Betty Friedan

American feminist writer and activist (1921–2006)

Betty Friedan (4 February 19214 February 2006) was an American "second-wave" feminist best known for The Feminine Mystique, a critique of women's role as stay-at-home mothers.

Men weren’t really the enemy — they were fellow victims suffering from an outmoded masculine mystique that made them feel unnecessarily inadequate when there were no bears to kill.


  • Am I saying that women must be liberated from motherhood? No. I am saying that motherhood will only be a joyous and responsible human act when women are free to make, with full conscious choice and full human responsibility, the decisions to become mothers. Then, and only then, will they be able to embrace motherhood without conflict, when they will be able to define themselves not just the somebody's mother, not just as servants of children, not just is breeding receptacles, but as people for whom motherhood is a freely chosen part of life, freely celebrated while it lasts, but for whom creativity has many more dimensions, as it has for men.
    • "Abortion: A Woman's Civil Right". Speech at the First National Conference for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, 1969.
  • Men will not be free to be all they can be as long as they must live up to an image of masculinity that disallows all the tenderness and sensitivity in a man, all that might be considered feminine. Men have an enormous capacity in them that they have to repress and fear in order to live up to the obsolete, brutal, bear-killing, Ernest Hemingway, crewcut Prussian, napalm-all-the-children-in-Vietnam, bang-bang-you're-dead image of masculinity. Men are not allowed to admit that they are sometimes afraid. They are not allowed to express their own sensitivity, their own need to be passive sometimes and not always active. Men are not allowed to cry. So they're only half-human, as women are only half-human, until we can go this next step forward.
    • "Abortion: A Woman's Civil Right".
  • Men weren’t really the enemy — they were fellow victims suffering from an outmoded masculine mystique that made them feel unnecessarily inadequate when there were no bears to kill.
    • As quoted by The Christian Science Monitor (April 1, 1974) This has sometimes appeared paraphrased: "Man is not the enemy here, but the fellow victim."
  • We need to see men and women as equal partners, but it’s hard to think of movies that do that. When I talk to people, they think of movies of forty-five years ago! Hepburn and Tracy!
    • As quoted in People magazine (March 7-14, 1994) p. 49.
  • The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own. There is no other way.
    • Interviews with Betty Friedan, Janann Sherman, ed. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2002, ISBN 1578064805, p. x.
W. W. Norton & Company, 2002 edition ISBN 0393322572
The problem lay buried, unspoken for many years in the minds of American women...
  • The problem lay buried, unspoken for many years in the minds of American women. 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 housewife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — “Is this all?”
    • Opening lines, Ch. 1 "The Problem That Has No Name".
  • The suburban housewife — she was the dream image of the young American women and the envy, it was said, of women all over the world. The American housewife — freed by science and labor-saving appliances from the drudgery, the dangers of childbirth, and the illnesses of her grandmother … had found true feminine fulfilment.
    • Ch. 1 "The Problem That Has No Name"
  • Strange new problems are being reported in the growing generations of children whose mothers were always there, driving them around, helping them with their homework — an inability to endure pain or discipline or pursue any self- sustained goal of any sort, a devastating boredom with life.
    • Ch. 1 "The Problem That Has No Name".
  • Instead of fulfilling the promise of infinite orgastic bliss, sex in the America of the feminine mystique is becoming a strangely joyless national compulsion, if not a contemptuous mockery.
    • Ch. 11 "The Sex-Seekers".
  • American housewives have not had their brains shot away, nor are they schizophrenic in the clinical sense. But if … the fundamental human drive is not the urge for pleasure or the satisfaction of biological needs, but the need to grow and to realize one’s full potential, their comfortable, empty, purposeless days are indeed cause for a nameless terror.
    • Ch 13 "The Forfeited Self".
  • The feminine mystique has succeeded in burying millions of American women alive.
    • Ch 13 "The Forfeited Self".
  • It is easier to live through someone else than to become complete yourself.
    • Ch. 14 "A New Life Plan for Women".
  • The problem that has no name (which is simply the fact that American women are kept from growing to their full human capacities) is taking a far greater toll on the physical and mental health of our country than any known disease.
    • Ch. 14 "A New Life Plan for Women".
  • When women take their education and their abilities seriously and put them to use, ultimately they have to compete with men. It is better for a woman to compete impersonally in society, as men do, than to compete for dominance in her own home with her husband, compete with her neighbors for empty status, and so smother her son that he cannot compete at all.
    • Ch. 14 "A New Life Plan for Women".
  • A girl should not expect special privileges because of her sex but neither should she 'adjust' to prejudice and discrimination.
    • Ch. 14 "A New Life Plan for women".
  • A woman is handicapped by her sex, and handicaps society, either by slavishly copying the pattern of man’s advance in the professions, or by refusing to compete with man at all.
    • Ch. 14 "A New Life Plan for Women".

