Bettye Naomi Goldstein was born on February 4, 1921, in Peoria, Illinois. Her father, Harry Goldstein, an immigrant from Russia, owned a jewelry store; her mother, Miriam (Horwitz) Goldstein, gave up her position as editor of the women’s page of the local paper to raise her family.
Bettye attended Smith College, majoring in psychology and editing the college newspaper. Under her stewardship, the paper became a forum for the fight against fascism abroad and in favor of union organizing at home.
Bettye Goldstein graduated in 1942 from Smith College with a degree in psychology and, after a year of graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, settled in New York City. She worked at various jobs until 1947, when she married Carl Friedan (divorced 1969).
For 10 years thereafter she lived as a housewife and mother in the suburbs of New York while doing freelance work for a number of magazines. In 1957 a questionnaire that she circulated among her Smith classmates suggested to her that a great many of them were, like her, deeply dissatisfied with their lives.
She planned and undertook an extensive series of studies on the topic—formulating more detailed questionnaires, conducting interviews, discussing her results with psychologists and other students of behaviour—and finally organized her findings, illuminated by her personal experiences, in her 1963 landmark book, The Feminine Mystique.
In October 1966 Friedan cofounded the National Organization for Women (NOW), a civil rights group dedicated to achieving equality of opportunity for women. As president of NOW, she directed campaigns to end sex-classified employment notices, for greater representation of women in government, for child-care centres for working mothers, and for legalized abortion and other reforms.
Although it was later occasionally eclipsed by younger and more-radical groups, NOW remained the largest and probably the most effective organization in the women’s movement.
Friedan stepped down from the presidency in March 1970 but continued to be active in the work that had sprung largely from her pioneering efforts, helping to organize the Women’s Strike for Equality—held on Aug. 26, 1970, the 50th anniversary of woman suffrage—and leading in the campaign for ratification of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In 1976, a New York literary club included it, along with works by Galileo, Marx and Mao Zedong, in its exhibit “Books as Troublemakers,” about books that stirred millions of people and changed their lives. Despite its popularity, the book caused her personal troubles.
Her children were ostracized from car pools, and she and her husband were no longer invited to their friends’ dinner party circle. She realized that she was too threatening to other mothers who had not yet come to terms with their own lives.
In 1975, 1980 and 1985, Friedan attended the International Women’s Conferences sponsored by the United Nations. In 1984 she headed a delegation of American Jewish women who participated in a US/Israel dialogue, entitled “Women as Jews, Jews as Women.” Organized by the American Jewish Congress, the dialogue led directly to the founding of the Israel Women’s Network, largely as a result of Friedan’s impassioned call on Jewish women to “put your bodies where your mouths are.”
In 1988, she became a distinguished visiting professor at the University of Southern California’s journalism school and its Institute for the Study of Women and Men.
She was also a visiting professor at New York University and did research for her next book on aging at the Center for Social Science at Columbia University, the Center for Population Research at Harvard University and the Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California.