Betty Friedan, Feminist Pioneer, Dies at 85
Betty Friedan has died of congestive heart failure. She was 85.
Betty Friedan, whose manifesto “The Feminine Mystique” became a best seller in the 1960s and laid the groundwork for the modern feminist movement, died Saturday, her birthday. She was 85. Friedan died at her home of congestive heart failure, according to a cousin, Emily Bazelon.
Friedan’s assertion in her 1963 best seller that having a husband and babies was not everything and that women should aspire to separate identities as individuals, was highly unusual, if not revolutionary, just after the baby and suburban booms of the Eisenhower era.
The feminine mystique, she said, was a phony bill of goods society sold to women that left them unfulfilled, suffering from “the problem that has no name” and seeking a solution in tranquilizers and psychoanalysis.
“A woman has got to be able to say, and not feel guilty, `Who am I, and what do I want out of life?’ She mustn’t feel selfish and neurotic if she wants goals of her own, outside of husband and children,” Friedan said. “That book changed women’s lives,” Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, which Friedan co-founded, said Saturday. “It opened women’s minds to the idea that there actually might be something more. And for the women who secretly harbored such unpopular thoughts, it told them that there were other women out there like them who thought there might be something more to life.”
In the racial, political and sexual conflicts of the 1960s and ’70s, Friedan’s was one of the most commanding voices and recognizable presences in the women’s movement. As the first president of NOW in 1966, she staked out positions that seemed extreme at the time on such issues as abortion, sex-neutral help-wanted ads, equal pay, promotion opportunities and maternity leave.
But at the same time, Friedan insisted that the women’s movement had to remain in the American mainstream, that men had to be accepted as allies and that the family should not be rejected. “Don’t get into the bra-burning, anti-man, politics-of-orgasm school,” Friedan told a college audience in 1970.
[H]er 1981 book, “The Second Stage,” was seen by many as a public break with the feminist leadership that had succeeded her. She said they had pursued “sexual politics that distorted the sense of priorities of the women’s movement during the 1970s,” and had opened the way for conservatives and reactionaries to occupy the center on family issues. In “The Second Stage,” Friedan also appeared to accept criticism from some women that “The Feminine Mystique” was too dismissive of domestic life. “Our failure was our blind spot about the family,” she wrote.
That Friedan’s work was radical is an understatement. Feminist Mystique was published two years before I was born and the idea that married women should nonetheless seek careers on an equal basis with men was still highly controversial as I was entering high school.
Still, as the excerpt above makes clear, she was a feminist without being anti-male. She was married to a man she loved for two decades and they raised a son together who went on to achievement in his own right. It is therefore ironic that the two organizations she founded, NOW and NARAL, became so virulent.