A legend at the front of social revolution
As a child growing up in Peoria, Ill., Betty Friedan regularly ended her bedtime prayers with a personal "wish to God." Night after night she would pray, "When I grow up, I want a work to do." At the time, most women did not hold paying jobs.Skip to next paragraph
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That early wish for "a work to do" came true beyond anything Ms. Friedan could have imagined. In writing "The Feminine Mystique" in 1963, she found a lifetime of work. Her groundbreaking book, arguing for equal opportunities for women, also paved the way for millions of other women to pursue jobs and careers, spawning a social revolution that forever changed the American landscape, domestically and professionally.
Friedan details this remarkable journey of nearly eight decades in "Life So Far," a frank memoir that doubles as a historical overview of the modern women's movement.
Socially ostracized at school because she was Jewish and emotionally deprived at home by a demanding mother, Friedan spent a lonely childhood.
"My mother was not only beautiful, she was a perfectionist," she says during an interview in Boston. "She knew how to do everything that women were supposed to do perfectly. Compared to that, I was made to feel a mess."
Yet as hurtful as those experiences were, they played a role in shaping the adult Friedan.
"A certain amount of marginality - for instance, growing up Jewish in Peoria - keeps you a little outside," she says. "That makes you an observer - a sociologist, a social critic, all the things I became."
After graduating from Smith College and turning down a prestigious postgraduate fellowship, Friedan became a reporter for a labor newspaper in New York. But later, married and expecting the second of her three children, she was fired for being pregnant.
It was a survey of her Smith College classmates, 15 years after graduation, that set Friedan on the road to fame. She identified "the problem that has no name" - the same dissatisfaction and unarticulated longing for something more than her mother had felt as a housewife. No magazine would publish the findings. So Friedan wrote her book, transforming herself from homemaker and freelance writer to pioneering feminist and international icon.
But within a decade, she found herself marginalized again, squeezed out of a leadership role in the National Organization for Women (NOW), which she had helped found, by more radical factions. Undaunted, the famous author continued writing and lecturing.
Yet public images do not always match private realities. While Friedan was inspiring other women to carve out new roles for themselves, she was enduring sorrows at home. As she tells it in the book, her husband, Carl, "started beating up on me." In the interview she explains, "It's not hard to understand how he would feel threatened. Most women didn't even have careers then."
In person, she downplays the subject of abuse. "He was not a wife-beater and I was not a passive victim. We had a very stormy marriage. When fighting escalated beyond words, he was bigger than me. I gave as good as I got." The marriage ended in 1969.
"Getting a divorce was the hardest thing I ever did," Friedan says. "I was so afraid. If everything is organized two by two, the idea of going it alone is frightening. I shouldn't have been so afraid. After a certain point, if you stay in an abusive relationship, you're colluding."
Years after their divorce, Friedan and her former husband became friends again when grandchildren started arriving. "He's been quite supportive," she says, explaining that they have stood by each other in times of personal need.