Betty Friedan: A dynamo for women's rights

As a child in Peoria, Ill., Betty Friedan often prayed, "When I grow up, I want a work to do." It was a wish that came true - in abundance. With her groundbreaking 1963 bestseller, "The Feminine Mystique," Ms. Friedan, who died Saturday, shook American social and professional structures to the core.

Calling for expanded career opportunities for women and equality with men, she spawned a social revolution that forever changed the American landscape, domestically and professionally. It also gave her a lifetime of work. Many women still chart the 1960s by two reference points: where they were when President Kennedy was shot, and where they were when they read Friedan's book.

The daughter of a Russian immigrant father who owned a jewelry store and a mother who left a career as women's page editor of the local newspaper to raise a family, Friedan graduated from Smith College. After turning down a prestigious fellowship, she worked as a reporter for a labor newspaper in New York. Later, married and expecting her second child, she was fired for being pregnant.

Friedan's road to fame began with a survey of her Smith classmates in 1957, 15 years after graduation. Unhappy in her own domestic role as a suburban housewife and mother, Friedan found these women expressing a similar unarticulated longing. She dubbed it "the problem that has no name." When no magazine would publish her findings, she wrote her book. Legions of women saw themselves in it, and a social revolution was born. In the process she was transformed from homemaker and freelance writer to international icon.

In the mid-1960s Friedan helped found - and name - the National Organization for Women, scribbling NOW on a napkin. But she resigned her presidency in 1970 when the group became polarized. She also helped found the abortion-rights precursor to NARAL Pro-Choice America.

In 1981, she published "The Second Stage," a calmly reasoned call to help women reconcile their new freedom with the demands of marriage, motherhood, and careers. She outlined the need for new institutions such as child care, parental leave, and flexible work schedules.

Angry critics accused her of taking a step backward. Yet 25 years after the book's publication, finding a balance between work and home remains part of the unfinished business of Friedan's legacy.

Acknowledging the criticism, Friedan called the book "premature, probably." In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor in 1985 she summed up the challenge this way: "You're Superwoman in the office. You're Superwoman at home. You now have to have Superchild. You assuage the guilt by buying a Mercedes stroller."

Friedan was ahead of the curve again when, in 1993, she published "The Fountain of Age," dealing with what she called "the pernicious denial and mystique of age." It served as a forerunner of the deluge of books on aging now crowding bookstore shelves.

The proudest moment of her political life, she told the Monitor in 2000, came on Aug. 26, 1970, when she organized a march for women's equality in New York. "To see the enormity of it - 50,000 people marching on Fifth Avenue," she recalled.

Her commanding, sometimes brusque, public persona gave little hint of the softer, private Friedan who expressed pride in her three children and nine grandchildren. Ever the doting grandmother, Friedan the adventurer planned to take each one on a trip. One year she and her oldest grandson traveled to Cuba. Later she and another grandson went hot-air ballooning in France.

She called the failure of her own marriage "perhaps my main regret" in a Monitor interview. "I believe in marriage. I think intimacy, bonding, and families have value." Expressing the hope that her grandchildren would marry and have children, she said, "Families are a great thing."

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