By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 5, 2006
Betty Friedan, the writer, thinker and activist who almost single-handedly revived feminism with her 1963 book "The Feminine Mystique," died of congestive heart failure yesterday, her 85th birthday, at her home in Washington.
Her insights into what she described as the soul-draining frustrations felt by educated, stay-at-home women in the 1950s, "the problem that has no name," startled a society that expected women to be happy with marriage and children. Her book became an instant and controversial bestseller, and Friedan became the leading spokeswoman for a revitalized women's movement.
One of the most recognized names and faces of the late 20th century, Friedan pushed for equal pay, sex-neutral help-wanted ads, maternity leave, child-care centers for working parents, legal abortion and many other topics considered radical in the 1960s and 1970s.
Impatient that the federal government, in implementing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, did not appear to be taking equal pay for women seriously, she helped found in 1966 the National Organization for Women, the largest and most effective organization in the women's movement, and served as its first president. She led the 500,000-person Women's Strike for Equality in New York in 1970, on the 50th anniversary of women winning the right to vote.
She was a founder of the National Women's Political Caucus in the 1970s and of the abortion rights organization now known as NARAL-Pro Choice America. She was an organizer and director of the First Women's Bank and Trust.
"Many of us think of her as one of the mothers of the modern women's movement," said Kim Gandy, NOW president. "She played a very pivotal, very critical role in launching the second wave of the modern women's movement."
"She was a giant in the 20th century for women and most significantly was a catalyst for change in the American culture," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "She defined the problem, and then she had the courage to do something about it."
Friedan's was a voice that was loud, insistent and sometimes divisive. She split with NOW in the 1970s after she came to believe that the organization focused too many resources on lesbian issues and that too many feminists hated men. Her 1981 book "The Second Stage" prompted some feminists to denounce her as reactionary.
Her 2000 memoir, "Life So Far," said that her husband, Carl, beat her during their marriage. He strenuously objected, and Friedan amended the declaration to say that both of them fought physically during their marriage, which ended in divorce in 1969. He died in December.
She turned to other issues, focusing on ageism, family issues and economic empowerment. "It isn't that I have stopped being a feminist, but women as a special separate interest group are not my concern anymore," she said in 1993.
Friedan's cousin, Emily Bazelon, said: "Her feminism was an aspect of her humanism, and she really cared about the economic well-being of families and of all people," Bazelon said yesterday.
Bettye Goldstein was born Feb. 4, 1921, in Peoria, Ill., the Jewish daughter of an immigrant jeweler and a mother who quit her job as an editor of the local newspaper's women's pages to become a homemaker. She skipped second grade and was a high school valedictorian, then moved 1,000 miles east to attend Smith College. She edited the college newspaper and graduated summa cum laude in 1942.
She did graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley but turned down a prestigious fellowship in psychology, afraid of outperforming her boyfriend. After the romance ended, she gave up graduate work and moved to New York's Greenwich Village to work for a labor newspaper. She married and had a child, but when she became pregnant with a second child, she was fired.
Struggling as a freelance writer, she found that the editors of women's magazines deleted references to her subjects' interests outside the home, telling Friedan that the readers did not want to explore those topics. She was working on a survey of her Smith College classmates for their 15-year reunion, when she added a few questions and discovered that the highly educated and talented housewives in their mid-30s were dissatisfied and distraught, drugged by tranquilizers, misled by psychoanalysis and ignored by society.
No magazine would publish her article. Five years later, after significantly more work, she published "The Feminine Mystique" as a book and "pulled the trigger on history," as futurist Alvin Toffler said. She pitched it on "The Jack Paar Show," she did question-and-answer interviews in magazines and she took every opportunity to alert the world to the crisis she perceived. The book sold more than 2 million copies in paperback and remains a staple of college history courses.
Daniel Horowitz, a Smith College professor who wrote "Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminist Mystique," said that although Friedan presented herself at the time as a housewife who had an "aha!" moment, her ideas were partly rooted in the humanistic psychology that she had studied at Smith and in the labor movement of the 1940s.
She shared a Feb. 4 birthday with Rosa Parks, and both Friedan and Coretta Scott King were at the convention of the Progressive Party in Philadelphia in 1948, Horowitz said.
"All three of them have their political roots in the struggles for social justice, for African Americans, for women and for working people in the 1940s. Friedan was deeply embedded in and engaged with issues raised on the left in the labor union movement," Horowitz said yesterday. "In 1943, she wrote, 'Men, there's a revolution brewing in the American kitchen.' "
During the next several decades, the highly recognizable Friedan was often seen at demonstrations, protest marches and news conferences. She suffered insults, not just for her ideas, but for her appearance, which she readily admitted was "not pretty."
"That great head, the hooded eyes, the broad features of a woman the French might describe as une jolie-laide , which refers to a magnificent kind of ugliness that can be attractive, even beautiful," wrote Washington Post reporter Megan Rosenfeld in 1995. "The head, looking sometimes like a snapping turtle and at others like a lion with a white mane, sits atop a surprisingly short body, out of which comes the voice of a foghorn in heat. She is always carefully dressed in a New Yorky, nouveau-Bohemian style, with lots of interesting jewelry and spunky little shoes. (She loves to shop, say her friends.)"
Never an organization person, she alienated many who worked with her by insisting on holding the floor, claiming credit and running roughshod over her assistants. She insisted that the women's movement remain in the mainstream of American life, objecting to the "bra-burning, anti-man, politics-of-orgasm school." Younger leaders took over NOW, and after the publication of "The Second Stage," authors as different as Susan Brownmiller and Susan Faludi accused her of reversing the revolution.
Friedan declared herself past feminism and went to work on ageism, publishing "The Fountain of Age" in 1993. But she never entirely left the feminist field, showing up at the 1977 National Women's Conference in Houston to second a resolution on lesbian rights, teaching at numerous colleges, including the University of Southern California, and serving on the White House Conference on the Family.
She lived in New York and Washington and had a summer home in Sag Harbor, N.Y. Bazelon said services will be held tomorrow at Riverside Memorial Chapel in New York.
Survivors include three children, Daniel Friedan of Princeton, N.J., Jonathan Friedan of Philadelphia and Emily Friedan of Buffalo; a brother; a sister; and nine grandchildren.
"She's leaving a legacy that's living beyond even her wildest dreams in the '60s," Smeal said. "She wanted to change the world, and she did."