbied for the legalization of abortion, the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the equal treatment of women in the workplace. Friedan, however, came into frequent conflict with radical feminists over the issue of lesbianism as a political stance, which she opposed on the grounds that it alienated mainstream women and men sympathetic to the movement. During this time period, Friedan’s personal life also changed. She moved to New York City without her husband in 1966, and the couple divorced in 1969.
After resigning the presidency of NOW in 1970, Friedan turned her attention to women who were not fully in agreement with the women’s movement. She wanted to include even the doubtful homemakers in the struggle for equality. Calling it a ”human” rights movement, Friedan reached out to men and women through her popular column in McCall’s.
Political infighting between Friedan and such prominent activists as Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug disrupted the 1973 National Women’s Political Caucus. Friedan later indirectly accused them of manipulating the balloting to prevent the participation of her supporters. Friedan discussed this controversy and chronicled her early involvement with the women’s movement in It Changed My Life (1976), a collection of her speeches and previously published writings interspersed with retro-spective commentary.
Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Friedan taught at various universities including Temple University, Yale University, Queens College, and the New School for Social Research. She also campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment, which had been repeatedly defeated. In addition, Friedan continued to publish books on rights-related topics. In The Second Stage (1981), she discussed the emergence of the dangerous Superwoman myth—the unrealistic image of the woman who effortlessly juggles her career, marriage, and children.
Published Late in Life
Over a decade later, Friedan published The Fountain of Age (1993) which focused on discrimination against older workers by businesses as well as general rights of the elderly and aged, and Beyond Gender: The New Politics of Work and Family (1997), which also focused on discrimination. In 2000, Friedan published her autobiography Life So Far: A Memoir. She died on February 4, 2006, in Washington, D.C., of congestive heart failure.
Works in Literary Context
Friedan’s writings exemplify her commitment to social equality and social justice, irrespective of gender or age. Through such works as The Feminine Mystique, she helped create a social revolution that changed the way Americans viewed women and women viewed themselves. In such later books as The Fountain of Age, Friedan tried to effect social change related to age discrimination, especially in the workplace. As an author, Friedan was influenced by her psychology studies and journalism background, historical and social changes that occurred in her lifetime, and the stories of many women’s lives that were shared with her over the years.
Most of Friedan’s best-known books, including The Feminine Mystique and The Second Stage, focus on issues related to women, their place in society, and the challenges they face. In The Feminine Mystique, for example, Friedan argues the post-World War II boom of suburban homes and labor-saving devices thrust women into unfulfilling domestic routines. This lack of fulfillment, she believes, resulted in widespread boredom, depression, and anxiety, as well as an increase in the number of women addicted to tranquilizers and alcohol. To combat these problems, Friedan advocated increased educational and career opportunities as well as creativity and courage for women. While The Feminine Mystique drew supporters to the feminist movement, The Second Stage offered Friedan’s critique of a result of the feminist movement while acknowledging that women had made great strides. Dubbing the woman who could do it all— career, marriage, and children—as the Superwoman, she believed that such a figure was as far removed from reality as the perfect housewives depicted in magazines in the 1960s and could have lasting negative effects on the women’s movement. Describing this phenomenon as the ”feminist mystique,” Friedan suggested that women should begin to rely on support networks and that men and women should join together to create true equality.
In both The Feminine Mystique and The Second Stage as well as her other books, Friedan acknowledges the negative effect discrimination has on people’s lives, the feminist movement, and greater society. The Feminine Mystique highlights the role the media and advertising played in creating an image of an ideal housewife, creating a situation where women face discrimination if they try to break free of this role. Men also face a similar type of discrimination as they have to play a certain type of masculine role in order to be accepted by society. In her collection It Changed My Life, Friedan reiterates the need for feminists not to discriminate themselves. She emphasizes that they should not exclude men from the movement nor to chastise those women who wish to be attractive by wearing cosmetics. While The Fountain of Age is personal as Friedan considers the prospects she personally faced in growing old, she also emphasizes that there is widespread ageism in the workplace and society. Yet, Friedan argues that the aging process is not necessarily the time of decline that the media and other forces would depict. She argues that such a heightened involvement with the process of living has allowed women to remain vigorous and able to fight against continued discrimination.
Works in Critical Context
Critics have acknowledged Friedan’s role in the launching of the contemporary women’s movement, and that her works, especially The Feminine Mystique, had an important place in the movement. While initial reaction to the book was mixed, it has become regarded as a classic work of early feminist literature. It remains regarded as an influential work that served as the impetus for change in many women’s lives. Friedan’s other books received less critical attention, but such works as The Fountain of Age were regarded as representative of her shift to related issues like age-related discrimination. Overall, many reviewers were divided over the content of Friedan’s books and the effectiveness of her writing.
The Feminine Mystique
Reaction to The Feminine Mystique was diverse for both critics and its target audience. Friedan and her book were not warmly received by some feminists, who viewed her as somewhat reactionary and bourgeois. Other critics praised her for exploding the myth of woman as content homemaker who would defer her own interests to take care of her family. Sylvia Fleis Fava, writing in the American Sociological Review, notes that ”Friedan tends to set up a counter-mystique; that all women must have creative interests outside the home to realize themselves. This can be just as confining and tension-producing as any other mold.” More recent critics believe that The Feminine Mystique still has relevance, with Stacey Kauder of Herizons noting, ”It remains a feminist classic today.”
It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement
Friedan’s collection of writings from the 1960s and 1970s, It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement, was somewhat well-received as a book in which she sorts out the healthy, productive elements of the women’s movement from the petty, divisive ones in an attempt to gain a new focus. Writing in the Village Voice, Eliot Fremont-Smith notes, ”She wants us to Get Together in a cause that is right and good for all of us, women, men, children, grandparents, single people, everybody.” However, some critics took issue with her depiction of the politicking behind such events as the National Women’s Political Caucus. Stephanie Harrington of the New York Times Book Review questions Friedan’s ”half-light between innuendo and substantial accusation, juxtaposing names and her version of events with and letting the implications fall where they may” approach. Furthermore, critics like Sara Sanborn in the Saturday Review faulted Friedan for her maternal attitude toward her accomplishments. Sanborn described it as ”a self-justifying, even self-regarding tone . . . as though Friedan was afraid that we might forget our debt to her.”
- Henry, Sondra and Emily Taitz. Betty Friedan: Fighter for Women’s Rights. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow, 1990.
- Hennessee, Judith Adler. Betty Friedan: Her Life. New York: Random House, 1999.
- Horowitz, Daniel. Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique: The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.
- Fava, Sylvia Fleis. Review of The Feminine Mystique. American Sociological Review (December 1963): 1053-1054.
- Fremont-Smith, Eliot. Review of It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement. Village Voice (June 28, 1976): 43-44.
- Harrington, Stephanie. Review of It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement. New York Times Book Review (July 4, 1976): 7-8. Kauder, Stacey. Review of The Feminine Mystique.
Herizons (Summer 2006): 42. Sanborn, Sara. Review of It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement. Saturday Review (July 24, 1976).
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