Bookish Birthday: Betty Friedan

4th Feb 2013

Betty Friedan
Why we're wishing happy birthday to the author of seminal feminist classic The Feminine Mystique, and explore why you should be thanking her for your normal day...

This morning, I woke up and went to work.
BIG WOW, I hear you cry.

In my lunch hour, I met a friend who’s been on maternity leave.

After work, I’ll return to the house which is precisely, resolutely half mine, and order a pizza.

And tonight, I’ll say a little thank you to Betty Friedan, whose birthday we celebrate today, for helping to make this day identifiably normal for millions of women.

My life, as Betty’s was when she started writing her feminist call to arms, The Feminine Mystique, is good.

Actually, mine is better. In 1958, Betty was living in a sprawling house overlooking the Hudson River, with three children, an advertising executive husband, and paid help to allow her to freelance. She was white, educated, middle-class, and wealthy.

So far, so Mad Men. And I reckon my life’s better, right? Yes, I do. I live in a one-bedroom flat, overlooking a garden whose focal point is an old fridge-freezer. My salary is so-so. I wondered once about getting a cleaning lady, but reckoned I needed the money to pay the gas bill.

At 33, I am unmarried and childless, and society is (slowly) coming to terms with my decision. And therein lies the fundamental difference between our lives: I have the freedom of choice that Betty could only dream of in her 1950’s suburbia.

Born Bettye Goldstein on February 4, 1921, to Russian and Hungarian parents, Friedan grew up in Peoria, Illinois. She went on to study psychology at Smith College, and later won a postgraduate fellowship to Berkeley. After a year there, she moved to New York and became a journalist.

Betty married the theatre producer Carl Friedan in 1947, and continued to work until the birth of their second child, when she was sacked instead of being granted maternity leave. Although she worked as a freelance writer, her predominant role became that of the stereotypical 50s housewife. She loved her family, but she felt unfulfilled and stifled by societal pressure.

Betty suspected that she was not alone in her frustration. She surveyed her former classmates, and discovered that many - if not most - shared her silent, nameless disillusionment.Throughout childhood, Betty watched as her mother’s energy hurtled headlong into the brick wall of obligatory domesticity. On the rare occasions her mother worked (because Betty’s father was sick), her daughter noticed a distinct improvement in both her mood and health.

Now in a similar position, Betty suspected that she was not alone in her frustration. She surveyed her former Smith classmates, and discovered that many – if not most – shared her silent, nameless disillusionment.

Betty Friedan started writing about this “Problem That Has No Name” – a problem she would go on to call “The Feminine Mystique”. Her 1963 book of the same name exploded the myth that a woman’s role should only be that of home-maker, wife and mother.

Betty insisted that women could be educated, work and have a family. She urged women to consider themselves capable of having the same jobs as men.

Although Betty Friedan was criticised by some for having an exclusively white, middle-class outlook, it is widely accepted that The Feminine Mystique helped trigger second-wave feminism in the US. A previously dormant volcano of American women’s voices erupted, and together they reshaped the landscape of society.

Betty Friedan continued to be an active feminist. In 1966, she founded the National Organisation for Women. She lobbied for equal pay and employment rights, and a repeal of abortion laws; led the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970; and went on to write more books on the subject of work, family, feminism, and ageing.

The most thought-provoking of these is The Second Stage, her reaction to the sexual politics that accompanied second-wave feminism.

In it, she encourages women to work with men to define the next stage of feminism, and calls for an end to both ‘male-bashing’ and the Superwoman attitude which was threatening to exhaust the women of the 1980s (and is still prevalent today).

Betty Friedan died on February 4, 2006, her 85th birthday. This month marks the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique, as relevant now as it was in 1963.

For more on Betty’s life and work, read Life So Far: A Memoir. Alongside Friedan’s books, I recommend Leslie Bennetts’ The Feminine Mistake, and A Strange Stirring by Stephanie Coontz as further reading.

Guest feature by Laura Brown. Laura is a magazine editor and writer, and can also be found tweeting and blogging three times a week for Domestic Sluttery.

Image via Wikimedia Commons