An icon of the women’s rights movement, Betty Friedan was a force for change and broke new ground when her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique was released. It explored the idea that women could find personal fulfillment outside of traditional stereotypes and is often credited with starting the second wave of the Feminist Movement in the 20th century. She is also the Co-Founder and first President of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which primarily lobbies for gender equality within the existing political system. NOW advocates for economic justice, reproductive rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, racial justice, and safety for women everywhere.

Friedan, born Bettye Naomi Goldstein in 1921, graduated summa cum laude from Smith College in 1942 with a degree in Psychology. She settled in New York City and married (and later divorced) Carl Friedan. She spent ten years as a wife and mother doing freelance work for a number of magazines, becoming increasingly dissatisfied with life as a homemaker. She eventually lost her job altogether after becoming pregnant with her second child.

Become a Subscriber

Please purchase a subscription to continue reading this article.

Subscribe Now

Friedan returned to Smith College in 1957 for the 15th anniversary of her graduation and, wondering if her peers were as unhappy as she was, conducted a survey about the quality of their lives. This motivated her to write about the challenges faced by women in the workplace and in higher education. She organized her findings, added her own personal experiences, and published The Feminine Mystique.

The book was an immediate and controversial bestseller that continues to be regarded as one of the most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century. A social revolution was created by the suggestion that women should not be satisfied serving as housewives and staying content with minimal education.

Friedan remained a busy activist throughout the 1960s and 1970s, fighting for abortion rights by establishing the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America) and helping create the National Women’s Political Caucus.

Friedan taught at New York University and the University of Southern California and published several more books, including her memoir Life So Far. She died of congestive heart failure on February 4, 2006, her 85th birthday.