Historical Motherhood Series: Betty Friedan

Our Historical Motherhood series is back! We’re delighted as always to welcome Kristen Levithan, Happiest Home contributor and blogger at Motherese, with another profile of a mom who made history. You can read previous historical motherhood posts by clicking here.


I remember exactly where I was when I first read Betty Friedan’s now 51-year-old firestarter, The Feminine Mystique. I was sitting on the bed in my cramped, stuffy grad school apartment, thumbing through a dog-eared copy that I had bought used on Amazon. Ready to be lulled to sleep as I was by so many of the books in that political theory class, I was surprised to find myself sitting at attention, underlining, highlighting, and labeling passage after passage with sticky notes.

(I might have even cheered in solidarity from time to time.) 

The Feminist Mystique, the bestseller that helped spark the second wave of the American women’s movement, spoke to me as it has to decades of women. From that moment on, I wanted to know more about its author.

Betty Friedan was born Bettye Goldstein in 1921 in Peoria, Illinois to a “comfortably middle class” Russian Jewish immigrant family. A talented student, Goldstein wrote for her high school newspaper and helped launch a literary magazine there. She went on to the all-women’s Smith College where, “[f]or the first time, she could be as smart as she wanted.” She excelled academically and became editor-in-chief of the school newspaper. After graduating summa cum laude, she attended graduate school at UC Berkeley and became increasingly politically active. Smith abandoned her academic career after a year and moved to New York to become a journalist and editor for left-leaning publications. Goldstein married Carl Friedan and went on to have three children.

Unlike her mother, who had given up her job as the women’s page editor of the Peoria newspaper when she got married (a decision about which Friedan said, “I did not want to be a mommy like Mommy. And I understood somehow my mother’s frustration. And that it was no good not only for her, but for her children or her husband, that she didn’t have a real use of her ability”), Friedan continued working not only after marriage but also after her first child was born. She was fired from her job, however, when she became pregnant with her second; her bosses, apparently, were afraid she would take another maternity leave. (This slight would stay with Friedan in later years, apparently, when she organized for protections for pregnant women and guaranteed maternity leave.) After being fired, Friedan became a freelance writer, working mostly for women’s magazines, and, while pregnant with her third child, the family moved to the suburbs.

On the occasion of her 15th college reunion, Friedan surveyed her fellow alumnae about their experiences at work and at home and tried to publish articles in women’s magazines about what she called “the problem that has no name”:

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning [that is, a longing] that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban [house]wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries…she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – “Is this all?”

Friedan received so many impassioned responses to her survey that she decided to interview more women and compile her findings in a book. Although Friedan herself had created a life that many of us today would envy – a career she enjoyed, a partnership, financial security, three healthy kids – she was troubled by the number of women who felt a “nameless, aching dissatisfaction” that married life with children did not ease. (It’s hard to watch the early seasons of AMC’s Mad Men, and not see symptoms of this “dissatisfaction” in Betty Draper.) 

Though Friedan sometimes changed details of her own life and exaggerated historical trends for dramatic effect, The Feminine Mystique became a bestseller and Friedan’s message became both a balm and a spark to many women of her generation. According to author Stephanie Coontz, Friedan “combined sociological research and good reporting skills with the confessional style of the women’s magazines to reach [women] who were isolated in their own homes, really hurting, and convince them their problems were social, not personal, in origin.” Though she was not the first to suggest that women needed “some kind of life outside the home, she was really the first to create a language that could bring those issues into public discourse in such a way that they could be given political energy.”

Friedan soon redirected the anger she conveyed in The Feminist Mystique into political activism for the rights of all women – not just the educated, middle-class women she wrote about in her book – culminating in the founding of the National Organization of Women (NOW), which worked diligently for the legal equality of men and women. In 1970, she organized a national Women’s Strike for Equality and led a march of 20,000 women in New York to call attention to inequality in jobs and schools. As time went on, Friedan continued to push the women’s movement to concentrate on economic issues rather than social ones like abortion and pornography, noting that “[e]conomic equity is an enormous empowerment of women. Having jobs that provide income means that women can be a more effective force, a more equal force, in the political process.” This focus earned her the ire of fellow feminists, many of whom considered her ideas too conservative.

In the 1990s, Friedan dedicated herself to a new cause, which she described as “breaking through the mystique that sees old age only as the decline from youth. Instead we’ll have an older generation that sings new songs, celebrates wisdom and isn’t seeking the fountain of youth.” Friedan, called brilliant, imperious, funny, and polarizing during her lifetime, died in 2006, on her 85th birthday. She was survived by her three children and nine grandchildren and was predeceased by her ex-husband Carl; the couple had divorced in 1969.

The Feminist Mystique, widely considered one of the most influential books of the 20th century, was nevertheless criticized – and fairly so – for excluding the concerns of poor women, working-class women, and women of color. According to Gail Collins, the New York Times columnist who wrote the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition, the book is “totally personal…It’s all a very personal, white middle class, college educated woman’s howl of misery and anger at the place where she has found herself.” But writer Jessica Valenti argues that, especially for women who are afraid of being labeled “angry feminists,” Friedan’s “howl” is still instructive: “We forget that that anger is justified and that it’s OK to be angry and that anger can be useful and energizing. I think anger around sexism, around income inequality, around domestic inequality is really righteous and really relatable.” 

Paid maternity leave for all workers? Universal preschool? Affordable childcare?

Hmm, maybe there are a few things left for women to howl about.

Image: Betty Friedan 1960 by Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer via Wikimedia Commons.

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