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BETTY FRIEDAN / 1921-2006

Catalyst of Feminist Revolution

February 05, 2006|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Betty Friedan, the visionary feminist who launched a social revolution with her provocative 1963 book "The Feminine Mystique," died Saturday, her 85th birthday. Friedan died of congestive heart failure at her home in Washington, D.C., according to Emily Bazelon, a cousin who was speaking for the family. She said Friedan had been in failing health for some time.

Her bestselling book identified "the problem that has no name," the unhappiness of post-World War II American women unfulfilled by traditional notions of female domesticity.

Melding sociology and humanistic psychology, the book became the cornerstone of one of the 20th century's most profound movements, unleashing the first full flowering of American feminism since the mid-1800s.

It gave Friedan, an obscure suburban New York housewife and freelance writer, the mantle to meet with the pope and heads of state, and to lead an international movement that would shake up marriage, the workplace, politics and education.

She founded the National Organization for Women in 1966, making it the first new major feminist organization in half a century. She also was among the founders of the National Women's Political Caucus and the group that became the National Abortion Rights Action League.

"I never set out to write a book to change women's lives, to change history," said Friedan, who always kept a sense of wonder about her place in history as the mother of the contemporary women's movement.

"It's like, 'Who, me?' Yes, me. I did it. And I'm not that different from other women.... Maybe my power and glory was that I could speak my truth as a woman and it was the truth of every woman."

Friedan's affinity with mainstream values was the foundation of her authority. Her emphatic belief that women should have equal rights -- but not at the expense of alienating men -- distinguished her from many feminist leaders who emerged later.

"She found that love between unequals can never succeed," writer Gloria Steinem once said, "and she has undertaken the immense job of bringing up the status of women so love can succeed."

Her more moderate brand of feminism, combined with her often irascible nature, led to ruptures with other movement leaders, such as Steinem and Bella Abzug, the late New York congresswoman. Some feminists eventually denounced Friedan as a reactionary.

By the 1980s, feminism had ceased being her primary focus, and she spent her last decades focused on issues of aging, families, work and public policy. She wrote six books and held teaching posts at many institutions, including UCLA and USC.

Friedan did not conform to conventional notions of feminine beauty or decorum. She was short -- 5 feet 2 -- and stocky, with a hawklike nose, large, deep-set eyes and a gravelly voice that no one could call timid. She was fast-talking, impatient and abrasive. Her rudeness was especially perplexing when she directed it at other women. "I could be," she acknowledged in later years, "a bad-tempered bitch."

She remained formidable in her old age. Even as she was approaching 80 and enjoying her role as doting grandmother of nine, she could demolish interviewers who asked what she considered inane questions.

Yet she always bore a trace of the little girl from Peoria, Ill., at times giddy, vulnerable and stuck on appearances. Peoria, she once observed, was the source of all her hang-ups.

Friedan was born Bettye Goldstein on Feb. 4, 1921, the year after American women won the right to vote. She was the oldest of three children of jewelry store owner Harry Goldstein, a Russian Jew, and the former Miriam Horwitz.

Although a sickly child who suffered from asthma and vision problems, Bettye (who later dropped the e from the end of her first name) was precocious and skipped a year of school. In high school she was valedictorian, but her braininess, she said, made her feel "like a freak."

Anti-Semitism barred her father, a successful businessman, from joining the country club and other elite Peoria circles, and it kept Bettye and her sister out of high school sororities. "When you're a Jewish girl who grows up on the right side of the tracks in the Midwest, you're marginal. You're in, but you're not," she said, "and you grow up an observer."

Her mother was an unhappy housewife whose disposition and health dramatically improved when her husband's health faltered and she took over management of the jewelry business. In her 1976 book "It Changed My Life," Friedan said her mother's discontent gave her an early glimpse of the perils of the malaise she would later call the "feminine mystique."

Envious of her mother's social grace and her sister's beauty, Friedan did not feel at home until she arrived at Smith College in the late 1930s.

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