Revisiting Betty Friedan’s Jewish legacy through the first biography of her in decades


((JR)) — When Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963, she set fire to a simmering discontent among millions of American women, blowing up the myth that feminine fulfillment began and ended with a husband, children and a home. But 17 years after her death, many retrospectives have summed up Friedan as the leader of a women’s movement that outgrew her.

A new biography from Rachel Shteir, “Betty Friedan: Magnificent Disrupter,” published Sept. 12 as part of Yale University’s ongoing Jewish Lives series, aims to offer a more comprehensive portrait of the complex, often controversial Jewish feminist. The first book on Friedan’s life since the 1990s shows the evolution of her Jewish identity, starting as a source of alienation that molded her rage against injustice. That identity, as Shteir explains, at first takes a backseat to her battle for women’s rights but eventually finds a stage at the center of Friedan’s public life.

“The Feminine Mystique” made Friedan a celebrity and catapulted her into the early leadership of second-wave feminism, fighting on the frontlines of workplace equality, women’s education and access to birth control and abortion. Friedan believed that suburban, middle-class housewives would make women’s rights acceptable to the American mainstream and become the key to vast social change. At the same time, her vision of the future of feminism left many people out: She became notorious for neglecting Black and working-class women in her manifesto and for excluding lesbians from the movement.

However, according to Shteir, the perception that Friedan’s movement left her behind overlooks the lasting influence of her ideas. While researching the activist, Shteir observed that many recent feminist writers have drawn from or reacted to Friedan, often without crediting her directly.

“She generated so many of the conversations that we take for granted,” Shteir told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Friedan built her ideals on the foundation of her personal life and experiences. She was born Bettye Goldstein to Jewish immigrants in Peoria, Illinois, in 1921. Her Russian father Harry Goldstein worked as a jeweler, and her Hungarian mother Miriam Horowitz Goldstein worked as a journalist until Bettye was born. Miriam gave up her work to be a wife and a mother, an ordinary sacrifice for the time that she never recovered from, according to her daughter.

“Nothing my father did, nothing he bought her, nothing we did ever seemed to satisfy her,” Friedan recalled in the 1976 book “It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement.” Friedan said that her mother pined to fill the emptiness in her life by joining social circles and buying material luxuries — things not guaranteed for a Jewish family in the Depression-era Midwest.

Friedan’s early experiences of antisemitism became another lens that defined her fury against injustice, said Joyce Antler, a scholar of Jewish feminism and former professor at Brandeis University.

“She said that antisemitism was the ‘dominant menace’ of her childhood,” Antler told the (JR). “Not being accepted socially, not being accepted in the high school sorority — all this gave her a sense of being an outsider. It was through her Jewishness that she had the vision, the foresight to understand women’s exclusion.”

As a brilliant student, Friedan studied psychology at Smith College and began postgraduate work at the University of California Berkeley, where she dropped the “e” from her first name. She abandoned her fellowship to preserve a relationship with the man she was dating, which ended anyway. From there she moved to New York and became a labor journalist, writing on union issues, Jim Crow laws and antisemitism.

In 1947 she married Carl Friedan, a would-be theater producer who held intermittent work. They had three children and moved to the Rockland County suburbs of New York. Although Friedan continued freelance writing for women’s magazines to support the family, she saw herself as a housewife.

It was at a Smith College reunion in 1957, talking with her classmates 15 years after they graduated, that Friedan found the spark of “The Feminine Mystique.” She interviewed women who had succeeded by the standards they knew — suburban homes, husbands, children and modern cleaning appliances — but still felt there was a hole in their lives. After building an entire identity around their families, some said they felt as if they “didn’t exist.” 

“The Feminine Mystique,” inspired by these educated women and Friedan’s own experiences, instantly hit a nerve. At the time, women could not open bank accounts or credit cards in their own names, were shunned out of jobs and ridiculed for raising the notion of sex discrimination. The book was translated into over a dozen languages and sold more than three million copies, giving voice to an epidemic of unhappiness that Friedan called “the problem that has no name.”

“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women,” read her opening words. “It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone.”

Rachel Shteir is the head of the Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism program at the Theatre School at DePaul University. (Yale Jewish Lives/Doug McGoldrick)

In 1966, Friedan joined Pauli Murray and Aileen Hernandez to found the National Organization for Women (NOW). She became the first president of the group, which remains one of the leading feminist organizations in the United States. Its goals included the enforcement of anti-discrimination law, subsidized child care for working mothers, legalized abortion and public accommodations protections. She also helped found the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) in 1969, since renamed Reproductive Freedom for All, and the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.

Her efforts changed hiring practices, gender pay inequality and credit-granting rules. But the ground shifted beneath her as younger, more diverse voices gained power. Friedan was fiery-tempered and fiercely resistant to those who disagreed with her, whether outside or inside her movement. She once described writer Gloria Steinem and Democratic Representative Bella Abzug (both Jewish) as “female chauvinist boors.” She dismissed the interests of younger bra-burning feminists — who centered sexual harassment and rape over marriage and child care — and she infamously called lesbian women the “lavender menace.”

Friedan believed the future of women’s rights depended on mainstream respectability, said Shteir. In embracing that model herself, she paid a high toll. She did not leave her physically abusive marriage for 22 years, despite black eyes that she covered with make-up for TV appearances. 

She also did not talk publicly about her Jewishness until the 1970s.

Friedan stepped down from the presidency of NOW in 1970. But in her last speech as president, she announced the Women’s Strike for Equality, a nationwide action that drew tens of thousands of women to rallies in 40 American cities. On Fifth Avenue in New York City, 50,000 women marched for equal opportunity, free abortion and universal childcare. 

Many of these women had little in common with the demographic she had imagined. Alongside the housewives marched radical feminists, lesbians, Black Power advocates, union women and pacifists. Standing before them in Bryant Park, Friedan addressed the crowd with a revised Jewish prayer, traditionally recited by Orthodox men every morning. 

“Down the generations in history, my ancestor prayed, ‘I thank Thee, Lord, I was not created a woman,’” she said. “From this day forward women all over the world will be able to say, ‘I thank Thee, Lord, I was created a woman.’”

The moment was a breakthrough for Friedan, according to Antler. On that day, she finally tore through the “feminine mystique” to affirm her full identity in public — as both a feminist and a Jew. It was after this speech that Friedan revisited the role of Judaism in her work, turning her energies to fight antisemitism in the women’s movement and sexism in Jewish institutions. She also became more involved in Jewish life during the 1970s and 80s, said Shteir, giving many talks to Jewish groups and going to synagogue regularly until the end of life.

It turned out, as Friedan saw in the throng of people she herself had pulled to the streets during the Women’s Strike for Equality, that the future of feminism was broader than she knew. And many of the causes women marched for in 1970, from free child care to legalized abortions, remain out of reach for millions of Americans in 2023.

“When you read ‘The Feminine Mystique,’ it’s a little bit dismaying, because it feels like the women’s movement has stalled in certain ways,” said Shteir. “Basic things that Betty was really agitating for, we don’t have.”