Catalyst of Feminist Revolution

Times Staff Writer

Betty Friedan, the visionary feminist who launched a social revolution with her provocative 1963 book “The Feminine Mystique,” died Saturday, her 85th birthday. Friedan died of congestive heart failure at her home in Washington, D.C., according to Emily Bazelon, a cousin who was speaking for the family. She said Friedan had been in failing health for some time.

Her bestselling book identified “the problem that has no name,” the unhappiness of post-World War II American women unfulfilled by traditional notions of female domesticity.

Melding sociology and humanistic psychology, the book became the cornerstone of one of the 20th century’s most profound movements, unleashing the first full flowering of American feminism since the mid-1800s.

It gave Friedan, an obscure suburban New York housewife and freelance writer, the mantle to meet with the pope and heads of state, and to lead an international movement that would shake up marriage, the workplace, politics and education.


She founded the National Organization for Women in 1966, making it the first new major feminist organization in half a century. She also was among the founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus and the group that became the National Abortion Rights Action League.

“I never set out to write a book to change women’s lives, to change history,” said Friedan, who always kept a sense of wonder about her place in history as the mother of the contemporary women’s movement.

“It’s like, ‘Who, me?’ Yes, me. I did it. And I’m not that different from other women.... Maybe my power and glory was that I could speak my truth as a woman and it was the truth of every woman.”

Friedan’s affinity with mainstream values was the foundation of her authority. Her emphatic belief that women should have equal rights -- but not at the expense of alienating men -- distinguished her from many feminist leaders who emerged later.

“She found that love between unequals can never succeed,” writer Gloria Steinem once said, “and she has undertaken the immense job of bringing up the status of women so love can succeed.”

Her more moderate brand of feminism, combined with her often irascible nature, led to ruptures with other movement leaders, such as Steinem and Bella Abzug, the late New York congresswoman. Some feminists eventually denounced Friedan as a reactionary.

By the 1980s, feminism had ceased being her primary focus, and she spent her last decades focused on issues of aging, families, work and public policy. She wrote six books and held teaching posts at many institutions, including UCLA and USC.

Friedan did not conform to conventional notions of feminine beauty or decorum. She was short -- 5 feet 2 -- and stocky, with a hawklike nose, large, deep-set eyes and a gravelly voice that no one could call timid. She was fast-talking, impatient and abrasive. Her rudeness was especially perplexing when she directed it at other women. “I could be,” she acknowledged in later years, “a bad-tempered bitch.”

She remained formidable in her old age. Even as she was approaching 80 and enjoying her role as doting grandmother of nine, she could demolish interviewers who asked what she considered inane questions.

Yet she always bore a trace of the little girl from Peoria, Ill., at times giddy, vulnerable and stuck on appearances. Peoria, she once observed, was the source of all her hang-ups.

Friedan was born Bettye Goldstein on Feb. 4, 1921, the year after American women won the right to vote. She was the oldest of three children of jewelry store owner Harry Goldstein, a Russian Jew, and the former Miriam Horwitz.

Although a sickly child who suffered from asthma and vision problems, Bettye (who later dropped the e from the end of her first name) was precocious and skipped a year of school. In high school she was valedictorian, but her braininess, she said, made her feel “like a freak.”

Anti-Semitism barred her father, a successful businessman, from joining the country club and other elite Peoria circles, and it kept Bettye and her sister out of high school sororities. “When you’re a Jewish girl who grows up on the right side of the tracks in the Midwest, you’re marginal. You’re in, but you’re not,” she said, “and you grow up an observer.”

Her mother was an unhappy housewife whose disposition and health dramatically improved when her husband’s health faltered and she took over management of the jewelry business. In her 1976 book “It Changed My Life,” Friedan said her mother’s discontent gave her an early glimpse of the perils of the malaise she would later call the “feminine mystique.”

Envious of her mother’s social grace and her sister’s beauty, Friedan did not feel at home until she arrived at Smith College in the late 1930s.

