I’ve called myself a feminist for almost all my life. And, though I don’t always agree with others on what that means, I do know the icons involved in the movement. Betty Friedan died. We mourn her.
Betty Friedan, whose manifesto The Feminine Mystique helped shatter the cozy suburban ideal of the post-World War II era and laid the groundwork for the modern feminist movement, died today, her birthday. She was 85.
Friedan died at her Washington, D.C., home of congestive heart failure, according to a cousin, Emily Bazelon.
Few books have so profoundly changed so many lives as did Friedan’s 1963 best seller. Her assertion that a woman needed more than a husband and children was a radical break from the Eisenhower era, when the very idea of a wife doing any work outside of house work was fodder for gag writers, like an episode out of I Love Lucy.
Independence for women was no joke, Friedan wrote. The feminine mystique was a phony deal sold to women that left them unfulfilled, suffering from “the problem that has no name” and seeking a solution in tranquilizers and psychoanalysis.
In the racial, political and sexual conflicts of the 1960s and ’70s, Friedan’s was one of the most commanding voices and recognizable presences in the women’s movement — stocky and big-eyed with a personality to match, clashing even with Gloria Steinem and other feminists.
As the first president of NOW in 1966, Friedan staked out positions that seemed extreme at the time on such issues as abortion, sex-neutral help-wanted ads, equal pay, promotion opportunities and maternity leave.
But at the same time, Friedan insisted that the women’s movement had to remain in the American mainstream, that men had to be accepted as allies and that the family should not be rejected.