For almost three decades, Betty Friedan has been a prominent writer, feminist, and political activist. In her autobiography, Life So Far, Friedan reflects on being a change agent while negotiating her own personal disasters and triumphs. It changed my life! was the typical response to Friedan's first book, The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. Her exploration of women's lives and thwarted dreams exposed the boredom and isolation of suburban housewives. She astonished contemporaries by portraying this as a social problem rather than neurosis. Friedan outlined the mystique that lured women into narrowly defined roles, and revealed how media, business, and government marketed this image. As The Feminine Mystique became a bestseller and made Friedan a feminist icon, it is fascinating to see how dramatically it changed her own life.
As a child Betty was already an outsider, too smart for a girl and too Jewish for pre-war Peoria. Her mother provided an early prototype of the mystique : An extremely bright woman, she devoted her energy to manipulating her husband and children. All this pain aroused an interest in social justice. At college, Betty found both intellectual interests and a community of smart, socially conscious women. She finally felt comfortable with herself. After college, she lived in New York City working as a journalist and social activist and married Carl Friedan. Once the babies arrived, the Friedans fell into traditional roles: Carl left the theater for advertising and Betty became a housewife. The marriage unraveled. Carl stayed away later and longer. Betty wrote magazine articles, which were often rejected as unrelated to women's concerns of romance, beauty, and family. These rejected articles became the foundation for her book. As Betty became successful, her marriage became violent. Her account of championing women's rights while hiding scars and bruises is the most poignant of her stories.
The feminist movement grew quickly; in 1966, Friedan founded the National Organization for Women (NOW). She relates how the movement later splintered into various interest groups. Friedan herself envisioned more for women in the traditional arenas, not a radical restructuring of society. She ended up too moderate for the movement she'd created.
Betty Friedan describes a life in the vortex during immense social change. Her account of what happened to feminism, delivered in her blunt style, is passionate and thought provoking. Her personal stories both sad and joyful will touch even those unmoved by her cause.
Mary Helen Clarke is a writer and editor in Nashville.