- Author of The Feminine Mystique
- Co-founder of the National Organization for Women
- Onetime member of the Young Communist League
- Longtime veteran of professional journalsm in the Communist Left
- Referred to the American household as “a comfortable concentration camp”
- Co-founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, which would later change its name to NARAL Pro-Choice America
- Died in 2006
Betty Friedan was born Bettye Naomi Goldstein on February 4, 1921, in Peoria, Illinois. Her father was a jewelry store owner; her mother quit her job as the women’s-page editor of a newspaper and stayed home to raise her children. Later in life, Betty would describe her mother as someone who had suffered from “impotent rage” because she could find “no place to channel her terrific energies.”
In 1938 Friedan arrived as a freshman at Smith College, a private liberal-arts school for women in Northampton, Massachusetts. Growing ever-more active politically, she aligned herself with the American Communist left. In particular, she took an interest in literature about the Spanish Civil War and in Communist John Reed’s book, Ten Days That Shook the World.
In 1940 Friedan enrolled in an economics course taught by Communist Party USA member Dorothy Wolff Douglas, who would go on to have an immense influence on Friedan’s worldview. Smith College history professor Daniel Horowitz, in the course of his research for the 1996 book Rethinking Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, studied Friedan’s notes from her college days and reported the following:
“Especially important is what [Friedan] recorded when Douglas talked about the condition of women in Nazi Germany and the USSR. On [Friedan’s] twentieth birthday, in February 1941, Douglas mentioned what she called the ‘feminist movement.’ She talked about the ‘traditionalism’ of the Nazis’ attitude to religion, women, children, and family. According to [Friedan’s] notes, Douglas said the Nazis placed children at the center of family lives, celebrated motherhood, and opposed women working outside the house in professional positions (not as farmers and mutual laborers). They minimized the intellectual capacity of women, emphasizing instead the importance of their feelings. In the middle of her lecture on women under Nazi rule, Douglas noted parenthetically that men who controlled women’s magazines participated in this conscious ideological effort to tell women that despite their aspirations for intellectual life, in fact they were instinctual being who belonged in the home. In contrast, Douglas said, women in the USSR experienced equality of opportunity, with their wages almost matching (and in some cases exceeding) those of men.”
According to FBI files examined by Horowitz, Friedan joined the Young Communist League (the youth branch of the Communist Party) and attempted to join the Party itself at least twice. Friedan recorded in her memoir that she had first explored the possibility of joining the Party in 1942, but had decided against it after discussing the matter with her father. Friedan’s FBI file recorded another attempt in 1944, where the young woman was turned away because “there already were too many intellectuals in the labor movement and … she would have greater party influence by staying in her own field, which is Psychology.”
In 1942 Friedan graduated summa cum laude from Smith College, with a degree in psychology. She thereafter won a fellowship in psychology to UC Berkeley, where she became intimately involved with a young Communist physicist, David Bohm, who was working on atomic bomb projects with J. Robert Oppenheimer.
During her year at Berkeley, Friedan studied with the renowned psychologist Erik Erikson, among others. Also at Berkeley, she began a nine-year stint — from 1943 to 1952 — as a labor journalist. The first three of those years were spent with Federated Press, a left-wing news service. Then, for approximately six years beginning in July 1946, she worked as a reporter for UE News, the newspaper of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, or “UE” — one of the most radical labor unions in America. Historian Ronald Schatz described the UE as “the largest Communist-led institution of any kind in the United States.” Among Friedan’s assignments at UE News was to promote the Communist-run Progressive Party presidential campaign of Henry Wallace in 1948.
In 1947 Friedan (i.e., Betty Goldstein) married Carl Friedan, a theater director who later became an advertising executive. For the first five years of her marriage, Betty kept her job with UE News while raising her three children.
In 1957 Friedan attended the 15-year reunion of her Smith College graduating class. Soon thereafter, she contacted many of the women with whom she had graduated, surveying them vis a vis how satisfied they were with their lives. Based on the results of that survey, Friedan subsequently penned a magazine article alleging that most of her former classmates had gone on to become disillusioned suburban housewives suffering from protracted melancholia. Friedan concluded that a deep sense of dissatisfaction was extremely widespread among American women.
