Betty Friedan’s 1963 bestseller, The Feminine Mystique, is credited with ushering in the second wave feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s. As a housewife and mother, Friedan questioned whether women could or should – find fulfillment in marriage and motherhood alone.
Friedan was born Bettye Goldstein in Illinois to immigrant parents. After studying psychology and graduating summa cum laude from Smith College, she dropped the final “e” from her first name and moved to New York. While working as a reporter for the left-wing Federated Press and then the UE News (the newspaper of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America), her politics shifted further left. Her interest in women’s rights could be seen in her early work advocating for women’s rights in the workplace.
Like her mother, also a journalist, Friedan stopped working full-time when she got married. She and Carl Friedan had three kids and moved to the suburbs, where Betty wrote freelance articles for women’s magazines to help supplement the family’s income.
The seeds of The Feminine Mystique were planted in the late 1950s, when Friedan was asked to survey her former classmates at Smith on their 15-year reunion. She found that many of the independent, ambitious girls she’d known in school were deeply unhappy with their lives as housewives and stay-home mothers:
“Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – ‘Is this all?’”
Though she’d set out to write an article, the interviews generated enough content for a book, which was published in 1963. Mystique resonated with women all over the world and catapulted Friedan into a position of leadership in the women’s movement – influence she used to fight for the opportunity for women to be something more.
In 1966, she helped found the National Organization for Women (NOW) and served as its first president. At their organizing conference in Washington, D.C., the founders pledged “to break through the silken curtain of prejudice and discrimination against women in government, industry, and professions, the churches, the political parties, the judiciary, the labor unions, in education, science, medicine, law, religion and every other field of importance in American society.”
NOW was just the beginning. Friedan would help found the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now known as NARAL Pro-choice America) in 1969. In 1971, she worked with activists and leaders including Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, and Fannie Lou Hamer, to create the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC). The NWPC works to increase the presence of women in politics by recruiting, training, and supporting women who seek elected and appointed offices.
“In almost every professional field, in business and in the arts and sciences, women are still treated as second-class citizens,” Freidan wrote. “It would be a great service to tell girls who plan to work in society to expect this subtle, uncomfortable discrimination – tell them not to be quiet, and hope it will go away, but fight it.”