The Feminine Mystique of Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan, known as the mother of modern feminism, said she was once characterized as “more of a threat to the United States than the Russians.” Friedan died of congestive heart failure on her 85th birthday, Feb. 4, in Washington.

Friedan was born Bettye Naomi Goldstein on Feb. 4, 1921, in Peoria, Ill, to Jewish immigrant parents. Her father was a jeweler and her mother was the society page editor of a local newspaper. Upon marriage, her mother quit her job at her father’s insistence.

In 1963, Friedan wrote “The Feminine Mystique,” a book that planted seeds of revolution in the struggle for equal rights, opportunity and autonomy, and greater legal protection for women. She pushed for equal pay, maternity leave, child-care centers for working parents, legal abortion, an end to sexual discrimination and many other issues considered radical in the 1960s and 1970s.

Friedan was a founder and president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). NOW was the first national organization to endorse the legalization of abortion. She led a 500,000-person Women’s Strike for Equality in New York in 1970 and was a founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus and the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws.

Kim Gandy president of NOW, said Friedan “sparked a movement that is larger and stronger than ever, made up of women who expect equality and equal opportunity for ourselves and our daughters, and the men who stand with us.”

Friedan and Coretta Scott King were both at the Progressive Party’s convention in Philadelphia in 1948, according to Daniel Horowitz, a professor at Smith College. The two, along with Rosa Parks, “have their political roots in the struggles for social justice, for African Americans, for women and for working people in the 1940s,” he said. “Friedan was deeply embedded in and engaged with issues raised on the left in the labor union movement.”

Friedan said women must enter the workforce on an equal footing with men, and then men would do housework and parenting on an equal footing in the home. Progress in the women’s movement has made some advances, but many working women continue to find the bulk of household chores, including child rearing, their sole responsibility.

The vision Friedan fought for and the gains she helped win are all under threat by a conservative Supreme Court, the Bush administration and the ultra-right. Young women continue to debate whether to take off work to raise children or to try to balance holding a job and parenting. Many agree that society as a whole needs to provide more support for women to fulfill their aspirations.

“Girls can be anything,” Friedan once said. “They can take risks. They should be able to make mistakes in ways we couldn’t. And I hope they will have families. Families are a great thing.”