Only a handful of authors can be credited with changing the very fabric of 20th century culture. Betty Friedan is among them. The writer and feminist (1921-2006) lambasted gender inequality in her landmark 1963 work The Feminine Mystique, launching a national conversation about the disproportionate rights afforded to men and women. Friedan also faced similar battles in her personal life. Check out some facts about her past, her work, and how she stood up to the Supreme Court.
1. FROM A YOUNG AGE, SHE KNEW WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO BE MARGINALIZED.
Born in Peoria, Illinois in Feburary 1921, Bettye Goldstein—she later dropped the extraneous “e” from her name—got a glimpse of the uphill battle women faced when she would catch her mother, Miriam, expressing frustration that she had given up her job as a newspaper editor in order to marry and raise a family. Why, she wondered, couldn’t her mother have had both? As a graduate student in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, Friedan had an experience of her own, feeling pressured into giving up higher education in order to marry. The idea of a woman forced to prioritize domestic life over other achievements would later provide a spark for her career focus.
2. SHE WAS ONCE FIRED FOR BEING PREGNANT.
After marrying ad executive Carl Friedan in 1947, Friedan took a job at UE News, a labor trade newspaper. There, Friedan got another glimpse of the harsh climate endured by women in the workforce. When she gave birth to her first child, Friedan was able to take maternity leave for one year. When she got pregnant a second time, there was no leave—instead, she was fired, with her employees anticipating she’d be asking for more time off.
3. HER LANDMARK WORK BEGAN AS A SURVEY.
At the 15th anniversary reunion of her Smith College class in 1957, Friedan decided to poll her female former classmates about how satisfied they were with the balance between their work and their personal lives. Friedan had landed freelance magazine work, felt contented, and assumed others would report a similar outcome. But they didn’t. Their lives seemed to be filled with laundry, chores, and child-rearing, while their dreams were relegated to the back burner. This phenomenon, which Friedan detected in follow-up interviews with other women, was intended to be the subject of magazine articles. When editors backed away from such a controversial topic, it became the premise for The Feminine Mystique.
4. HER BOOK WAS AFFECTED BY A NEWSPAPER STRIKE.
It’s a testament to the power of The Feminine Mystique that it had the impact it did, despite an unfortunate bit of timing. When the book was released in 1963, newspapers in New York City were going through a four-month worker’s strike, cutting off the opportunities for publicity that would normally be afforded major publishing titles. (The papers would run reviews or ads to raise awareness.) In spite of that, Friedan’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed. The book was excerpted in women’s magazines, and publisher W.W. Norton arranged one of the earliest examples of a book tour. The paperback sold 1.4 million copies and ignited a national conversation over women's rights.
5. SHE ENDURED PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL CRITICISM.
Not everyone reacted positively to Friedan’s examination of a deeply-rooted dissatisfaction in gender roles. Some newspaper reviews dismissed the book as hysterical and Friedan as overly analytical; others insulted her personally, mocking her appearance. As late as 1995, a Washington Post reporter described Friedan as having a “magnificent kind of ugliness.”
6. SHE CO-FOUNDED THE NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR WOMEN (NOW).
Three years after publishing The Feminine Mystique, Friedan realized the conversation she had sparked showed no signs of abating. In order to support the women voicing their preference for equal rights, she wrote three letters on a napkin—NOW—and teamed up with representatives from the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women to formalize a new advocacy group. NOW named Friedan as their first president and began a series of public gatherings to protest discrimination in culture. In 1967, for example, they criticized gender-segregated help wanted employment ads.
7. SHE HELPED LEAD A NATIONAL WOMEN’S STRIKE.
Friedan took on one of her most audacious projects yet in 1970: organizing a nationwide strike of women demanding attention be drawn to the unequal distribution of labor in both domestic and business environments. During the Women’s Strike for Equality March, 50,000 women took to the New York City streets waving signs and capturing their concentrated frustration. Some reporters observed it was the largest movement since women’s suffrage protests decades prior. The effort effected real change: In 1972, Title IX was passed, giving women equal rights in educational programs that received federal assistance. NOW membership also grew by 50 percent following the strike.
8. SHE FACED OFF AGAINST A SUPREME COURT NOMINEE—AND WON.
In 1970, Friedan was informed that recent Supreme Court nominee Judge Harrold Carswell had a history of sexual discrimination, including a ruling in favor of an employer who refused to hire a woman because she was a mother. Friedan, who believed having an all-male Supreme Court was problematic enough, decided to testify during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Friedan also rallied NOW supporters to lobby their local senators to block Carswell’s nomination. The efforts were successful: Carswell was never appointed to the Court.