Expanding on the themes of that article, Friedan set out to write a book exploring what she perceived to be the oppressed condition of women in U.S. society. Sometime in 1959, while doing research for her book, Friedan copied into her notes the following quote from Frederick Engels’ famous 1884 essay, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State: “The emancipation of women becomes possible only when women are enabled to take part in production on a large, social scale, and when domestic duties require their attention only to a minor degree.”
Friedan completed her book in 1963 and published it under the title The Feminine Mystique. Its main assertion was that women as a class were victimized not only by many forms of discrimination, but also by the socially transmitted message that they could find a sense of identity and fulfillment solely by living vicariously through their husbands and children — while sublimating their own aspirations to be something other than wives and mothers. Among the book’s noteworthy quotes were the following:
- “… the women who ‘adjust’ as housewives, who grow up wanting to be ‘just a housewife,’ are in as much danger as the millions who walked to their own death in the concentration camps—and the millions more who refused to believe that the concentration camps existed.”
- “In fact, there is an uncanny, uncomfortable insight into why a woman can so easily lose her sense of self as a housewife in certain psychological observations made of the behavior of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. In these settings, purposely contrived for the dehumanization of man, the prisoners literally became ‘walking corpses.’ Those who ‘adjusted’ to the conditions of the camps surrendered their human identity and went almost indifferently to their deaths. Strangely enough, the conditions which destroyed the human identity of so many prisoners were not the torture and the brutality, but conditions similar to those which destroy the identity of the American housewife.”
- “All this seems terribly remote from the easy life of the American suburban housewife. But is not her house in reality a comfortable concentration camp?… The work they do does not require adult capabilities; it is endless, monotonous, unrewarding. American women are not, of course, being readied for mass extermination, but they are suffering a slow death of mind and spirit.”
- “If we continue to produce millions of young mothers who stop their growth and education short of identity, we are committing quite simply genocide, starting with the mass burial of American women and ending with the progressive dehumanization of their sons and daughters.”
- “A massive attempt must be made by educators and parents—and ministers, magazine editors, manipulators, guidance counselors—to stop the early-marriage movement, stop girls from growing up wanting to be just a housewife.”
In The Feminine Mystique, Friedan made no mention of her status as a veteran of Communism (which promoted the idea that American women were “oppressed”), and instead depicted herself as an average, apolitical housewife who never previously had given any thought to the status of women in society. But as Daniel Horowitz would later establish conclusively in Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique, Friedan’s famous description of the American household as “a comfortable concentration camp” was in fact a result of her Marxist leanings rather than her experience as a housewife.
An almost instant best-seller, The Feminine Mystique sold 600,000 hardcover copies and more than two million in paperback. The book essentially started the “Second Wave” of feminism.
In October 1966 Friedan co-founded the National Organization for Women, and she served as the group’s president until March 1970.
In 1968 Friedan signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to withhold tax payments as an act of protest against the Vietnam War.
In 1969 Friedan helped establish the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, which would later change its name to NARAL Pro-Choice America. Also in 1969, Friedan and her husband Carl divorced.
Friedan helped organize the August 26, 1970 “Women’s Strike for Equality” in New York City, where tens of thousands of women followed her in a march down Fifth Avenue, carrying signs and banners that bore such slogans as “Don’t Cook Dinner — Starve a Rat Tonight!” and “Don’t Iron While the Strike Is Hot.”
Friedan also led the (unsuccessful) campaign to ratify the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and in 1971 she was a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus. Two years later she became director of the First Women’s Bank and Trust Company.
In 1996 Friedan was one of the 130 people who collaborated to co-found the Campaign for America’s Future.
Friedan published several books, including It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement (1976); The Second Stage(1981); The Fountain of Age(1993); Beyond Gender (1997); and her memoir Life So Far (2001).
Friedan gave occasional contributions to Democratic political candidates (Carl Levin, Bill Bradley, Daniel Patrick Moynihan) and leftwing organizations (EMILY’s List, the Democratic National Committee, and the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee).
She died of congestive heart failure on February 4, 2006, her 85th birthday.