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Feminist author, icon Betty Friedan dies at 85
The New York Times
Betty Friedan, the feminist crusader and author whose searing first book, "The Feminine Mystique," ignited the contemporary women's movement in 1963 and permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States and countries around the world, died Saturday, her 85th birthday, at her home in Washington, D.C.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said Emily Bazelon, a family spokeswoman.
With its impassioned analysis of the issues that affected women's lives in the decades after World War II — including enforced domesticity, limited career prospects and, as chronicled in later editions, the campaign for legalized abortion — "The Feminine Mystique" is widely regarded as one of the most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century. Published by W.W. Norton, the book had sold more than 3 million copies by 2000 and was translated into many foreign languages.
Ms. Friedan, with her short stature, round figure, protuberant nose and deeply hooded eyes, looked for much of her adult life like a "combination of Hermione Gingold and Bette Davis," as Judy Klemesrud wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 1970.
"The Feminine Mystique" made Ms. Friedan world famous. It also made her one of the chief architects of the women's-liberation movement of the late 1960s and afterward, a sweeping social upheaval that harked back to the suffrage campaigns of the turn of the century and would be called feminism's second wave.
In 1966, she helped found the National Organization for Women (NOW), serving as its first president. In 1969, she was a founder of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, now known as Naral Pro-Choice America. With Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, she founded the Women's Political Caucus in 1971.
Though in later years some feminists dismissed Ms. Friedan's work as outmoded, many aspects of modern life that seem routine today — from unisex Help Wanted ads to women in politics, medicine, the clergy and the military — are the result of the hard-won advances she helped women attain.
A brilliant student who graduated summa cum laude from Smith College, Ms. Friedan trained as a psychologist but never pursued a career in the field. When she wrote "The Feminine Mystique," she was a suburban New York housewife and mother who wrote freelance articles for women's magazines.
Though she was not generally considered a lyrical stylist, "The Feminine Mystique," read today, is as mesmerizing as it was more than 40 years ago:
"Gradually, without seeing it clearly for quite a while, I came to realize that something is very wrong with the way American women are trying to live their lives today," Ms. Friedan wrote in the opening line of the preface. "I sensed it first as a question mark in my own life, as a wife and mother of three small children, half-guiltily, and therefore half-heartedly, almost in spite of myself, using my abilities and education in work that took me away from home."
Drawing on history, psychology, sociology and economics, as well as on interviews she conducted with women across the country, Ms. Friedan charted the gradual metamorphosis of the American woman from the independent, career-minded New Woman of the 1920s and '30s into the vacant, aproned housewife of the postwar years.
"The Feminine Mystique" began as a survey Ms. Friedan conducted in 1957 for the 15th reunion of her graduating class at Smith. It was intended to refute the idea that higher education kept women from adapting to their roles as wives and mothers.
But what she discovered in the responses was more complex and more troubling: a "nameless, aching dissatisfaction" that she would famously call "the problem that has no name."
When Ms. Friedan sent the same questionnaire to graduates of Radcliffe and other colleges, and later interviewed scores of women personally, the results were the same. The answers gave her the seeds of her book. They also forced her to confront the painful limitations of her own suburban idyll.
Bettye Naomi Goldstein was born on Feb. 4, 1921, in Peoria, Ill. Her father, Harry, was an immigrant from Russia who parlayed a street-corner collar-button business into a prosperous jewelry store. Her mother, Miriam, had been the editor of the women's page of the local newspaper before giving up her job for marriage and children. Only years later, when she was writing "The Feminine Mystique," did she come to see her mother's cold, critical demeanor as masking a deep bitterness at giving up the work she loved.
Growing up brainy, Jewish, outspoken and, by the standards of the time, unlovely, Bettye was ostracized. She was barred from the sororities at her Peoria high school and rarely asked on dates.
