Betty Friedan: Biography

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Betty Friedan: Biography

"It is better for a woman to compete impersonally in society, as men do, than to compete for dominance in her own home with her husband, compete with her neighbors for empty status, and so smother her son that he cannot compete at all." – Betty Friedan

Writer, feminist and women's rights activist Betty Friedan was born Bettye Naomi Goldstein on February 4, 1921, in Peoria, Illinois. With her book The Feminine Mystique (1963), Friedan broke new ground by exploring the idea of women finding personal fulfillment outside of their traditional roles. This largely began the “Second Wave” Feminist movement, also known as the Women’s Lib(eration) Movement.

A bright student, Friedan excelled at Smith College, graduating in 1942 with a bachelor's degree in psychology. In New York, Friedan worked for a short time as a reporter. In 1947, she married Carl Friedan. The couple went on to have three children. After the Friedans' first child was born in 1948, Betty Friedan returned to work. She lost her job, however, after she became pregnant with her second child, Jonathan. Friedan then stayed home to care for her family, but she was restless as a homemaker and began to wonder if other women felt the same way she did—that she was both willing and able to be more than a stay-at-home mom. She noticed that post-war society placed women almost exclusively in the role of the homemaker and then challenged women with the question "Is this all there is?" To answer this question, Friedan surveyed other graduates of Smith College. Her book, The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, encouraged women to seek new opportunities for themselves.

The book quickly became a sensation, creating a social revolution by dispelling the myth that all women wanted to be happy homemakers, and marking the start of what would become Friedan's incredibly significant role in the women's rights movement. The work is also credited with spurring second-wave feminism in the United States. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 made wage discrimination a federal crime, and created an end to gender discrimination in the federal workplace. Moreover, women were included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended gender and racial discrimination in all public places.

Friedan did more than write about confining gender stereotypes—she became a force for change. Pushing for women to have a greater role in the political process, she co-founded the National Organization for Women in 1966, subsequently serving as its first president. She also fought for abortion rights by establishing the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America) in 1969.

In 1968, radical women demonstrated outside the Miss America Pageant outside Atlantic City by crowning a live sheep. "Freedom trash cans" were built where women could throw all symbols of female oppression including false eyelashes, hair curlers, bras, girdles, and high-heeled shoes. The media labeled them “bra burners,” although no bras were actually burned.

The word "sexism" entered the American vocabulary, as women became categorized as a target group for discrimination. Single and married women adopted the title Ms. as an alternative to Miss or Mrs. to avoid changing their identities based upon their relationships with men. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said of the women's rights movement: "I pray that I may be all that she [my mother] would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve, and daughters are cherished as much as sons."

The Sexual Revolution, Reproduction Rights, and the Courts

For decades, pioneers like Margaret Sanger fought for contraceptives that women would control. With the introduction of the birth control pill to the market in 1960, women could for the first time deter pregnancy by their own choice. The fight for reproductive freedoms was intense. Organized religions and social mores stood firm on their principles that artificial contraceptives were sinful or immoral. Many states in the early 1960s prohibited the sale of contraceptives — even to married couples.

“The pill” made it finally possible for American women to separate sexuality and childbearing. The research team of Masters and Johnson, picking up on human sexuality research by Kinsey in the 1950s, challenged entrenched beliefs about sexual activities. Reports of premarital sex increased dramatically as the “sexual revolution” spread across America. Young couples began cohabiting — living together before marriage — in greater and greater numbers. Critics denounced the tremendous change in lifestyle. But those in favor of this new trend maintained that young people were simply more open and honest about activities that had traditionally transpired behind closed doors and shielded from public scrutiny.

Inevitably the reproductive struggle took aim at laws that restricted abortion. Throughout the 1960s, there was no national standard on abortion regulations, and many states had outlawed the practice. Feminist groups claimed that making the procedure illegal led many women to seek “black market abortions” by unlicensed physicians or to perform the procedure on themselves.




Griswold v. Connecticut


Setting a precedent, the Court determined that a fundamental right to privacy exists between the lines of the Constitution (9th Amendment). Laws prohibiting contraceptive choice violated this right.

Eisenstadt v. Baird


Right to contraception extended to unmarried couples/single women.

