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Betty Friedan: Feminist icon of the 1960s, renowned for her bestseller, The Feminie Mystique

by Sheila Rowbotham

Sheila Rowbotham is Professor of Gender and Labour History School of Social Sciences at the University of Manchester, England.

June 2006

The follow is reproduced from the Monday February 6, 2006 edition of The Guardian © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006.

Betty Friedan, who has died of congestive heart failure aged 85, played an influential
role in the re-emergence of the United States women's movement in the 1960s. In her
1963 bestseller The Feminine Mystique, she articulated "the problem that has no name"—the
misery, self-hatred, neurosis and frustration of suburban middle-class women festering in
domesticity. She blamed educators, advertising men, psychologists and sociologists for driving
women out of the workforce and public life; the result was to be sacks of grateful letters and a
message that had an international impact.


American women were already stirring in 1963: black and white women had been
mobilized through the civil rights movement and through community politics. Trade union women
were arguing for equal pay for work of equal value—later to be called comparable worth.
President John Kennedy had appointed the labor educator, Esther Peterson, to head the Women's
Bureau of the Department of Labor, and, with Eleanor Roosevelt, she had persuaded him to
appoint a presidential commission on the status of women. The commissions were to be important
rallying points, but their ponderous prevarication and ribald jokes about male (Playboy) bunnies in
the press had a radicalizing effect.


Famously in June 1966, at the third annual conference of commissions on the status of
women in Washington DC, Friedan bumped into Dorothy Haener from the United Automobile
Workers' Union and Pauli Murray, the black lawyer who had helped draft civil rights
legislation. She invited them to meet in her hotel room: about 20 women crammed in that night,
mainly professionals, administrators and trade union officials. The next day at lunch Friedan
scribbled "National Organization for Women" and the acronym Now on a paper napkin. The
new organization had a budget of $135.


Friedan was to be elected president of NOW at the first conference in October 1966. No organizer, she was the speaker, writer and publicist. She dressed carefully in frilly blouses and handled the news media well. NOW's first cause was the sexually segregated help-wanted advertisements. NOW's
president was careful to keep the focus on employment issues: paid maternity leave, tax deductions for child care, educational aid and training, along with access to contraception. NOW was to be guided by "a passion for the possible".


However, a very different women's movement was stirring by 1967. There were grassroots
women's liberation groups inspired by civil rights, there was student activism, opposition
to the Vietnam war, the mobilization of women on welfare and rebellions in the black ghettos.
These were part of the new left's "great refusal" of American capitalism. Its supporters wanted
radical transformation of society and of personal life, and were ready to speak out about abortion,
rape, lesbianism, orgasms, imperialism and welfare rights. They surfaced in the media at the
Miss America contest in 1968, burning girdles and the Ladies Home Journal in a dustbin. The
frilly-blouse strategy was wiped out: from then on women's lib and bra burning were twins as far
as the media was concerned.


Friedan was initially appalled, but her strategic caution was overborne in the extraordinary
growth of the women's-liberation movement. In 1969 she was a co-founder of the National
Association for the Appeal of Abortion Laws. In 1970 she retired from the presidency of NOW
with a surprise call for a women's strike for equality day and led the march down New York's
Fifth Avenue hand in hand with the suffrage veteran, Judge Dorothy Kenyon. In 1971 she was
a co-founder of the Women's Political Caucus.

In the early 1970s American feminists made demonstrable gains. In 1970 New York liberalized
the abortion laws and in 1973 the Supreme Court legalized abortion. Now joined older feminist
organizations in lobbying for the equal rights amendment. Legislation on sex discrimination
was going through and shifts were occurring in popular culture. By 1977 the radical women's
liberation groups were in disarray, but NOW had positioned itself in the centre. Its 1967 demands
were endorsed in 1977 by the national women's conference in Houston attended by Rosalyn
Carter, Betty Ford and Ladybird Johnson.


Friedan had had a series of disputes with members of NOW, but she remained the visible
symbol of liberal feminism while, across the political spectrum, Phyllis Schlafly focused the
ire of women of the new right on Friedan's claim to speak for American women. Ronald
Reagan's election in 1981 forced feminists on to the defensive; not only was funding for projects
reduced, but the new right was committed to reversing the legislative gains. In The Second
Stage (1981), Friedan, her eye on middle America, argued that feminists were alienating support
by being confrontational and anti-men and by opposing marriage and the family. In the US
Schlafly was delighted, but in France Simone de Beauvoir was so irritated with the book that she
threw it across the room. Out of step with an embattled feminist movement, Friedan lectured
in universities, including Harvard and Yale, and established a think tank at the University of
Southern California on women's issues. She was a well known international figure, attending the
1985 international women's conference at Nairobi and the 1992 women's summit at Dublin organized
by the National Women's Political Caucus.


