Honoring feminist icon Betty Friedan 15 years after her death

A worldwide webinar marks the 100th anniversary of the feminist icon’s birth

Friedan leads biggest-ever march of over 100,000 people in Washington DC in July 1978 to demand an extension to the deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. (photo credit: FEMINIST MAJORITY FOUNDATION)
Friedan leads biggest-ever march of over 100,000 people in Washington DC in July 1978 to demand an extension to the deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
When we list great Jews who have changed the world throughout history – a list that always begins with Albert Einstein – we must be sure to include the great Jewish feminist Betty Friedan, mother of the modern women’s movement.
After thousands of years in which women were regarded as mere helpmeets to men, or their property in some civilizations, Betty Friedan won us the right to demand “full equality for women, in truly equal partnership with men.” This was the slogan she created for the National Organization for Women (NOW), which she named and founded in 1966 and led as president for its first four years.
Friedan also changed the world with another historic contribution: She wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963, telling women they have a right to fulfillment for their own capabilities, in addition to satisfaction as wife and mother. Millions of women who have read this book in all countries have thanked Friedan for changing their lives.
A worldwide webinar on February 4 will mark the 100th anniversary of Friedan’s birth and coincidentally, the 15th anniversary of her death. Links can be obtained through the website, veteranfeministsofamerica.org, or via Facebook and YouTube. Speakers include US Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Charles Schumer, New York Times columnist Gail Collins, feminist leader Gloria Steinem, NOW president Christian Nunes and other prominent figures.
Friedan created most of NOW’s early strategies and recruited its leaders. Her inspiring Statement of Purpose is available on NOW’s website; most but not all of its demands have been achieved. Thanks to NOW and other feminist organizations that followed, these are some of the gains that they won:
• Gender provisions in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, after several years of derision, were finally enforced so that employers can no longer say “We don’t hire women,” newspapers can no longer carry ads saying “Help Wanted Male” and Help Wanted Female,” and restaurants and business clubs can no longer exclude women.
• The Fair Credit Act prohibits denial of credit cards or mortgages to women
• The Fair Housing Act prevents landlords from saying, “We don’t rent to women.”
• Title IX of the Education Acts of 1973 prohibits schools and universities from discriminating against women in hiring or promotions, and elevates women and girls in school sports.
• The Women’s March for Equality,” which Friedan organized for August 26, 1970, awoke women and men everywhere to the emerging feminist movement.
• Regulations prohibit employers from saying, “It’s OK to harass a woman sexually if she wants to keep her job.” (The more-recent “Me Too” movement helps to enforce this.)
• Thanks to a coalition organized by the NOW Legal Defense & Education Fund, which Friedan also founded, the Violence Against Women Act prevents police from saying, “Violence in the home is just a domestic issue.”
Friedan also co-founded the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), which paved the way for the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, and the National Women’s Political Caucus, which she led with Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm and other activists. She proclaimed “very strong feelings” about her Jewish identity, and we’re proud to proclaim her as a Jewish hero.
BETTYE NAOMI GOLDSTEIN was born in Peoria, Illinois, to Harry and Miriam Horwitz Goldstein on February 4, 1921. Her father had immigrated to the US as a boy and began peddling collar buttons on street corners at the age of 13. Eventually he owned a fine jewelry store that Betty once described as “the Tiffany of the Midwest.” Her mother, daughter of a prominent Illinois physician, was an unhappy housewife. Betty was graduated summa cum laude in 1942 with a degree in psychology from Smith College, where she had been editor-in-chief of the newspaper and an active political leader. There she dropped the “e” in her first name. After a year in graduate school she became a freelance journalist. She married theatrical producer Carl Friedman (they later changed their name legally to Friedan) and gave birth to three children – Daniel, Jonathan and Emily. Their stormy marital relationship led to divorce in 1969. Betty’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, became a worldwide sensation, selling millions of copies and still a must in school readings.
In 1970, soon after NOW’s triumphant Women’s March of August 26, Friedan traveled to Israel “to get in touch with my Jewish roots.” Most of the Israeli press excoriated her as a radical. She was disappointed that prime minister Golda Meir refused to see her, even though she had already met with the Pope and other world leaders. Back home, she became co-chair of the American Jewish Congress’s Task Force on Jewish Women. She began to study Jewish texts and participated in a havurah.
Friedan assailed sex discrimination in Jewish organizations and deplored the Hebrew prayer “I thank thee, Lord, I was not created a woman.” But she also attacked then-common mythology satirizing The Jewish Mother spooning out chicken soup to control their children’s lives. “I hereby affirm my own right as a Jewish American feminist to make chicken soup, even though I sometimes take it out of a can.” She declared that Jewish women throughout history had been strong, energetic and supportive.
Friedan became an outspoken Zionist in 1975 when she attended the International Women’s Year World Congress in Mexico City with its infamous UN resolution that “Zionism equals racism.” She protested when dissenting voices among American and Israeli delegates had their microphones turned off. Back in New York, she co-founded an Ad Hoc Committee of Women for Human Rights in which world-famous women attacked the UN resolution – which was finally repealed in 1991. At the International Women’s Conference in Nairobi in 1985, Friedan and her allies succeeded in preventing any and all assaults on Zionism.
In 1984, Friedan headed a delegation to Israel of American Jewish women seeking a US/Israel dialogue, titled “Women as Jews, Jews as Women.” She called on Jewish women to “put your bodies where your mouths are.” This inspired the establishment of the Israel Women’s Network, led by our still-influential Alice Shalvi, who is 94.
Friedan proved to be a visionary in many ways. Her six books included The Fountain of Age, published in 1993, which deplored attitudes saying older people were mostly senile and incompetent and waiting to die. She declared that “the second half” of life could be energetic and joyful. The book’s concept was adopted by many leaders in senior living and predicted the huge number of dynamic over-100-year-olds who are active today. The word “senility” has disappeared from common use.
A report on Betty Friedan should not overlook what the Times called her “famously abrasive” personality. She had a fierce temper and frequently hung up on colleagues and journalists. However, even people who resented her too-common hostility admit that she was the one whose vision and energy made the modern women’s movement possible: “Betty is the one who did it!”■
The writer, a public relations executive, was a co-founder of NOW and Betty Friedan’s lieutenant. She is chair of Veteran Feminists of America