The Legacy of Feminist Pioneer Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan, a pioneer of the modern feminist movement, died Saturday at 85. Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, talks with Liane Hansen about Friedan's impact.


From NPR News this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Feminist icon Betty Friedan died yesterday at her home in Washington of congestive heart failure. It was her 85th birthday.

In her manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, first published in 1963, Friedan established many of the basic principles of the feminist movement, that the role of women in society extended far beyond having children and tending to husbands, and that women could and should aspire to build their own individual identities.

Eleanor Smeal is President of the Feminist Majority Foundation, and former President of the National Organization for Women. We reached her yesterday, and she told us about her first meeting with Betty Friedan.

Ms. ELEANOR SMEAL (President, Feminist Majority Foundation): I can see her, frankly in her apartment in New York. It's one of my first -- I had just been elected chair of the board of NOW, and that was in the 1970's, actually. And she spoke with such energy and passion. I can remember her intensity.

HANSEN: She was pretty formidable. She talked fast.

Ms. SMEAL: Absolutely, really fast. And jumped, almost didn't finish one thought before she was on another.

HANSEN: And she was kind of loud.

Ms. SMEAL: Absolutely, of course. I mean, very, very vigorous in everything.

HANSEN: Yeah. A lot of folks, though, thought she was abrasive. Would that be your impression of her?

Ms. SMEAL: Well, she was a fighter. Let's put it that way.

HANSEN: A fighter. Many of things she stood for are many of the things she had to experience, right?

Ms. SMEAL: Yes, and I think that one of the things we forget from this vantage point of 2006 is that when she started speaking out she was ridiculed. She was made fun of. She was denigrated in every possible way. And we owe a debt that she had the courage to speak out when others dared not to.

This was the ‘60s when she launched NOW, a totally different world, and a world that, you know, people thought it was okay that women got paid less, and they thought it was okay that we didn't have any educational opportunities, higher educational opportunities to speak of. We were like three percent of doctors and a small percentage of lawyers. It was a totally different world. And they thought that women didn't want to be a doctor, they wanted to marry one.

HANSEN: The National Organization for Women, which she co-founded, she was the first president -- you later on took over as the President of NOW. How did the formation of that organization come about?

Ms. SMEAL: Well, it came about at a meeting of the President's Status of Women Commission. Eleanor Roosevelt, in the early 1960's, had gone to Kennedy, President Kennedy, the minute he came in, because Eisenhower had refused to do it, to appoint a United States Commission, a Presidential commission, so that we could comply with the United Nations human rights charters, which of course she helped write and had promoted as the ambassador, first ambassador to the United Nations. And she felt that the United State had to comply with it. We were asking the rest of the world to, you know, comply with the Human Rights Charter.

So there was a Commission meeting. And at the Commission meeting, the commissioners really thought that if they pointed out how discriminated women were, well, that we would just fix it, there was no problem. And they were stunned no one would do anything.

They had invited Betty as a speaker, because she had already written the book and now was prominent, and they met afterwards, because their ideas were totally rejected.

In the first place, they didn't think they'd find discrimination. When they did, nobody wanted to do anything about it. So a small group of them met with Betty in a hotel room, and that night and then early in the morning, Betty argued what we need is an NAACP for women. And as the story goes, on a napkin in the morning she wrote NOW, National Organization for Women.

HANSEN: She was an incredibly smart woman. She was a high school valedictorian.

Ms. SMEAL: Absolutely.

HANSEN: She graduated Suma Cum Laude from Smith. What do you think were the significant influences on her thinking?

Ms. SMEAL: Well, I think that, you know, she -- it was the ‘50s and early ‘60s when she was writing, and I think that, you know, here she was, an educated woman who had done so well, married to a doctor, had three children, but there was something missing and her development wasn't there. I think her own life experiences were a large part of what she wrote about. But then, I think that she had the vision or the courage to, when it was pointed out how deep the problem was, to launch a movement. And then, frankly, she was out of tune with the movement at many times in her life.

She had to change, because she had seen initially a movement that would effect women worldwide. But she was really thinking only employment, education and opportunities. But then, you know, we got into much broader issues. But she changed very rapidly. She was one the first people who came out for legalized abortion. She was slow on gay rights, but she actually does come, she reverses her position in full public at the International Commission in 1978 and she comes out for gay rights.

So she changed as she went. She was always a social libertarian though, a person for all human rights.

HANSEN: Ultimately, how do you think she's going to be remembered?

Ms. SMEAL: Oh, I think she's going to be remembered as a giant for women's rights in the 20th century, and a catalyst, a catalyst for change. Frankly, I believe her legacy is that, you know, she said how many women had come up to her and said you changed my life.

I think that the movement, which went worldwide -- and by the way, she encouraged that, she traveled worldwide -- I think that it's bigger than even she could have dreamed in those days. And she left a legacy of growth.

By the way, she wasn't happy at the end at how far we got. She was always talking about how we had to take on more, or how could we improve the role of women. I mean constantly struggling with it. The last time I saw her, at a birthday party, at her last birthday party, she was so upset about what was happening to abortion rights. And what was happening to, you know, the backlash against women's rights, and wanted us women to go forward.

HANSEN: Eleanor Smeal is President of the Feminist Majority Foundation. She was also former President of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Betty Friedan died yesterday on her 85th birthday at her home in Washington.

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