She was born on February 4, 1921, in Peoria, Ill. Her father owned a jewelry store, and her mother was a homemaker who also wrote for the women's pages of the local newspaper. Can you guess who she is?
She had a strong, abrasive personality even as a child, and toyed with radical leftist political thought as a teenager. She hung out with a group of young Marxists, and even though she wasn't particularly religious she was active in her local Jewish group, later saying her "passion against injustice . . . originated from my feelings of the injustice of anti-Semitism."
She attended Peoria High School and worked on the school newspaper. However, her bid to write a column for the paper was rejected, so she and some friends started their own school publication called Tide, which like her mother's work focused on home life rather than political life.
In 1938 she traveled east to Smith College in Northampton, Mass., where she won a scholarship, started to write poetry, and in her senior year became editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. (As a side note, she was one class ahead of Nancy Davis Reagan and one class behind famous children's author Madeleine L'Engle.) She graduated summa cum laude in 1942 with a major in psychology . . . and promptly left for the West coast.
She spent a year at Berkeley getting a master's degree in psychology, then went to work for a labor union newspaper, returning to the East coast where one of her assignments was to report on the House Un-American Activities Committee. She got married in 1947; and ironically, was let go from her job when she got pregnant with her second child.
After leaving work she became a housewife in suburban New York, although she wrote articles as a freelancer for Cosmopolitan and other publications. But it was a project she started in 1957 that famously changed her life.
For her 15th college reunion she decided to take a survey of her classmates, focusing on their education, careers and the satisfaction with their lives. As a result, she identified an issue she called "the problem with no name" -- a "sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the
United States. Each suburban housewife struggled with it alone, and as she
made the beds, shopped for groceries . . . she was afraid to ask even of
herself the silent question — 'Is this all?'"
She wrote several articles about this phenomenon, and generated an overwhelming response from many housewives who recognized the problem in themselves. She wrote a book called The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, that depicted the lives of many women who'd given up their careers for their husbands, and who were faced with the terror of being alone in the suburbs and then oftentimes left to fend for themselves after a divorce.
The book catapulted the author, Betty Friedan, into the vanguard of the feminist movement. In 1966 she co-founded and became first president of the National Organization of Women, advocating equal rights for women. In 1971, along with Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem, she also founded the National Women's Political Caucus. She wrote six books, a myriad of magazine and newspaper articles, and gave many speeches, arguing forcefully for equal rights, equal pay, and the right of women to
have an abortion. She resisted those who tried to sexualize feminism or link it to lesbianism, and in the name of free speech she also argued against banning pornography.
In her autobiography Life So Far, Friedan admitted that she often rubbed people the wrong way. She had an intense rivalry with fellow feminist Gloria Steinem. And feminist writer Germaine Greer later wrote that Friedan could be egotistical and selfish. Yet Greer also admitted that it was Friedan's strong personality that allowed her to change the deeply rooted prejudices against women.
Carl Friedan, Betty's husband, had this to say: "She changed the course of history . . . it took a driven, super aggressive, and almost lunatic dynamo to rock the world the way she did. Unfortunately, she was that same person at home, where that kind of contact doesn't work." The couple, who had three children, were rumored to have come to blows at certain points; in any case, they divorced in 1969.
Yet in her later years, Betty Friedan did mellow somewhat. She wrote The Second Stage, published in 1982, a post-feminist book that warned more radical feminists against male-bashing, portraying women as victims, and a preoccupation with sexual identity.
Betty Friedan died of heart failure on February 4, 2006, her 85th birthday; but her legacy surely lives on not just in the organizations she co-founded, but in the movement that is still relevant today. It may seem quaint in 2014, but that makes her cri de coeur of 1963, as quoted in Life magazine, no less passionate: "Women of the world unite . . . you have nothing to lose but your vacuum cleaners!"