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Betty Friedan Interview

Betty Friedan is the Founder of the National Organization for Women, the National Women’s Caucus, and the National Abortion Rights Action League. She is a Visiting Professor at New York University and the University of Southern California. 

She is the author of The Feminine Mystique; It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement; Beyond Gender: The New Politics of Work and Family; The Fountain of Age.

Betty Friedan

Author, The Feminine Mystique 

QUESTION: Betty, let's begin with the obvious time and place, your birth. Where are you from? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: I was born and grew up in Peoria, Illinois, which you might say is the middle of the middle of America, what used to be a synonym almost: "hick," "hayseed" or "will it play in Peoria". Well, I played in Peoria, but I got out of there. 

QUESTION: What did your family do? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: My father had a fancy jewelry store, like sort of Tiffany's for that part of the Middle West. And my mother was technically a housewife. I mean, she had been the women's page editor of the Peoria paper and she had loved that. And she could hardly wait for me to get into junior high school to get me to try out for the school paper. And she was obviously a bright woman with a lot of my energy. [W]e were comfortably middle class. And so, except for the Depression, there was sometimes a maid and a cook and so on. [My mother] did everything that women were supposed to do, and she did it very well: golf, tennis, bridge, Mah Jongg, shopping. 

And, you know, when people, reporters, historians, [ask] why me, why did I start the women's movement, I can't point to any major episodes of sexual discrimination in my early life. But I was so aware of the crime, the shame that there was no use of my mother's ability and energy. And I think her frustration . . . she was a beautiful woman and she was a very able woman. But she spent a lot of time in bed with colitis, and she dominated her husband and made her children's life slightly miserable. 

And when my father was much older, began to have serious heart trouble, and he taught my mother how to run the business. And she had to start seriously working at running the [business]. Her colitis disappeared, you know. 

QUESTION: But she also had a career as editor of the women's pages. 

BETTY FRIEDAN: My mother had been the women's page editor of the Peoria newspaper and she loved it. But in that era married women didn't work. After she got married, that was the end of [her] career. [A]ssuming that she had a lot of my energy and ability, there wasn't [a] use for it. I mean, she ran the Sunday school one year, and the women's division of the community chest one year, and took up that era's version of yoga, I suppose. But there was never enough use for her energy. And I was so aware of that, that I think that was smart for me. 

QUESTION: Did you go out for the junior high school paper, as your mother had hoped? Were you a reporter? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: Oh, I love newspapers. I've worked on newspapers, all my life. I've always loved it. I wrote a column for the high school newspaper. And I started a literary magazine with a couple of guys in the high school. And then in college I edited a newspaper at Smith, turned it from once a week to twice a week, and got an advertising manager and made them sell ads to finance [it]. 

QUESTION: You grew up as a young child during the fabled 1920s, is that right? And that, interestingly enough, was exactly the time when Robert and Helen Lynd were in a nearby town writing the first Middletown. Why don't you tell us about that? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: The book Middletown had [an] enormous impact on me. It was really crucial to my intellectual awakening. Because Middletown [Muncie, Indiana] was very like Peoria, almost the same size, and so on. And I suddenly saw all these things that I hadn't been aware of before, the class division, for instance. We lived on what was called "the west bluff," [a] hill. And below the hill were, I suppose, what you would call the working-class people and the poor, but you never saw them. And so when I read Middletown, it kind of opened my eyes. 

QUESTION: You were saying that you later came to realize that there was this class division in Peoria between the people on the bluff and the working class. Was there also some discrimination against Jews in Peoria at that time? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: My adolescence was quite miserable, when I look back on it, at least my early part of my adolescence. Because there was anti-Semitism in Peoria, and I didn't feel that when I was in elementary school. But once we got into high school, there were sororities and fraternities. And being Jewish, you didn't get into a sorority. So I really was much more outgoing and gregarious. I really didn't want to spend an Emily Dickinson adolescence reading poetry on gravestones, which I did. I would have much rather been in the jalopy with the kids, going to Hunt's for hamburgers. But, when I entered high school, all my friends got into sororities and fraternities and I didn't. 

QUESTION: Why did you decide to go from what you describe as a sort of a professional hick town to this very elite women's college? Tell us about going to Smith. 

BETTY FRIEDAN: Well, I went to Smith in Northhampton. It was the biggest women's college and the best. And my mother had wanted to go to Smith, but she had to stay home and go to a college at home, which was Bradley. So she put it in my mind to go to Smith. I applied [to] and was admitted to all the good women's colleges - Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, Radcliffe. 

