Biography of Betty Friedan, Feminist, Writer, Activist

Her Book helped spark the feminist movement

Betty Friedan
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Betty Friedan (February 4, 1921–February 4, 2006) was an author and activist whose seminal 1963 book "The Feminine Mystique" is credited with helping spark the modern feminist movement in the United States. Among her other accomplishments, Friedan was the founder and first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW).

Fast Facts: Betty Friedan

  • Known For: Helping spark the modern feminist movement; founder and first president of the National Organization of Women
  • Also Known As: Betty Naomi Goldstein
  • Born: February 4, 1921 in Peoria, Illinois
  • Parents: Harry M. Goldstein, Miriam Goldstein Horwitz Oberndorf
  • Died: February 4, 2006 in Washington, D.C.
  • Education: Smith College (BA), University of California, Berkeley (M.A.)
  • Published Works: The Feminine Mystique (1963), The Second Stage (1981), Life so Far (2000)
  • Awards and Honors: Humanist of the Year from the American Humanist Association (1975), Mort Weisinger Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors (1979), Induction into the National Women's Hall of Fame (1993)
  • Spouse: Carl Friedan (m. 1947–1969)
  • Children: Daniel, Emily, Jonathan
  • Notable Quote: "A woman is handicapped by her sex, and handicaps society, either by slavishly copying the pattern of man's advance in the professions or by refusing to compete with man at all."

Early Years

Friedan was born on February 4, 1921, in Peoria, Illinois as Betty Naomi Goldstein. Her parents were immigrant Jews. Her father was a jeweler and her mother, who had been an editor of the women's pages of a newspaper, left her job to become a homemaker. Betty's mother was unhappy in that choice, and she pushed Betty to get a college education and pursue a career. Betty later dropped out of her doctoral program at the University of California at Berkeley, where she was studying group dynamics, and moved to New York to pursue a career.

During World War II, she worked as a reporter for a labor service, and had to give up her job to a veteran who returned at the end of the war. She worked as a clinical psychologist and social researcher along with being a writer.

She met and married theatrical producer Carl Friedan, and they moved to Greenwich Village. She took a maternity leave from her job for their first child; she was fired when she asked for maternity leave for her second child in 1949. The union gave her no help in fighting this firing, and so she became a housewife and mother, living in the suburbs. She also wrote freelance magazine articles, many for magazines directed at the middle-class housewife.

Survey of Smith Graduates

In 1957, for the 15th reunion of her graduating class at Smith, Friedan was asked to survey her classmates on how they'd used their education. She found that 89% were not using their education. Most were unhappy in their roles.

Friedan analyzed the results and consulted experts. She found that both women and men were trapped in limiting roles. Friedan wrote up her results and tried to sell the article to magazines but could find no buyers. So she turned her work into a book, which was published in 1963 as "The Feminine Mystique." It became a best-seller, eventually translated into 13 languages.

Celebrity and Involvement

Friedan also became a celebrity as a result of the book. She moved with her family back to the city and she became involved in the growing women's movement. In June 1966, she attended a Washington meeting of state commissions on the status of women. Friedan was among those present who decided that the meeting was unsatisfying, as it didn't generate any actions to implement the findings on the inequality of women. So in 1966, Friedan joined other women in founding the National Organization for Women (NOW). Friedan served as its first president for three years.

In 1967, the first NOW convention took on the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion, though NOW viewed the abortion issue as highly controversial and focused more on political and employment equality. In 1969, Friedan helped found the National Conference for the Repeal of Abortion Laws to focus more on the abortion issue; this organization changed its name after the Roe v. Wade decision to become the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). In that same year, she stepped down as NOW president.

In 1970, Friedan led in organizing the Women's Strike for Equality on the 50th anniversary of winning the vote for women. The turnout was beyond expectations; 50,000 women participated in New York alone.

In 1971, Friedan helped form the National Women's Political Caucus for feminists who wanted to work through the traditional political structure, including political parties, and running or supporting women candidates. She was less active in NOW, which became more concerned with "revolutionary" action and "sexual politics;" Friedan was among those who wanted more focus on political and economic equality.

'Lavender Menace'

Friedan also took a controversial stand on lesbians in the movement. NOW activists and others in the women's movement struggled over how much to take on issues of lesbian rights and how welcoming to be of movement participation and leadership by lesbians. For Friedan, lesbianism was not a women's rights or equality issue but a matter of private life, and she warned the issue might diminish support for women's rights, using the term "lavender menace."

Later Years and Death

In 1976, Friedan published "It Changed My Life," with her thoughts on the women's movement. She urged the movement to avoid acting in ways that made it difficult for "mainstream" men and women to identify with feminism.

By the 1980s, she was more critical of the focus on "sexual politics" among feminists. She published "The Second Stage" in 1981. In her 1963 book, Friedan wrote of the "feminine mystique" and the housewife's question, "Is this all?" Now Friedan wrote of the "feminist mystique" and the difficulties of trying to be Superwoman, "doing it all." She was criticized by many feminists as abandoning the feminist critique of traditional women's roles, while Friedan credited the rise of Reagan and rightwing conservatism "and various Neanderthal forces" to the failure of feminism to value family life and children.

In 1983, Friedan began to focus on researching fulfillment in the older years, and in 1993 published her findings as "The Fountain of Age." In 1997, she published "Beyond Gender: The New Politics of Work and Family"

Friedan's writings, from "The Feminine Mystique" through "Beyond Gender," were also criticized for representing the viewpoint of white, middle-class, educated women and for ignoring other women's voices.

Among her other activities, Friedan often lectured and taught at colleges, wrote for many magazines, and was an organizer and director of the First Women's Bank and Trust. Friedan died on February 4, 2006, in Washington, D.C.


Despite all of her later work and activism, it was the "The Feminine Mystique" that truly launched the second-wave feminist movement. It has sold several million copies and been translated into multiple languages. It is a key text in Women’s Studies and U.S. history classes.

For years, Friedan toured the United States speaking about "The Feminine Mystique" and introducing audiences to her groundbreaking work and to feminism. Women have repeatedly described how they felt when reading the book: They realized they were not alone and that they could aspire to something more than the life they were being encouraged or even forced to lead.

The idea Friedan expresses is that if women escaped the confines of “traditional” notions of femininity, they could then truly enjoy being women.


  • Friedan, Betty. "The Feminine Mystique." W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.
  • Betty Friedan.” National Women's History Museum
  • Find a Grave.
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Betty Friedan, Feminist, Writer, Activist." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, July 31). Biography of Betty Friedan, Feminist, Writer, Activist. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Betty Friedan, Feminist, Writer, Activist." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).