A contemporary of Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, who attended Smith about the same time, she became editor of the campus newspaper and quickly established a reputation for brilliance. Friedan finished summa cum laude in psychology in 1942 and entered graduate studies at UC Berkeley.

At Berkeley, she won a prestigious science fellowship that had never been given to any psychologist, much less a woman. But she turned down the award when it became apparent that a physicist she was dating felt threatened by her success. Although she said she had little, if any, awareness of it at the time, she was fearful of being “brighter than the boys” and violating the mystique she would later so studiously dissect. Against the advice of her professors, who included the eminent theorist Erik Erikson, she gave up psychology all together.

Having discovered Marxism in college, Friedan decided that she would work for the “revolution.” By 1943, she was immersed in popular-front journalism, first at the Federated Press in New York and later at UE News, the official newspaper of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, then one of the nation’s most radical unions.

In 1947 she married theatrical producer Carl Friedman, who later dropped the m in his last name to create the more distinctive “Friedan.” In 1948 the Friedans had the first of three children, Daniel. Four years later when she became pregnant with her second child, Jonathan, and requested maternity leave, she was fired from her job at the union paper, an event she later would call a “formative experience” in her evolution as a feminist. Her third child, Emily, was born in 1956.

As the family expanded, the Friedans settled in prosperous Rockland County, N.Y. Though she was determined to be a happy housewife, she suffered renewed attacks of her childhood asthma and resumed psychotherapy. Urged by her therapist not to waste her education and training, Friedan began to write for women’s magazines. What commenced for the unwitting Friedan was an education in the feminine mystique.

She had wanted to write a profile of a woman who had given up a successful career as an advertising executive, married and become a serious sculptor, but editors were doubtful that their housewife-readers would be interested in such a woman. They accepted the article but only after deleting references to the woman’s career. Within a few years, Friedan said, “I began to lose my zest” for writing the rigidly formulaic articles that women’s magazines seemed to want.

In 1957, she was asked to conduct a survey of her Smith classmates for their 15th reunion and found that the women who did not conform exactly to traditional notions of womanhood were happier than those who did. A light bulb went on for Friedan: “Maybe it wasn’t education that was the problem, keeping American women from ‘adjusting to their role as women,’ ” she wrote, “but that narrow definition of ‘the role of women.’ ”

She wrote a magazine article based on that argument, but it was repeatedly rejected. Realizing that her thesis “threatened the firmament” of women’s magazines, she decided to bypass that venue and put her ideas into a book instead.

She interviewed scores of suburban women, repeating many of the questions she had asked her Smith sisters. Another part of her research entailed long days in the New York Public Library, looking for shifts in the types of heroines depicted in women’s magazine fiction. The results of her study were stark: Friedan found that the avid career woman who dominated the magazines in the 1930s had given way by the 1950s to a less adventuresome model: the contented homemaker.

Was the 1950s image reality, or was it a self-fulfilling fantasy cooked up by magazine editors and advertisers? Suspecting the latter, Friedan plowed on with her interviews. She was staggered by the dissatisfactions aired by wives and mothers, by their vague laments about feeling empty, anxious and incomplete. A mother of four who had shirked college for marriage and family told Friedan: “There’s no problem you can even put a name to. But I’m desperate. I begin to feel I have no personality. I’m a server of food and putter-on of pants and a bed maker, somebody who can be called on when you want something. But who am I?”

“I came to realize,” Friedan would later write, “that something is very wrong with the way American women are trying to live their lives today.... For the startling pattern that began to emerge as one clue led me to another in far-flung fields of modern thought and life, defied not only the conventional image but basic psychological assumptions about women.”

She found that books on the psychology of women, such as those by Freudian analyst Helene Deutsch, generally adhered to traditional ideas of women’s fulfillment in hearth and home. Seeking a theoretical basis for her views of women’s plight, Friedan turned to the work on identity and self-realization by psychologists such as Abraham Maslow and her old Berkeley advisor, Erikson. Their ideas informed what became her central tenet: “that the core of the problem for women today is ... a problem of identity -- a stunting or evasion of growth that is perpetuated by the feminine mystique.”

