Friedan's Push Helped Women Find Equal Footing

Betty Friedan at the UN World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995. i i

Betty Friedan at the UN World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Betty Friedan at the UN World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995.

Betty Friedan at the UN World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995.

Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique helped drive the modern women's movement. The author and activist died Saturday of congestive heart failure. She was 85. Harvard historian Nancy Cott discusses Friedan's legacy with Debbie Elliott.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News this is All Things Considered. I'm Debbie Elliott. Betty Friedan died today on her 85th birthday. Ms. Friedan wrote "The Feminine Mystique" in 1963. It became a bestseller and helped launch the modern women's movement. Her argument, radical at the time, was that women did not have to be defined solely by their roles as wives and mothers. Here she is in 1988, speaking with Bob Edwards, 25 years after the publication of her groundbreaking work.

BETTY FRIEDAN (Author, "The Feminine Mystique"): We did have to break through the Feminine Mystique 25 years ago, because as long as we were defined only as housewives, only as mothers, and never as persons, as people, we couldn't even see what our real problems were. Women were blamed for all kinds of problems, a woman problem, not getting the kitchen sink pure white, not getting the husband's shirts ironed enough, the children's bed-wetting, the husband's (Unintelligible), her own lack of orgasms. We had to break through that Feminine Mystique to say we were people and then being people we were then entitled to equal opportunity and the rest of our American and human birthright.

ELLIOTT: Joining us to talk about Betty Friedan is Nancy Cott, Professor of History at Harvard. Hello.

NANCY COTT (Professor of History, Harvard): Hello.

ELLIOTT: Thanks for being with us.

Ms. COTT: You're very welcome.

ELLIOTT: Sad news today.

Ms. COTT: Indeed, it was sad. When I saw the news I was really quite taken aback. Although I hardly Betty Friedan was aging, one somehow doesn't expect an icon of that sort to have mortality.

ELLIOTT: What was the reaction to "The Feminine Mystique" when it was first published?

Ms. COTT: She mainly touched the minds of educated women who felt most palpably the contradiction between the promise of individualism in American life and their pre-definition to womanhood. This is a contradiction she especially addressed and it was felt most strongly by women who'd had a college education and who did have some professional aims. Friedan helped to mobilize woman like that within the next few years, so that she founded an organization by 1966, the National Organization for Women. And it seems to me that the impact of "The Feminine Mystique" was not immediate but more in the mid-'60s and after.

ELLIOTT: Do you remember when you first read the book?

Ms. COTT: Well, I do. But I regarded her book as only of interest to bourgeouis women. When I was in college and first in the women's movement, I kind of disdained to read it. And when I read it in graduate school, as an academic assignment, I was actually amazed at how hard-hitting it was, how I shouldn't have dismissed it, that it really made its points very well and could speak to a very broad range of women.

ELLIOTT: As a young femininist Betty Friedan was looked on a little bit differently because, you know, she wasn't out there burning bras, she was actually calling for partnerships with men, and that rubbed some people the wrong way.

Ms. COTT: As has been well acknowledged, there really were two parts of the women's movement, and they succeeded one another and then they eventually merged by 1970. But Betty Friedan's book was in the early part of what happened in the '60s, it was not the very first thing. It fell on prepared soil, one might say. In her book and in the 1988 clip that you ran, she over-exaggerated the extent to which women were limited to the womanhood thing of cleaning the sink in the '50s and early '60s. She herself had had quite an active life in the '40s. She was a labor activist, she had helped to organize all sorts of

things at various communities in which she lived, as her biographer, Dan Horowitz, has shown. She had a political background in the left, and in the labor left, but she presented herself in "The Feminine Mystique" as a housewife who had suffered strictly from this slotting of all womanhood into the position of wife and mother and nothing else. In fact, in the '50s there were lots of accomplished women, women in civic life, women in professions, far more variety than in normally acknowledged. In fact, the proportion of wives and of mothers in the labor force rose faster during the '50s, the predominance of the Feminine Mystique, rose faster in that decade than any other preceding decade in the 20th Century. So there were very palpable contradictions between the discourse of femininity and women's actual accomplishments in the late '50s, early '60s, that Friedan's book kind of cracked open and made visible to a much

broader audience. And she reached a lot of other women who felt similarly to her. But I think she didn't speak as much to a younger generation in college, and that younger generation, which was my generation, had a different approach, which came from the New Left, came from the civil right movement, came from a different student movement and youth culture tradition to protest women's oppression in other domains.

ELLIOTT: So jump to today and let me ask you, as you're teaching your classes next week, what's the legacy that you hope your students will take away from learning about Betty Friedan's life?

Ms. COTT: Well, one thing that they should learn was that there is -- or there was in the '60s anyway tremendous power still in a book, and that a book can be a touchstone, can reach millions of people and really change their minds.

ELLIOTT: Nancy Cott is a Professor of History at Harvard. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. COTT: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Betty Friedan died at home today of congestive heart failure. She was 85 years old.

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