Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan is one of the most notable liberal thinkers of the twentieth century, whose works challenged gender roles within what she viewed as a patriarchal society. Friedan spent her career analysing how women’s lives in the domestic sphere - caring for the home and raising children - were often based on societal and patriarchal expectations rather than free choice. Frieden’s work is an essential milestone in the development of liberal feminism - so let’s find out more!

Betty Friedan Betty Friedan

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Table of contents

    A patriarchal society is one in which the most powerful roles are reserved for men and from which women are excluded, often by social, ethical or religious norms. Patriarchy means ‘rule by the father(s)’.

    Betty Friedan 2018 women's march in New York StudySmarterFig. 1 A protester pictured holding a sign rejecting patriarchal norms during the 2018 Women's March in New York

    Betty Friedan biography

    Betty Friedan was born in Illinois, the USA, in 1921. Friedan’s father owned a jewellery store, whilst her mother was a journalist at a local newspaper for a time during Friedan’s childhood. In 1942, Friedan graduated in Psychology from Smith College, Massachusetts.

    The following year, Friedan enrolled in a graduate programme at the University of California, Berkeley, to complete her training to become a psychologist. However, Friedan never finished her studies, and, as the Second World War raged on, she worked as a political journalist instead. From 1943 - 1952, she relocated to New York, writing for The Federated Papers and UE News newspapers.

    In 1946, Friedan married her first (and only) husband, Carl Friedan. Although able to continue working after the birth of her first child, Friedan was dismissed in 1952 after applying for maternity leave during her second pregnancy. Despite continuing to work freelance for lifestyle magazines, the next five years saw a pause in Friedan's professional life as she focused on raising her family.

    In 1957, fifteen years after graduating from Smith College, Friedan attended a reunion at the all-female institution. Ahead of the reunion, Friedan conducted a survey asking alumni if they had found their education useful since graduating. 89% of those surveyed had not utilised the skills they had developed during their education, and most were unsatisfied with their roles in life. This survey became the foundation of Friedan’s seminal work, The Feminine Mystique (1963), in which Friedan examines the feelings of disillusionment expressed in the Smith College survey and subsequent research.

    The Feminine Mystique (1963) would become an international bestseller, which was translated into thirteen languages. In the years that followed, Friedan focused on the Women’s Movement. In 1966, she co-founded the National Organisation for Women (NOW) and served as President for the first three years. Three years later, in 1969, she and her husband divorced.

    Friedan’s writings and activism promoted gender equality centred on women’s ability to enter public spheres. She was convinced that women continued to be second-class citizens so long as their marital status determined their social position. Her later published works include The Second Stage (1981), The Fountain of Age (1993), and her memoir Life So Far (2000). Following the publication of this memoir, Friedan retired from public life. In 2006, Betty Friedan passed away on her eighty-fifth birthday in Washington DC.

    Betty Friedan Betty Friedan StudySmarterPhotographed Portrait of Betty Friedan, 1960

    Betty Friedan liberal feminism

    Liberal Feminism is associated with the Second-Wave Feminist movement of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. This movement was seen as the 're-awakening' of Feminist thought after the First Wave, which focused on the enfranchisement of women in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Second-Wave feminists argued that suffrage had not liberated women from the oppression they faced in the domestic sphere, such as the deprivation of their bodily autonomy. Along with Socialist and Radical Feminists, Liberal Feminists made up Second-Wave Feminism.

    The personhood of women - that's what it was about... to say women are people... to demand our human and American birth-right, equal opportunity to participate in the mainstream of society and our own voice1

    Unlike her more radical contemporaries, Friedan argued that women needed the choice to pursue the life they desired without physical, social or psychological barriers. In her book The Second Stage (1981), she warns her peers against 'male-bashing' and relays that women are more inclined to nurture than men. However, this should not inhibit their ability to seek personal or professional fulfilment in the public sphere.

    Criticisms of the Second Wave

    Friedan’s writing frames female oppression as the principal battleground of her age. However, at the time Friedan was writing, the struggle for civil rights for African Americans was also ongoing. Contemporary scholars, such as Becky Thompson, have labelled Friedan’s work as ‘hegemonic’ and principally concerned with the white, middle-class experience. Thompson noted that Second Wave feminism focused primarily on liberal, socialist and radical thinkers, excluding voices from anti-racist feminist movements which also sought to liberate women of colour from societal and economic oppression.2

    Betty Friedan The Feminine Mystique

    As mentioned above, The Feminine Mystique (1963) evolved from a survey Freidan conducted with alumni from Smith College. For Frieden, the disillusionment of the women she interviewed, who felt trapped in domestic roles, was ‘the problem with no name’. Friedan hypothesised that these women, excluded from the public sphere and living the post-war ‘American Dream’ of family life in suburban towns, were limited by social expectations and gender norms. The reality of their lives, she speculated, left them profoundly dissatisfied. They were - in short - victims of the feminine mystique.