The Playboy Interview (1992)

Interview of Friedan by David Sheff Playboy September 1992, pp. 51-54, 56, 58, 60, 62, 149; reprinted in full in Interviews with Betty Friedan, Janann Sherman, ed. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2002, ISBN 1578064805.
  • "Do you object to the celebration of sexuality in our pictorials?
  • Friedan: A celebration of women's bodies is all right with me so long as there is no denial of the personhood of women. I suppose sometimes women are sex objects -- and men are too, by the way. It's the definition of women just as sex objects that bothers me. Women can celebrate themselves as sex objects, they can celebrate their own sexuality and can enjoy the sexuality of men as far as I'm concerted. Let's have men centerfolds. [..] Playboy's centerfold is fine. It's holding onto your own anachronism and it is not pornographic, though many of my sisters would disagree. It's harmless. [...] Playboy strikes me as an odd mixture of sex -- sometimes juvenile --- and forward intellectual thoughts.
  • Friedan: There was a masculine mystique, too.
  • Playboy: What was it?
  • Friedan: Men had to be supermen: stoic, responsible meal tickets. Dominance is a burden. Most men who are honest will admit that.
  • Playboy: What's behind the current's men's movement?
  • Friedan: I think it's partly a reaction against feminism, partly envy of feminism, and partly partly a real need of men to evolve through the burden of the masculine mystique, the burden of machismo.
  • Friedan: I thought it was absolutely outrageous that the Silence of the Lambs won four Oscars. [...] I'm not saying that the movie shouldn't have been shows. I'm not denying the movie was an artistic triumph, but it was about the evisceration, the skinning alive of women. That is what I find offensive. Not the Playboy centerfold.

It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women's Movement (1976 [1998])

  • If I were a man, I would strenuously object to the assumption that women have any moral or spiritual superiority as a class. This is [...] female chauvinism.

The Fountain of Age (1993)

  • What had really caused the women’s movement was the additional years of human life. At the turn of the century women’s life expectancy was forty-six; now it was nearly eighty. Our groping sense that we couldn’t live all those years in terms of motherhood alone was “the problem that had no name.” Realizing that it was not some freakish personal fault but our common problem as women had enabled us to take the first steps to change our lives.
    • Preface.
  • If women’s role in life is limited solely to housewife/mother, it clearly ends when she can no longer bear more children and the children she has borne leave home.
    • Ch. 4.

