Betty Friedan, who died Saturday at age 85, lived to see women serve as secretary of state, ride rocket ships into outer space and outnumber men on college campuses. The change in the status of women in American society since the publication of Friedan's book "The Feminine Mystique" in 1963 has been so far-reaching that the revolutionary has become commonplace.
The women's movement would have gathered steam in the 1960s without Friedan's book, just as the environmental movement would have spread without the publication of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" a year earlier.
Yet Friedan articulated many women's frustrations and aspirations, helping them to crystallize as demands for political and social equality from the home to the workplace, and from the classroom to the courtroom. She stood at the vanguard of the movement she helped create, as a founder and first president of the National Organization for Women, a founder of what is now called Naral Pro-Choice America and a founder of the National Women's Political Caucus.
"The Feminine Mystique" was Friedan's first book, written while she was living the life of a suburban mother and housewife. It was a life she found suffocating, and interviews with other college-educated women proved to her she was not alone. The idea that women can and should find fulfillment in domestic life, she concluded, was a myth - the feminine mystique.
Friedan's complaint was that of a middle- or upper-class woman, and for that reason was and is open to criticism. Most women's participation in the labor force is the result of economic necessity, not angst. Yet in demanding that women gain broader options - not just in their jobs, but in the family, in politics and in society - she made a case for equality, with effects that transcended class.
Examples are everywhere. The principle of equal pay for equal work is established in law. The notion that men accused of rape or domestic violence can defend themselves by pointing to their victims' sexual histories has been rejected. Fifty-six percent of college undergraduates are women. Reproductive freedoms, including the right to choose an abortion, are well-established. Women work in many occupations once closed to them - as firefighters, physicians, judges, police officers and legislators.
Plainly, full equality remains a long way off. A wage differential remains between men and women, partly a residue of sex segregation in occupations. Only 20 percent of college presidents are women. Only eight of the chief executive officers of the Fortune 500 companies are women. Only 14 of 100 U.S. senators and 70 of 435 U.S. representatives are women. Discrimination in hiring, and harassment on the job, remain real problems.
Nothing, however, can obscure the sweeping nature of the change that has occurred since Friedan achieved prominence and the modern feminist movement began. Women's choices and opportunities, undergirded by legal protections and social attitudes, have blossomed in almost all respects.
Friedan wasn't alone in causing all those changes, but the changes would never have come if she and others had stuck to their assigned roles and remained quiet.
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|Title Annotation:||Editorial; Betty Friedan ignited feminist movement|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Feb 7, 2006|
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