The rightwing onslaught on abortion had galvanized a new wave of feminist activism and she
spoke at a pro-choice rally in New York in 1992.

She was becoming increasingly involved in Jewish issues and studying the Torah. In 1993 her Fountain of Age called on elderly people to reject stereotypes and live a more active life;
but, for once, it was matter over mind, for her own health was affected by asthma and she had
suffered from heart trouble. Harper’s magazine, never the best friend of feminism, unkindly
announced Joan Smith's interview with her in 1993 as "Feminism's death rattle".


She had been called the mother of feminism by the news media, but some of the daughters
and granddaughters were not too impressed. Susan Faludi in Backlash (1991) accused her of
"stomping on a movement she did so much to create"; a disgruntled Friedan was inclined to see
younger feminists as stomping on her. Friedan had lost that old news-media touch and got
stuck in the publicity package she had created in the 1960s and 1970s of that girl from Peoria,
Illinois, who had lived the feminine mystique as a suburban mum.


The actual Betty Goldstein was much more interesting. Born Bettye, in Peoria, her mother
had edited a local newspaper women's page before becoming a housewife. Her father was an
immigrant from Russia who became proprietor of a jewelry store. Radicalized as a student
at the elite Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, from which she graduated in
1942, she had been inspired by the militant mood of US labor and black Americans. She went on to
graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley. She then moved to Greenwich Village,
by way of Peoria.


In New York she initially worked for a news service that supplied trade union papers. Between
1945 and 1947, she was writing for the leftwing United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers'
journal, UE News, on the workplace demands and domestic grievances of women in the union.
Unlike her later work, this early journalism challenged class injustice and inequality. She
married Carl Friedan, a theatre producer, in 1947 and through the McCarthy era, when
leftwing views meant ostracism and persecution, she was bringing up their three children.


She retained her social commitment, but she was a journalist and she wanted to be
published, and equal pay for women workers was not exactly a selling topic. However, the
civil rights movement had broken through 1950s conservatism. A new spirit was evident by
the late 1950s and early 1960s. Upset because young women graduates at Smith told her they
wanted marriage rather than a career, she did a questionnaire for her class reunion. "What do
you wish you had done differently?" she asked the women that had studied with her back in 1942. Ennui and despair came back. The light chatty article she was planning turned into a tale of woe. McCall’s magazine rejected it; so did a friend at Redbook. Who wanted to read about hysterical housewives? But Betty Friedan was on to something. It was an era when social criticism like William H Whyte's The Organization Man and Vance Packard's Hidden Persuaders had become popular hits. Americans wanted to hear about what was going wrong. She persuaded a publisher to take a gamble.


The Feminine Mystique was to be the result. Again she oversimplified and packaged neatly.
She quoted selectively; American magazines in the 1950s were in fact more ambiguous about
the housewife as they were keen to celebrate individual success stories. Suburban women in the
1950s were often busy indeed outside their homes in a whole range of community groups, because
the suburbs lacked the most basic amenities.


The Feminine Mystique also ignored the contemporary achievements of black women
and did not touch on questions of redistribution of wealth. Her assumption was that work was
necessarily fulfilling and she implied that the combination of child rearing and paid employment
could be easily done. Her solutions were about changing attitudes not about structures and
resources. The book struck such a deep chord because she was reworking ideas about individual
development already present in popular culture. Her success was in crystallizing widespread
dissatisfactions simmering beneath the surface. Despite all its limitations, The Feminine Mystique
had a radical impact on mainstream culture in the 1960s and early 1970s. That was no mean
achievement, and by the end of the 20th century the book had sold more than 3 million copies.


After the late 1970s it was much harder for Friedan to appeal to a broad constituency, and
that clearly distressed her deeply. Her political instincts were those of the 1930s old left with its
popular front, not the new left's search for beloved communion. She aspired to strategy not purity.
But she got the strategy wrong when she tried to placate a new right driven by a fundamentalist
faith which she could not understand.


Friedan's other books include: It Changed My Life; Writings on the Women's Movement (1976);
and Through the Prison of Gender (1998). In 2000 she published a memoir, Life so Far.


Friedan can be understood as the last survivor of a tradition of writing about women’s
issues developed by writers such as Margaret Mead, Pearl S Buck and Dorothy Thompson. But
their radical proposals were always couched in moderate tones. With Friedan it was the other
way round. Try as she would, her efforts at moderation somehow came out sounding more
extreme than they were—perhaps because she was always inclined to find culprits. That served
her well in 1963; but it no longer had resonance when the new right reclaimed the territory she
had opened up for liberal feminism. Instead she alienated many feminists by blaming them
for the victory of the right. Radical movements are often too embedded in defiance to exercise
generosity and in politics you can get stamped on; on the other hand, Friedan did her share of
the stamping.


Her marriage ended in divorce in 1969. She is survived by her daughter, two sons and nine
grandchildren.

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