Quotes about Friedan

  • After the rally I came back to the office and had a very upsetting conversation with Betty Friedan, who used to head the National Organization of Women. Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm and I have this major difference of opinion with Betty as to what the nature of a women's political movement should be. She seems to think we should support women for political office no matter what their views, and we don't. I feel our obligation is to build a real political movement of women for social change. I don't think we're at the level where we have to fight to get just any woman elected, especially if she turns out to be a Louise Hicks. But because she tends to regard herself as "the" leader of the women's movement, Betty is impossible sometimes. This may be why she's made it appear as if there are all kinds of differences between us. What distresses me most is that I know deep down that Betty understands politics in the same way I do. This is why I can't understand what she's up to. It doesn't add up. Now, don't get me wrong about Betty, please. All women owe her a great debt because she helped revive the whole women's movement in this country. She stimulated a revolt among the bored and frustrated middle class suburban housewives, and that led to the organization of groups like NOW. She's been part of the "consciousness-raising" among women that's given some foundation for the political movement we're now talking about. All I'm beginning to wonder is if she realizes that forming a political movement is a more complicated thing than giving lectures, writing books, having one-shot demonstrations and press conferences and appearing on the Dick Cavett Show. It takes a lot more than that-it takes organizing and a real knowledge of how the political machinery works.
    • Bella Abzug Bella!: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington (1972)
  • Betty Friedan's antilesbian sentiments were so present in NOW that a group of lesbians, including Karla Jay and Rita Mae Brown, formed the Lavender Menace
  • "Sexism" - to use Betty Friedan's coinage - has no color line.
  • Betty Friedan had no desire for unity with a radical feminist. She began her verbal assault in the dressing room when I refused to have makeup applied, and did not stop until the show was over. She attacked me as a representative of young, militant feminists, objecting to the use of the term "women's liberation." I agreed with her and said that our group in Boston preferred "female liberation," explaining that we were dealing not only with the equality of women in society but the liberation of the female principle in order to change the very structure of society. That made her even angrier and she began to attack my appearance. I had worn my best army surplus white cotton sailor trousers and a white man's shirt. She said that scruffy feminists like me were giving the movement a bad name. I told Betty Friedan that I thought she feared losing her celebrity leadership position to women who were committed to collective action with no leaders, and that she wanted no more than to put women into political office. She called me an anarchist, and I agreed with the characterization and read a favorite quote from the most notorious of all anarchists, Emma Goldman in 1913: “There is no reason whatever to assume that woman, in her climb to emancipation, has been, or will be, helped by the ballot. Her development, her freedom, her independence, must come from and through herself. First, by asserting herself as a personality. Second, by refusing the right to anyone over her body; by refusing to bear children, unless she wants them; by refusing to be a servant to God, the State, society, the husband, the family, etc. by making her life simpler, but deeper and richer. Only that, and not the ballot, will set woman free.” Betty Friedan huffed out of the studio, and I would have little occasion to cross paths with her after that.
  • Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique is still heralded as having paved the way for contemporary feminist movement-it was written as if these women did not exist. Friedan's famous phrase, "the problem that has no name," often quoted to describe the condition of women in this society, actually referred to the plight of a select group of college-educated, middle and upper class, married white women-housewives bored with leisure, with the home, with children, with buying products, who wanted more out of life. Friedan concludes her first chapter by stating: "We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: 'I want something more than my husband and my children and my house.'" That "more" she defined as careers. She did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions. She did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women. She did not tell readers whether it was more fulfilling to be a maid, a babysitter, a factory worker, a clerk, or a prostitute, than to be a leisure class housewife. She made her plight and the plight of white women like herself synonymous with a condition affecting all American women. In so doing, she deflected attention away from her classism, her racism, her sexist attitudes towards the masses of American women. In the context of her book, Friedan makes clear that the women she saw as victimized by sexism were college-educated, white women who were compelled by sexist conditioning to remain in the home. ... Specific problems and dilemmas of leisure class white housewives were real concerns that merited consideration and change but they were not the pressing political concerns of masses of women. Masses of women were concerned about economic survival, ethnic and racial discrimination, etc. When Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, more than one third of all women were in the work force. Although many women longed to be housewives, only women with leisure time and money could actually shape their identities on the model of the feminine mystique.
  • Friedan was a principal shaper of contemporary feminist thought. Significantly, the one-dimensional perspective on women's reality presented in her book became a marked feature of the contemporary feminist movement.
