Betty Friedan, one of the founders of the modern feminist movement, died today, her 85th birthday, of congestive heart failure.
A 1942 graduate of Smith College, Friedan spent a year doing graduate work in psychology at UC-Berkeley, but left to pursue a career in journalism. In 1957, she conducted a survey of her fellow Smith graduates which focused on their educational experiences and their subsequent satisfaction with their lives. She submitted the article to many women’s magazines, but none would publish it. Undaunted, Friedan reworked the material into a book, and The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963.
The book discussed the roles of women in modern Western society, and was one of the first popular works to explore the notion that women ought not to be content with having their roles in life restricted to those of wife, mother, and homemaker. Coming as it did on the heels of the post-war baby boom and the suburbanization of American family life, Friedan’s views were considered radical at the time by those who would preserve the status quo, and were considered a call to arms by those who saw the need for change. Nonetheless, Friedan’s views were conservative relative to those of more radical feminists; she urged women to enlist men as allies in the fight for equality, and also endorsed the family unit as one worth preserving. The Feminine Mystique was a catalyst for social change as the politics of the 1960s became charged by the quest for racial and gender equality.
In 1966, Friedan co-founded the National Organization for Women, and served as its first president from 1966 through 1970. The creation of NOW brought women’s issues into the light as women began demanding easier entrance into the work force and equal treatment once they got there. ”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 once said, according to an obituary in today’s New York Times. As antiquated as that sentiment might sound in 2006, Friedan’s voice was instrumental in helping women become full participants in American life.