Betty Friedan was a controversial author who advocated a radical brand of feminism. She was born on Feb. 4, 1921 in Peoria, Illinois and raised in the city. Her birth name was Bettye Naomi Goldstein. Her father Harry Goldstein was an immigrant to Peoria from Kiev, Russia who peddled buttons on the street when he first arrived and became the proprietor of a jewelry shop in Peoria that he advertised as "the finest jewelry store in the middle west." One family member called the store "the Tiffany's of Peoria" perhaps in a humorous vein and perhaps not.
Betty's mother was Miriam Horowitz Goldstein who was born in America and was a graduate of Bradley University. Miriam was editor of the society page for a local newspaper. Miriam's father was a Hungarian immigrant and doctor who became public health commissioner of Peoria after World War I when Betty was a small child.
The Friedan family lived in a comfortable middle-class home on Farmington Road near the Bradley campus in The Bluffs neighborhood of Peoria. Betty had a younger sister Amy and a younger brother Harry, Jr. Her family belonged to Anshai Emeth Temple, a reformed Jewish congregation founded in the 1850s by German immigrants. But Betty and her father saw themselves as cultural rather than religiously devout Jews. Betty was seen as a "bookworm" by some classmates in contrast to her sister Amy who was more socially popular. There was some tension between the sisters and Betty later wrote that she resented the attention that Amy got from their mother Miriam who also was consicous of her social position. Betty acted in school plays and wrote for her school newspaper. She graduated from Peoria High School in 1938.
Betty attended Smith College in western Massachusetts where she again was editor of the campus newspaper and graduated summa cum laude in 1942. Starting in her college days, Betty became active in radical left-wing political movements and studied Karl Marx. Although she studied for one year at the University of California at Berkeley and was offered a PhD fellowship for a degree in psychology, she instead preferred to write for two radical union publications for ten years until the early 1950s. The publications were the Federated Press and the United Electrical Workers UE News. In 1947 she married theatrical producer Carl Friedman but the couple later spelled the last name as just Friedan. Betty continued to work as a free-lance writer. Betty and Carl were divorced in 1969 and Carl died in 2005. The couple had three children.
In 1963 Betty authored a book called The Feminine Mystique which compared the role of women in various industrial societies. Drawing partly on experiences of her own mother in running the family jewelry shop in Peoria after her father became ill, Betty tended to idealize the role of women in the work place and downgrade or devalue the role of women as full-time homemakers and mothers. The book launched both a second wave of a particular brand of radical feminism but also launched a counter movement of women who believed that the profession of homemaker was a noble one.
Betty was a founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and was a co-author of the group's Statement of Purpose. She served as the first president of NOW from 1966 to 1970. At first, Betty tried to isolate a faction of lesbian women that she once referred to as "the lavender menace." But she later dropped her opposition and endorsed the participation of lesbians in NOW.
In 1969, Betty was also a founder of a group now called the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) with Dr. Bernard Nathanson. However, Dr. Nathanson later converted to a the pro-life position after advances in ultra-sound technology convinced him that complex and unique human life was present at a very early stage in pregnancies. Nathanson produced a pro-life documentary film called Silent Scream in 1984 and a second documentary called Eclipse of Reason that focused on the harm of late-term abortions. But Betty Friedan never changed her position on abortion.
This writer became acquainted with Betty Friedan in the fall of 1982 for a brief period of four months when we were both Fellows of the Institute of Government at Harvard University. We debated informally a few times before faculty and students on the topic of abortion. They were called stair step debates because the informal debaters would gather on a landing of open stairs between floors and a crowd would gather both above and below to hear. Betty told me privately that she was particularly uncomfortable when I pointed out similarities between the Dred Scott decision of 1857 and the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. But she never did answer this analogy when I rasied it in a debate.
In the early 1980s, Betty researched the topic of aging which she addressed in her books The Second Stage and The Fountain of Age. Her autobiography titled Life So Far was published in 2000.
Betty Friedan died at her home in Washington, DC on her 85th birthday, Feb. 4, 2006.