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Betty Friedan: An Appreciation

by Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, ASA President

Betty Friedan, the leader of the second wave of the women’s movement, died in Washington, DC, February 4, on her 85th birthday. A journalist and author, Friedan founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) and in addition to her political and organizational activities, participated in and directed many university-based programs bringing together scholars and policy makers.

Friedan came to national attention with the publication of her pathbreaking 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. Women all over America identified with her framing of “the problem that had no name”—the discontent women experienced as a result of stereotyping that positioned them in the home or resulted in policies that located wage-earning women in dead-end jobs.

Although Friedan has been faulted for focusing on the problems of white middle-class women, she in fact worked hard and long for the rights of women of all classes and races, both personally and professionally. The idea of forming an organization to advance women’s goals did not originate with her. In an interview I conducted with her in 1999, she told me that it came from Pauli Murray, an African-American lawyer (later one of the first female Episcopal priests), who urged Friedan to form “an NAACP for women.” Murray urged her to build on her national standing to create an organization that would follow the model of the civil rights movement. Friedan was also the target of appeal for action from a number of women government officials, particularly those working in the newly formed Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, created by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning discrimination in employment on the basis of race, nationality, and sex. They saw a need for public pressure to make sure the Act would be implemented.

Thus Friedan, together with women in government, unions, and the academy (among them, former ASA President Alice Rossi), created NOW in 1966 to work for women’s equality. Friedan organized activists and social scientists to open opportunities in training and employment for women in spheres regarded suitable only for men and worked on many projects such as changing the sex-labeling of “helpwanted advertisements in newspapers, changing restrictions on marital status, weight and age for flight attendants, and working for child-care provisions for working families. Friedan was also an organizer of NARAL (the National Abortion Rights Action League) and the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Friedan was untiring in her campaign to open opportunities for women of all races, classes, and ethnic groups. Her perspective was ecumenical. The New York Times account of the national strike for women’s equality, organized by Friedan for August 16, 1970, to mark the 50th anniversary of the adoption of U.S. Women’s suffrage, noted that Friedan led “tens of thousands of women of all ages, occupations and viewpoints” in the march down New York City’s Fifth Avenue. The Washington Post reported that the thousands of marchers in the capital were made up of “weather women, black women, and League of Women Voters members, women of the peace movement, Black Panthers and religious orders.”

Friedan’s research for The Feminine Mystique was informed by discussions with her friend and neighbor, the Columbia University sociologist (and past ASA President) William J. Goode, an expert on the diverse family patterns throughout the world. As a result, and with further research, her book critiqued the perspective of Talcott Parsons and others that the division of labor in the family and outside the home was a pattern functional for the society. She also criticized the psychoanalytic establishment for its view that women were unsuited for professional careers. Thus Freidan identified how the stereotyping process was also embedded in the academy, and she exposed the flaws in the paradigms that provided a rationale for women’s subordination in society.

Although some of Freidan’s observations had been made previously by scholars such as Mirra Komarovsky, Alice Rossi, and Jesse Bernard in the United States and Viola Klein, Alva Myrdal, Elena Haavio-Manilla, and Simone de Beauvoir in Britain and Europe, her unique contribution was in her forceful translation of thought into public action.

The organization of NOW was followed by the development of many other organizations devoted to women’s equality within the academy and outside it. The New York chapter of NOW was formed by Friedan and included a number of scholars such as Kate Millett, Ti-Grace Atkinson, and myself. In sociology, Alice Rossi, together with others, went on to form Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS). Similar organizations were soon created across the academic disciplines and throughout the country. It was a time of tumultuous conferences and meetings to debate public issues, and Friedan organized many of them. She worked untiringly in support of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and supported women candidates for political office. She also organized the Sag Harbor Initiative, bringing together intellectuals and public figures in the black and white communities of the Long Island town where she spent summers.

Friedan, who in the 1940s was a student of Erik Erikson in graduate school at Berkeley, stayed close to the academy and taught in many departments of sociology and public affairs. Among them were Queens College of the City University of New York, Yale University, George Mason University, and the University of Southern California, where she was an important part of a center for the study of sex and gender. She participated in one of the first three Ford Foundation-supported centers on women in society, the Center for Sex Roles and Social Change at Columbia University (where I was a co-director) and spearheaded a large conference on “Women in the Eighties” at the Center that included delegates from labor organizations such as “Nine-to-Five” and the United Auto Workers. Among her last activities was her direction of a program funded by the Ford Foundation and developed with Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Washington, DC, bringing together academic researchers, the media, and public policy leaders to work on issues such as women’s employment, childcare, and minority issues.

Friedan was the author of several books, including The Fountain of Age, addressing problems of aging for both men and women. She lectured widely in the United States and abroad, meeting with government leaders and activists in women’s movements, often spearheading and lending support to newborn women’s organizations in the countries she visited.

Those close to Friedan say that in the past 35 years, wherever she appeared in public there was scarcely a day when she was not approached by women, all saying the same six words: “Thank you. You changed my life.”

Friedan was the mother of three children, Emily, a physician, Jonathan, an engineer, and Daniel, a theoretical physicist and recipient of a MacArthur “genius” award; and Friedan was the grandmother of nine.