Betty Friedan

Key Second Wave Feminist

Betty Friedan
Betty Friedan. Barbara Alper / Getty Images

Betty Friedan Facts

Known for:

Occupation: writer, feminist activist, reformer, psychologist
Dates: February 4, 1921 - February 4, 2006
Also known as: Betty Naomi Goldstein

Betty Friedan Biography

Betty Friedan's mother left her career in journalism to be a housewife, and was unhappy in that choice; she pushed Betty to get a college education and pursue a career. Betty 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 as well as at writing.

She met and married Carl Friedan, a theatrical producer, 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 a 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 was a freelance writer, writing magazine articles, many for women's magazines directed at the middle-class housewife.

Survey of Smith Graduates

In 1957, for the 15th reunion of her graduating class at Smith, Betty 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.

Betty 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 -- and it became a best-seller, eventually translated into 13 languages.

Celebrity and Involvement

Betty 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, Betty Friedan joined other women in founding the National Organization for Women (NOW). Friedan served as the president of NOW for its first three years.

In 1967, the first NOW convention took on the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion, though NOW found the abortion issue 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, Betty 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 Thoughts

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 ignoring other women's voices.

Among her other activities, Betty 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.

Background, Family:

  • Betty Friedan's parents were immigrant Jews who were living in Peoria, Illinois, when Betty was born
  • Mother: Miriam Horowitz Goldstein, who had been an editor of the women's pages of a newspaper, before leaving her job to become a homemaker
  • Father: Harry Goldstein, a jeweler


  • high school valedictorian
  • Smith College, 1942, summa cum laude
  • University of California at Berkeley: completed master's degree, research fellow, did not complete her doctorate

Marriage, Children

  • husband: Carl Friedan (married 1947, divorced 1969; theatrical producer)
  • children: Daniel, Jonathan, Emily