    To understand the work, we will examine how Friedan understood motherhood and the public sphere. We will see later that her analysis of these areas would go on to have a significant impact on the women’s liberation movement.

    The Feminine Mystique and motherhood

    Chosen motherhood is the real liberation. The choice to have a child makes the whole experience of motherhood different, and the choice to be generative in other ways can at last be made... without guilt3

    Motherhood is a lens through which Friedan evaluates the female experience in the private and public spheres. Here, Friedan relays the idea of choice. She argues that under the patriarchal conditions of post-war society, true choice was unavailable to women. Once married, their identities became linked with their ability to raise children and maintain a home. Motherhood was stripped of its enriching qualities (eg, the ability to nurture) and replaced by a situation where motherhood and women’s lives were grounded in unrealistic societal expectations.

    The Feminist Mystique and the public sphere

    In almost every professional field... women are still treated as second-class citizens. It would be a great service to tell girls who plan to work in society to expect this subtle, uncomfortable discrimination - to tell them not to be quiet... but fight it4

    Frieden describes women as second-class citizens, denied access to the public world, and tied to the domestic sphere. Friedan outlines this is the barrier for ‘girls who plan to work in society’. She is asking women to collaborate and fight against ‘the problem with no name’ to improve opportunities for future generations.

    Betty Friedan feminist movement

    In 1966, Friedan co-founded the National Organisation for Women (NOW), becoming its first President and drafting its Statement of Purpose. NOW was set up as a Welfare organisation to support women, as well as a Lobby group which would pressure the US government to act in the interest of women. Today NOW boasts hundreds of thousands of members and chapters in all 50 US states.

    Three years later, in 1969, Friedan co-founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, representing NOW at their first Conference in Chicago in the same year. Friedan also worked alongside politicians to develop the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971 to promote women’s participation in public life.

    Friedan’s relationship with her peers was not always one of solidarity - particularly those who subscribed to the radical feminist perspective. In 1981, with the publication of her work Second Stage, Friedan expressed concern over the culture of ‘male-bashing’, which she recognised in some sections. She continued to be a proponent of female choice in all spheres, but never sought a revolutionary change in society. As we can see, her approach to remedying gender inequalities was firmly grounded in political lobbying and activism.

    Betty Friedan accomplishments

    To conclude, let's summarise some of the key achievements and events from Friedan's life.

    • Betty Friedan's active public life as a writer saw her produce The Feminine Mystique (1963), The Second Stage (1981), The Fountain of Age (1993) and the memoir Life So Far (2000).

    • Friedan remained active in political life, becoming a crucial part of the Women's Movement in the 1960s, 70s and 80s by organising conferences, strikes, and protests

    • Friedan also lobbied for Constitutional change as part of the campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment of the US Constitution.

    Betty Friedan - Key takeaways

    • In a career that spanned over four decades from the 1960s to 2000, Betty Friedan established herself as a central figure in the liberal feminist movement.
    • Her seminal work was The Feminine Mystique, published 1963.
    • Friedan framed women's liberation as achieved when they gained access to the public sphere, but she never desired revolutionary change.
    • Instead, Friedan favoured methods such as collective action and lobbying the government.


    1. Jennifer Chappin Harris, After the Mystique is Gone: A Phone Interview with Betty Friedan, 1997
    2. Becky Thomspon, Multi-Racial Feminism: Recasting the Chronology of Second-Wave Feminism, 2008
    3. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 1963.
    4. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 1963.
    5. Fig. 1 2018 New York City Womens March ('s_March_(39787340762).jpg) by Alec Perkins ( licensed by CC-BY-2.0 ( on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Betty Friedan

    Who was Betty Friedan?

    Betty Friedan was one of the most notable liberal and feminist thinkers of the twentieth century, whose works challenged gender roles within what she viewed as a patriarchal society 

    What did Betty Friedan do?

    Betty Friedan was the author of The Feminine Mystique, which challenged gender-norms in post-WW2 America. She was also a political campaigner and activist who worked for equal rights for women

    How did Betty Friedan change the world? 

    Betty Friedan challenged assumptions about gender roles and stereotypes, in order to liberate women from their domestic roles. She advocated for women to enter the public sphere and occupy spaces that were historically dominated by men

    What type of feminism was Betty Friedan? 

    Betty Friedan was a liberal feminist, typical of the Second-Wave Feminist movement which began in 1950s America.

    What is Betty Friedan liberalism?

    Betty Friedan's particular brand of liberal feminism advocated for women entering into public roles typically dominated by men. To achieve this, as well as writing on the topic, she organised collective actions and lobbied the government

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