A contemporary of Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, who attended Smith about the same time, she became editor of the campus newspaper and quickly established a reputation for brilliance. Friedan finished summa cum laude in psychology in 1942 and entered graduate studies at UC Berkeley.
At Berkeley, she won a prestigious science fellowship that had never been given to any psychologist, much less a woman. But she turned down the award when it became apparent that a physicist she was dating felt threatened by her success. Although she said she had little, if any, awareness of it at the time, she was fearful of being "brighter than the boys" and violating the mystique she would later so studiously dissect. Against the advice of her professors, who included the eminent theorist Erik Erikson, she gave up psychology all together.
Having discovered Marxism in college, Friedan decided that she would work for the "revolution." By 1943, she was immersed in popular-front journalism, first at the Federated Press in New York and later at UE News, the official newspaper of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, then one of the nation's most radical unions.
In 1947 she married theatrical producer Carl Friedman, who later dropped the m in his last name to create the more distinctive "Friedan." In 1948 the Friedans had the first of three children, Daniel. Four years later when she became pregnant with her second child, Jonathan, and requested maternity leave, she was fired from her job at the union paper, an event she later would call a "formative experience" in her evolution as a feminist. Her third child, Emily, was born in 1956.
As the family expanded, the Friedans settled in prosperous Rockland County, N.Y. Though she was determined to be a happy housewife, she suffered renewed attacks of her childhood asthma and resumed psychotherapy. Urged by her therapist not to waste her education and training, Friedan began to write for women's magazines. What commenced for the unwitting Friedan was an education in the feminine mystique.
She had wanted to write a profile of a woman who had given up a successful career as an advertising executive, married and become a serious sculptor, but editors were doubtful that their housewife-readers would be interested in such a woman. They accepted the article but only after deleting references to the woman's career. Within a few years, Friedan said, "I began to lose my zest" for writing the rigidly formulaic articles that women's magazines seemed to want.
In 1957, she was asked to conduct a survey of her Smith classmates for their 15th reunion and found that the women who did not conform exactly to traditional notions of womanhood were happier than those who did. A light bulb went on for Friedan: "Maybe it wasn't education that was the problem, keeping American women from 'adjusting to their role as women,' " she wrote, "but that narrow definition of 'the role of women.' "
She wrote a magazine article based on that argument, but it was repeatedly rejected. Realizing that her thesis "threatened the firmament" of women's magazines, she decided to bypass that venue and put her ideas into a book instead.
She interviewed scores of suburban women, repeating many of the questions she had asked her Smith sisters. Another part of her research entailed long days in the New York Public Library, looking for shifts in the types of heroines depicted in women's magazine fiction. The results of her study were stark: Friedan found that the avid career woman who dominated the magazines in the 1930s had given way by the 1950s to a less adventuresome model: the contented homemaker.
Was the 1950s image reality, or was it a self-fulfilling fantasy cooked up by magazine editors and advertisers? Suspecting the latter, Friedan plowed on with her interviews. She was staggered by the dissatisfactions aired by wives and mothers, by their vague laments about feeling empty, anxious and incomplete. A mother of four who had shirked college for marriage and family told Friedan: "There's no problem you can even put a name to. But I'm desperate. I begin to feel I have no personality. I'm a server of food and putter-on of pants and a bed maker, somebody who can be called on when you want something. But who am I?"
"I came to realize," Friedan would later write, "that something is very wrong with the way American women are trying to live their lives today.... For the startling pattern that began to emerge as one clue led me to another in far-flung fields of modern thought and life, defied not only the conventional image but basic psychological assumptions about women."