  • One of the first surprises of the second wave was when The Feminine Mystique, a book by Betty Friedan, a suburban mother of three and graduate fellow in psychology, became one of the most read books of the early 1960s. Friedan was a graduate of Smith College class of 1942, and at the beginning of the sixties the college had asked her to conduct a survey of her classmates. Two hundred women answered her questionnaire. Eighty-nine percent had become housewives, and most of the housewives said that their one regret in life was that they hadn’t used their education in a meaningful way. Friedan rejected the usual concept that educated women were unhappy because education made them “restless.” Instead she believed that they had been trapped by a series of beliefs that she called “the feminine mystique”—that women and men were very different, that it was masculine to want a career and feminine to find happiness in being dominated by a husband and his career and to be busy raising children. A woman who did not want these things had something wrong with her, was against nature and unfeminine, and therefore such unnatural urges should be suppressed. Life magazine in its profile of her called her “nonhousewife Betty.” Television talk shows wanted her for a guest. The media seemed fascinated by the apparent contradiction that a mother of three who was living “a normal life” would be denouncing it. While the media wanted her, the suburban community in which she lived didn’t and began ostracizing her and her husband. But women around the country were fascinated. They read and discussed the book and formed women’s groups that asked Friedan to come speak. Friedan came to realize that not only had women’s groups been organized all over the country, but active feminists like Catherine East in Washington were fighting for women’s legal rights. In 1966, two years before radical feminism’s television debut, East’s political savvy combined with Friedan’s national reputation to form the National Organization for Women, NOW.
  • The ideology of "woman's sphere" sought to upgrade women's domestic function by elaborating the role of mother, turning the domestic drudge into a "homemaker" and charging her with elevating her family's status by her exercise of consumer functions and by her display of her own and her family's social graces. These prescribed roles never were a reality. In the 1950s Betty Friedan would describe this ideology and rename it "the feminine mystique," but it was no other than the myth of "woman's proper sphere" created in the 1840s and updated by consumerism and the misunderstood dicta of Freudian psychology.
    • Gerda Lerner, The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History’’ (1979)
  • If the new feminism did not appear on the scene in the 1930s or 40s, this was because the war economy had created new job opportunities for women. But at the end of World War II, returning veterans quickly reclaimed their "rightful places" in the economy, displacing female workers, and millions of women voluntarily took up domesticity and war-deferred motherhood. The young women of the 40s and 50s were living out the social phenomenon that Betty Friedan called the "feminine mystique" and Andrew Sinclair the "new Victorianism." Essentially it amounted to a cultural command to women, which they seemed to accept with enthusiasm, to return to their homes, have large families, lead the cultivated suburban life of status-seeking through domestic attainments, and find self-expression in a variety of avocations. This tendency was bolstered by Freudian psychology as adapted in America and vulgarized through the mass media…What Betty Friedan has described as the "feminine mystique" is essentially the symptom of a cultural lag, in which our societal and personal values are adapted to a family pattern that has long ceased to exist.
    • Gerda Lerner, The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History’’ (1979)
  • When was the last time you heard Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan talk about welfare rights?
  • I wasn't aware of what was happening to women in my part of the world until I read The Female Eunuch and books on feminism by Friedan that transformed my personality overnight and brought an awareness of, "my God, what we have suffered as women!" So it wasn't something you just spontaneously erupt into knowing. It's an awareness that dawns through hearing people, reading and through discussing things with other women perhaps.
    • Bapsi Sidhwa In Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World edited by Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock (1992)
  • one exasperating example of how easy it is to obliterate history is that Betty Friedan can now get away with the outrageous claim that radical feminist "extremism" turned women off and derailed the movement she built. Radical feminism turned women on, by the thousands.
    • Ellen Willis Radical Feminism and Feminist Radicalism 1984 in No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays (1992)
  • Friedan's politics have always been confused. The experience that shaped her feminism--and inspired the eloquent indignation of The Feminine Mystique was the suburban wife's confinement to marginality and isolation. From that perspective the promise of feminism was escape from the sidelines. The rhetoric Friedan uses to describe the aims of "first stage" feminism is all about getting in-"in the mainstream, inside the party, the political process, the business world." Radical women's liberationists rudely insisted that, on the contrary, to oppose sexual inequality was to challenge men and the whole fabric of male-female relations, which by definition meant taking a stand outside the mainstream. Since the radicals had militant energy and an analysis of women's condition, both of which the liberals lacked, they immediately took center stage, capturing the public's and the media's imagination, pushing NOW and other liberal groups to take bolder positions. All this put Friedan in a terrible double bind. To associate herself with radicalism was to exchange the marginality of a housewife for the marginality of a rebel. But to ignore it was to risk being left behind, relegated to marginality within the movement itself. From the beginning, Friedan's response to this dilemma was to attack and misrepresent radical feminists while shamelessly co-opting their ideas.
    • Ellen Willis “The Greening of Betty Freidan” 1981 article included in No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays (1992)
  • A pioneering, early book, strong and influential, was Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique.
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