Writing in longhand in makeshift workspaces at home while raising three young children, Friedan finally produced a 1,000-page manuscript. It took her five years.

Lacking faith in the book, Friedan’s publisher, W.W. Norton, printed only a few thousand hardcover copies in 1963. Friedan did not experience the full force of fame until Dell issued the paperback in 1964. That year, “The Feminine Mystique” became the top-selling nonfiction book in the country.

Much of the initial reaction was hostile. Friedan was cursed, told to seek psychiatric help and accused of posing “more of a threat to the United States than the Russians.” She was shunned by neighborhood women who had once been friendly, her children were kicked out of car pools, and her marriage began to crack under the weight of her growing celebrity.

The book’s focus on the struggles of educated, middle-class white women was faulted by critics as a major shortcoming. To many black women, more concerned with survival than self-fulfillment, Friedan’s emphasis on finding meaningful careers “seemed to come from another planet,” according to historian Paula Giddings.

The personal narrative that gave “The Feminine Mystique” much of its power was misleading in another way: By omitting references to Friedan’s earlier career as a left-wing journalist, she created the impression that she had never been anything other than a suburban matron.

Years later, biographer Daniel Horowitz would accuse Friedan of obscuring her past to sell books. But Friedan insisted she was only being politically savvy. “It was the McCarthy era ... and I didn’t go around parading my left-wing background because it wouldn’t have helped in organizing the women’s movement,” she told The Times in 2000. “On the other hand, I never kept it secret.”

Friedan’s radical past explains “how she came as a housewife to politicize so deftly the ‘problems that have no name,’ ” said historian Ruth Rosen. “People in the old left got experience in naming things. That’s not unimportant. It explains the power of ‘The Feminine Mystique.’ ”

The book received many positive reviews and was excerpted by some of the leading women’s magazines Friedan had attacked as messengers of the mystique.

Thousands of women wrote to her and stopped her in the street to pour out the details of their lives, beg for advice or just tell her, “You changed my life.”

“I had no idea,” Friedan said, “that my book would start a revolution.” Or, as futurist Alvin Toffler put it, Friedan “pulled the trigger on history,” launching a tumultuous decade for American women with Friedan at the epicenter.

In June 1966, Friedan joined members of state commissions on the status of women for a national conference in Washington. Frustrated by their powerlessness, some of the members decided that a new, nongovernmental organization was needed to make women’s rights a top national concern.

Huddled with Friedan at the closing banquet, the women whispered their ideas for a feminist NAACP. Friedan scribbled these words on a napkin: “National Organization for Women.”

Four months later, the women reconvened in Washington for an organizing conference. Friedan was elected president, and NOW plunged into battle.

In one of its first campaigns, it pressured the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to prohibit sex-segregated help wanted ads. Soon after, it forced airlines to change a long-standing policy requiring stewardesses to resign once they married or turned 32. Later it successfully lobbied President Johnson to sign an executive order prohibiting sex discrimination by federal contractors.

Today, the group is anchored in Washington and has 500,000 members and branches in all 50 states. But in its early years, NOW’s headquarters was Friedan’s New York City apartment, and Friedan was indisputably in charge.

On Valentine’s Day in 1968, she led a platoon of angry women into the exclusively male Oak Room at New York’s Plaza Hotel to draw attention to sex discrimination in public places. After a series of similar dramatic demonstrations, individual states began to outlaw such exclusionary practices.

In 1970, the largest feminist demonstration since the suffrage movement took over 5th Avenue as Friedan called for a national Women’s Strike for Equality. Held on the 50th anniversary of the passage of the women’s suffrage amendment, it drew 500,000 women and heightened awareness of the women’s movement across the nation.