At Smith, she blossomed. For the first time, she could be as smart as she wanted, as impassioned as she wanted and as loud as she wanted. She received her bachelor's degree in 1942 — by that time she had dropped the final "e" from her first name — and accepted a fellowship to the University of California, Berkeley, for graduate work in psychology.
At Berkeley, she studied with renowned psychologist Erik Erikson, among others. She won a second fellowship that would allow her to continue for her doctorate. But she was dating a physicist who pressured her to turn down the fellowship, and she did. She also turned down the physicist, moving to Greenwich Village in New York.
There, she worked as an editor at The Federated Press, a news service that provided stories to labor newspapers nationwide. In 1946, she took a job as a reporter with U.E. News, the weekly publication of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. In 1947, she married Carl Friedan, a theater director who later became an advertising executive. They started a family and moved to suburban Rockland County, N.Y.
Time for NOW
If some women read "The Feminine Mystique" as a call to arms, others were outraged, Ms. Friedan recalled.
She was cursed, told to seek psychiatric help and accused of posing "more of a threat to the United States than the Russians." She was shunned by neighborhood women, her children were kicked out of car pools and her marriage began to crack under the weight of her growing celebrity. She was divorced in 1969.
But the first printing of 3,000 eventually grew to 600,000 copies hardcover. The response to the book was so overwhelming that Ms. Friedan realized she needed more than words to address the condition of women's lives. After moving back to Manhattan with her family, she was determined to start a progressive organization that would be the equivalent, as she often said, of an NAACP for women.
That became the National Organization for Women, and she was its president until 1970.
Among its signature successes was lobbying President Lyndon Johnson to sign an executive order prohibiting sex discrimination by federal contractors.
Today, the group is anchored in Washington, D.C., and has 500,000 members and branches in 50 states.
In 1970, the largest feminist demonstration since the suffrage movement took over Fifth Avenue when Ms. Friedan called for a national Women's Strike for Equality. Held on the 50th anniversary of the passage of the women's-suffrage amendment, it drew 50,000 women in New York.
Stormy "Second Stage"
Though widely respected as a modern-day heroine, Ms. Friedan was not universally beloved, even by members of the women's movement. She was famously abrasive. She could be thin-skinned, subject to screaming fits of temperament.
In the 1970s and afterward, some feminists criticized Ms. Friedan for focusing almost exclusively on the concerns of middle-class married white women and ignoring those of women of color, lesbians and the poor. Some called her retrograde for insisting that women could, and should, live in collaborative partnership with men.
By the end of the 1970s, she was relegated to the sidelines of the movement she had inspired. She was dismayed by its direction and the growing political backlash. As she saw it, the movement had burdened rather than liberated women, burning out those who were trying to juggle motherhood and career.
Ms. Friedan's response was "The Second Stage," published in 1981. In the book, startlingly, she suggested that the enemy was the victim herself. "I believe we have to break through our own feminist mystique," she wrote, arguing that, "The equality we fought for isn't livable, isn't workable, isn't comfortable in the terms that structured our battle."
Her private life was famously stormy. In her recent memoir, "Life So Far" (Simon & Schuster, 2000), she accused her husband of being physically abusive during their marriage.
Carl Friedan — who Bazelon, the family spokeswoman, said died in December — repeatedly denied the accusations.
Looking back fondly
In her last years, Ms. Friedan split her time between homes in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and Washington, D.C. She spent more time with her children and their families.
Ms. Friedan's other books included "It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women's Movement" (Random House, 1976); and "The Fountain of Age" (Simon & Schuster, 1993).
Ms. Friedan also had teaching posts at many institutions, including Yale and Harvard.
She continued to deplore the lack of progress on issues that affected the quality of family life.
Yet she seemed to look back on her life with immense pleasure. "I thought once about what should be put on my gravestone: 'She helped make women feel better about being women and therefore better able to freely and fully love men.' "
Bazelon said the funeral will be Monday in New York.
Material from the Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press is included in this report.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company