American writer and women's rights activist Betty Friedan died Saturday in Washington on her 85th birthday. Betty Friedan was the author of a pioneering and controversial 1963 book, called "The Feminine Mystique", which rejected the notion that a woman's worth should be measured only by her success as wife and mother. She also served as founder and first president of the National Organization for Women.
The roles of women in American society, and the opportunities open to them, have changed radically during the past 50 years, a fact that Betty Friedan joyfully acknowledged in a 1989 interview.
"It happened very fast," she said. "From four percent or three percent of the women in medical school or law school, it is now 40 percent. Instead of just cooking the church suppers and the Hadassah bake sales, women are preaching sermons - Protestant ministers, Episcopal bishops, Jewish rabbis, and they are demanding the right to be Catholic priests."
"They are running for office - and getting elected mayor and governor," continued Friedan. "They are flying and dying as astronauts. And the young women, my daughter's generation, takes it for granted."
Betty Friedan attributed many of these changes to the efforts of feminists like herself, who spent decades fighting gender stereotypes, and struggling for laws that would end sex discrimination. She traced her own involvement in such efforts to her personal experience as homemaker and professional journalist.
Born in Peoria, Illinois, Betty Friedan studied psychology, and later worked as a newspaper reporter. She was fired after becoming pregnant with her second child, and, soon after, began interviewing women about the realities of their lives as wives, mothers and homemakers. What she uncovered was a great deal of frustration, and a yearning to make fuller use of talents and interests.
Her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, explored the tough decision most women faced: either to marry and abandon all hope of a career, or pursue a career and give up all hope of a family.
"From the mass media, and from all the organs of sophisticated thought, as well, there was only one image of woman, completely defined by her relation to man, housewife, mother, but never as a person defining herself by her own actions in society," she explained. "And that image was so absolutely pervasive in those years after World War II, that each one of these women felt she was alone, and there was something wrong with her. It absolutely wiped out of memory the hundred years battle for women's rights."
The book helped launch a movement, aimed at helping women realize their full potential.
In 1966, Betty Friedan became founder and first President of the National Organization for Women, a group dedicated to achieving equal rights for women. She also marched in picket lines, served as a government consultant, helped organize a women's bank and taught and lectured around the world.
Her activities were often criticized by those who feared she was undermining the role of the traditional family. But Betty Friedan was also attacked by those within the women's movement, who felt she placed too much emphasis on family ties. Militant feminists were especially angered by her 1981 book The Second Stage, in which she urged women and men to join together in the struggle for equal rights.
Her final major published work was the 2000 memoir, Life So Far, in which she touched upon the subject of domestic violence, drawing upon her own marriage, which ended in divorce in 1969.
Betty Friedan's survivors include three children and nine grandchildren, living proof of her contention that women can have a profound impact on society without foregoing motherhood.