Feminism was blooming: in universities, where women’s studies courses began cropping up; in politics, where the House of Representatives passed the Equal Rights Amendment and Shirley Chisholm ran for president; and in popular culture, where books such as Robin Morgan’s anthology “Sisterhood Is Powerful” and Kate Millett’s “Sexual Politics” and a new magazine named Ms. were fomenting debate and adding phrases to the American lexicon.

But during those heady years, Friedan’s marriage was crumbling. She claimed years later to have been a battered wife, a contention that outraged Carl Friedan, who vociferously denied the charges. Their 22-year marriage ended in divorce in 1969. He died in December.

In 1970, Friedan stepped down as NOW president amid growing dissatisfaction with her vision of the movement. But not even her critics could deny the power of the changes she had unleashed.

By this time, however, the mother of the movement was being assaulted by its more radical elements. In 1969 she had delivered her first public attack on lesbianism, labeling it a “lavender menace” that would tarnish the entire feminist agenda. Enraged, many lesbians quit NOW. Susan Brownmiller, then a member of New York Radical Feminists, blasted the group and its founder as “hopelessly bourgeois.”

By the end of the 1970s, Friedan was relegated to the sidelines of the movement she had inspired. She was dismayed not only by its direction but what she saw as its mounting toll and the growing political backlash. In her view, the movement had burdened rather than liberated women, burning out those who were trying to juggle motherhood and career or penetrate the corporate glass ceiling. Moreover, she observed, women in lower-level jobs were still earning only 59 cents to every dollar earned by men -- this after almost two decades of renewed feminist activism.

What to do?

Friedan’s response was “The Second Stage,” published in 1981. The movement’s senior theorist had always insisted that men were not the enemy. In her new book, she startled many by insisting that the enemy was the victim herself.

“I believe we have to break through our own feminist mystique,” Friedan wrote, arguing that “the equality we fought for isn’t livable, isn’t workable, isn’t comfortable in the terms that structured our battle.” Feminists, she charged, had fallen into a new trap “which denied that core of women’s personhood that is fulfilled through love, nurture, home....

“We have to free ourselves from male power traps, understand the limits of women’s power as a separate interest group ... and put a new value on qualities once considered -- and denigrated as -- special to women.”

The reaction to Friedan’s book was swift and unforgiving. Calling the feminist foremother “hopelessly confused about whose side she’s on,” theorist Ellen Willis wrote that Friedan “would destroy feminism in order to save it, and beat the Moral Majority by joining it.” Journalist Susan Faludi, writing in her 1991 book “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women,” said Friedan was “yanking out the stitches in her own handiwork.”

Amid this controversy, Friedan began to turn her focus to other issues. She received a call from the head of the National Institute on Aging, asking her to become an advocate for older Americans. She at first fought the idea, “locked in denial” about the fact that she was approaching 60 and hating it. What changed her mind was remembering conversations she’d had with older women while researching “The Feminine Mystique.” The healthiest and most vital women she interviewed had been older women -- in their 50s and 60s -- who had careers.

She plunged into several years of research, producing in 1993 “The Fountain of Age,” a book in which she again challenged the prevailing stereotypes, arguing that an active, engaged life was the secret to a rewarding old age. The book earned mixed reviews, with some critics faulting her for presenting an overly optimistic view of the stage of life Friedan herself was experiencing.

In her last years, Friedan split her time between homes in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and Washington, D.C., spending more time with her children -- Daniel, of Princeton, N.J., a theoretical physicist at Rutgers University; Jonathan, an engineer in Philadelphia; and Emily, a pediatrician in Buffalo, N.Y. She is also survived by nine grandchildren; a sister, Amy Adams of New York City; and a brother, Harry Goldstein of Palm Springs.

Friedan never remarried nor shied from including men in her view of the perfect social equation.

“I thought once,” she said, “about what should be put on my gravestone: ‘She helped make women feel better about being women and therefore better able to freely and fully love men.’ ”

Services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday at the Riverside Memorial Chapel in New York City.