Friedan’s 1963 bestseller “The Feminine Mystique” urged women to be independent, seek more from life than raising families
NEW YORK Betty Friedan, whose manifesto “The Feminine Mystique” helped shatter the cozy suburban ideal of the post-World War II era and laid the groundwork for the modern feminist movement, died Saturday, her birthday. She was 85.
Friedan died of congestive heart failure at her Washington, D.C., home, according to a cousin, Emily Bazelon.
Few books have so profoundly changed so many lives as did Friedan’s 1963 best seller. Her assertion that a woman needed more than a husband and children was a radical break from the Eisenhower era, when the very idea of a wife doing any work outside of house work was unheard of.
Independence for women was no joke, Friedan wrote. The feminine mystique was a phony deal sold to women that left them unfulfilled, suffering from “the problem that has no name” and seeking a solution in tranquilizers and psychoanalysis.
“A woman has got to be able to say, and not feel guilty, “‘Who am I, and what do I want out of life?’ She mustn’t feel selfish and neurotic if she wants goals of her own, outside of husband and children,” Friedan said.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friedan’s activism and writing “opened doors and minds, breaking down barriers for women and enlarging opportunities for women and men for generations to come. We are all the beneficiaries of her vision.”
Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, publisher of Ms. magazine and a former president of the National Organization for Women, praised Friedan’s legacy.
Friedan, she said, “was a giant for women’s rights and a leading catalyst of the 20th century whose work led to profound changes improving the status of women and women’s lives” worldwide. “The Feminine Mystique” helped to “define the lesser status of women,” she said.
“The book “opened women’s minds to the idea that there actually might be something more,” said Kim Gandy, current president of NOW, which Friedan co-founded. “And for the women who secretly harbored such unpopular thoughts, it told them that there were other women out there like them who thought there might be something more to life.”
In the racial, political and sexual conflicts of the 1960s and ’70s, Friedan’s was one of the most commanding voices and recognizable presences in the women’s movement stocky and big-eyed with a personality to match, clashing even with Gloria Steinem and other feminists.
As the first president of NOW in 1966, Friedan staked out positions that seemed extreme at the time on such issues as abortion, sex-neutral help-wanted ads, equal pay, promotion opportunities and maternity leave.
But at the same time, Friedan insisted that the women’s movement had to remain in the American mainstream, that men had to be accepted as allies and that the family should not be rejected.
“Don’t get into the bra-burning, anti-man, politics-of-orgasm school,” Friedan told a college audience in 1970.
To more radical and lesbian feminists, Friedan was “hopelessly bourgeois,” Susan Brownmiller wrote at the time.
Friedan, deeply opposed to “equating feminism with lesbianism,” conceded later that she had been “very square” and uncomfortable about homosexuality.
“I wrote a whole book objecting to the definition of women only in sexual relation to men. I would not exchange that for a definition of women only in sexual relation to women,” she said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition of February 10, 2006.