Betty Friedan, American feminist crusader and author whose
first book, The Feminine Mystique,
ignited the contemporary women’s movement in 1963 in the US and around
the world, died at her Washington home on Saturday, her 85th birthday,
of consumptive heart failure.

With its impassioned yet clear-eyed analysis of the “problem that has no name”
that affected women’s lives in the decades after World War II – including
enforced domesticity, limited career prospects and, as chronicled in later
editions, the campaign for legalised abortion – The Feminine Mystique is widely regarded as one of the most
influential nonfiction books of the 20th century, says Margalita Fox in The New York Times.

Its words have the hypnotic pull of a fairy tale, says
Fox, in which Friedan identifies, dissects and damningly indicts the myth of suburban
women’s domestic fulfilment. The new society it proposed, founded on the
notion that men and women were created equal, represented such a drastic
upending of the prevailing social norms that over the years to come, she would
be forced to explain her position again and again.

And while much of the initial reaction to the book was
hostile – Friedan was cursed, shunned, told to seek psychiatric help and
accused of posing “more of a threat to the United
States than the Russians” – it made her world
famous. As futurist Alvin Toffler put it, Friedan
“pulled the trigger on history,” launching a tumultuous decade for
American women with Friedan at the epicentre, that would be known as feminism’s second wave.

Friedan – with her short stature and deeply hooded eyes, that made
her look like a “combination of Hermione Gingold and Bette Davis,” as
Judy Klemesrud wrote in The New York
Times Magazine
in 1970 – became a familiar presence on the television and the lecture
circuit, says Fox.

In 1966, she co-founded the National Organisation
for Women, serving as its first president,
says Elaine Woo in the Los Angeles Times. In 1969, she was a founder of the
National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, now known as Naral
Pro-Choice America. With Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and others, she founded
the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.

Friedan’s was a voice that was loud, insistent and sometimes
divisive, says Patricia Sullivan in The Washington Post. Her affinity with mainstream
values was the foundation of her authority, says Woo. Her emphatic belief that
women should have equal rights – but not at the expense of alienating men –
distinguished her from many feminist leaders who emerged later.

These beliefs led to her split with NOW in the
1970s, after which her 1981 book, The Second Stage,
provoked a response among fellow feminists that was swift and
unforgiving, says Woo, with theorist Ellen Willis calling the feminist
foremother
“hopelessly confused about whose side she’s on.”

Sure, Betty was never as
radical as some of her peers, says Friedan’s cousin and Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon, but “her views
have proved more durable.”

“Perhaps I should wish that I learned from Betty Friedan
that appearance is irrelevant, that mind always trumps over body, that
control-top pantyhose are a tool of paternalistic oppression. But I don’t,” says Bazelon. “I’d
rather know that she was as unsure of herself as I am. And (that) Women
don’t always go to war with themselves when they go on a beauty quest, even
when they are not beautiful in any traditional sense. Sometimes, they make
peace.”

Despite Friedan’s own marriage ending in divorce in 1969 –
she once claimed to have been a battered wife, a contention her
husband,
Carl Friedan, vociferously denied – Friedan never shied her view of the
perfect social equation including men, says Woo. “I thought once,”
Friedan said, “about
what should be put on my gravestone: ‘She helped make women feel better
about
being women and therefore better able to freely and fully love men.'”

Peter Fray

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