Unmarried minor access to contraception (1974)

Roe v. Wade


Governments cannot violate the constitutional right to privacy (deciding what to do with one’s own body) by banning the practice of abortion (within certain limits).

Created the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate.

Planned Parenthood v. Casey


Reaffirms Roe case, but allowed states to create provisions such as informed consent and a 24 hour waiting period prior to the procedure.

Identity politics flared among homosexual, or “gay,” Americans as well. The catalyst for the gay rights movement came when New York City police officers raided the Stonewall Inn in May 1969. The patrons of the bar felt singled out for police harassment for years, but this time they fought back, hurling rocks, fists, and insults at the police, known as the “Stonewall Riot.” On the one year anniversary of the Riot, the first gay rights parade was staged in New York City. Other leaders emerged in the movement, such as San Francisco politician Harvey Milk.

In 1977, Milk, who was known affectionately as the "Mayor of Castro Street," became the city’s first openly gay officer, as well as one of the first openly gay individuals to be elected to office in the United States. While his campaign incorporated gay rights into his platform, Milk also wanted to tackle a wide variety of issues, from child care to housing to a civilian police review board. Many openly worked against Milk on account of his sexual orientation, and in 1978, Milk was assassinated by angry political opponent.

By the late 1970s, the American Psychiatric Association officially removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, and the FBI no longer considered homosexuals a security risk. Finally, “gays” were no longer denied civil service jobs based on their sexual orientations.


Firebrand: Phyllis Schlafly and the conservative revolution

November 7, 2005, The New Yorker

On October 12, 1971, the United States House of Representatives approved the Equal Rights Amendment by a vote of 354 to 23. Five months later, the same amendment was passed by the Senate by a margin very nearly as lopsided—84 to 8—at which point the E.R.A. was sent on to the states for ratification. Several legislatures vied to be the first to approve it. The E.R.A. was supported by Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, and actively lobbied for by the First Ladies Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter. The A.F.L.-C.I.O., the League of Women Voters, and the National Education Association backed it; women’s magazines ranging from Redbook and Good Housekeeping to Cosmopolitan ran scores of positive articles on it, and its many celebrity champions included Patty Duke, Ann Landers, Erma Bombeck, Marlo Thomas, and Carol Burnett, the last of whom once pleaded, “I have three daughters. Unless they’re protected by the Constitution, what’s going to happen to them?”

Meanwhile, sitting in her living room in suburban St. Louis, Phyllis Schlafly had decided that the E.R.A. was a bad idea. Schlafly had no real organization to speak of, just a monthly newsletter that she mailed to a few thousand supporters, and it was there that she laid out her case against the amendment. American women, she wrote in the Phyllis Schlafly Report, were blessed to live in a country where Christian traditions of chivalry still held—“a man’s first significant purchase (after a car) is a diamond for his bride”—and where free enterprise was continually improving life for the weaker sex. “The great heroes of women’s liberation are not the straggly haired women on television talk shows and picket lines,” she asserted, but “geniuses” like “Clarence Birdseye, who invented the process for freezing foods.” Why, Schlafly demanded, should women “lower” themselves to equal rights “when we already have the status of special privilege?” Leaders of the pro-E.R.A. campaign found it hard to take such arguments seriously: according to one contemporary account, copies of the Report became collectors’ items among feminists, acquired for their comic value.

The larger significance of events is, of course, often obscure to those busy living them out. Exactly what seemed most ridiculous about Schlafly in the early seventies—her antiquarian views, her screwball logic, her God’s-on-our-side self-confidence—was by the end of the decade revealed to be her political strength. First the ratification process for the E.R.A. slowed, then it stalled out entirely. The last state to approve the amendment was Indiana, in January, 1977. Meanwhile, five states that had already voted to ratify rescinded their approval, a move of uncertain legal force but of ominous implications.

“I just don’t see why some people don’t hit Phyllis Schlafly in the mouth,” a well-known feminist lawyer, Florence Kennedy, told a Miami radio station. “I’d like to burn you at the stake,” Betty Friedan blurted out during a debate with Schlafly in Bloomington, Illinois. “I consider you a traitor to your sex.”

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