QUESTION: December 7th, 1941, America's in the war. What happens in a women's college at that point? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: Well, I remember that I was my junior year at Smith [in] '41. And I was on a weekend in New York, at the Philharmonic on a Sunday afternoon. And someone came out in the middle of the concert to announce that America had been attacked at Pearl Harbor and we were at war. So I realized that I had to get back to Smith, because I was editor of the paper, and I have to react to this. And when I got back to college, the whole college had been called to an assembly by the president. 

And I had been a pacifist. You know, "I hate war and so does Eleanor," "Johnny wants a job, not a gun," all that. But then when we had to stand up to show our support of the war effort. And I'd been a pacifist, and I hesitated, and then I thought, "No, I have to support the war effort," so I stood up. 

QUESTION: So it might be fair to say that Smith graduates before the war were thinking about getting married and having children, getting these so-called "MRS degrees." But now they're graduating in 1942, right in the middle of the war. And this is a time when lots of were pouring into the labor force, because so many of the guys were in the army. Things are different now, right? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: Well, at Smith we certainly were not geared [toward] having careers. You were going to get married, you were going to have kids and you'd be a leader, a community leader, a leader of the volunteer effort. If you were very bright and you became head of a department, as I did, of the psychology department, you were encouraged to go on to graduate work. But as a women you didn't even think about discrimination. Nobody asked you, "What do you want to be when you grow up, little girl?" but, "Oh, you're a pretty little girl; you'll be a mommy like mommy," blah, blah, blah. Well, I knew one thing. I did not want to be a mommy like mommy. And I understood somehow my mother's frustration. And that it was no good not only for her, but for her children or her husband, that she didn't have a real use of her ability. 

QUESTION: Yet, you know, all during this time, during the 1920s and the 1930s, the percentage of women going into the labor force is gradually going up. Women are getting more schooling. Fertility rates are coming down, not up. So it seems to me that the unrest you felt about your mother was in the process of gradual remedy. Perhaps moving in the right direction, but too slowly? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: Well, I don't know. When I was in high school, even in college, I didn't have any real image of a career woman or a professional woman. Now, in the Depression, there was a whole bunch of spinsters bred, because married women couldn't get jobs as teachers; and [when] women got jobs as teachers and they didn't marry. But there was one woman [lawyer] in our town, and she was sort of a freak. She wore trousers. I didn't have any role model. 

QUESTION: What did you do after graduation? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: I did a year's graduate work at Berkeley. I had a fellowship in psychology. And then I won a really big fellowship to go straight on to get my Ph.D. for the next three or four years. And I went through agonies of indecision, and then I decided not to accept it. I just decided I didn't want to be an academic. 

I didn't want to be in a situation where I was broader than the boys, which I was, in the academic world. I'm not claiming that I was brighter than anybody in psychology, [because] at that time, [most of the] the men were at war really. I just decided that I didn't want to be in the academic world, because it was [really] too easy for me at the top. But also it wasn't active enough for me. While I had been, I guess, quite brilliant, academically, in my college years, I also had been editor of the paper, and I loved that. And, that was a much more active thing. And I missed it when I was doing graduate work. 

So I turned down the fellowship. And I left California and went to New York, where a lot of my college friends were. And we had an apartment with some of my college friends in the Village, like in the novel, The Group. And I got different jobs in journalism, which I loved. 

And that continued for four or five years. And then I got married and I took maternity leave, but continued to work. 

QUESTION: When did you get married? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: I got married in 1947, I think. And I was about twenty-five, twenty-six. And then when I had two years of maternity leave, when my first child was born. But three and a half years later, when I got pregnant again - when everybody knew I'd take another maternity leave - I got fired. 

QUESTION: Where were you working when you got fired? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: I think that I was working for an outfit called "Trade Union Service" that edited newspapers for labor unions. 

QUESTION: So you had two children, then you had a third child, is that right? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: Yes, that was when I had my second child. So I had two boys and four years later I had Emily, my youngest. 

QUESTION: And by then you were living where? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: When the children were little, we lived in a wonderful garden apartment community that actually had been built for the U.N. But they didn't need all the apartments for the U.N. so you could be eligible for that. And so that was a lovely community garden apartment, Parkway Village, it was in Queens. And then when I was about to have my third child, the apartment wasn't big enough, it was just a two-bedroom apartment. And the whole move to suburbia had begun. And I didn't like the suburbs, but I sort of liked the country. And we moved to Rockland County, which was on the other side of the Hudson from Westchester, and was a little more country-ish, and exurban, not suburban. 

QUESTION: And that's where your children grew up? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: So my children, yes, they grew up in Rockland County, and I wrote my book, The Feminine Mystique. And after I was fired for being pregnant, I was technically a housewife. And it was the era that I later analyzed, the "feminine mystique" era, [when] "career woman" was a dirty word. And so I didn't want a career anymore. [But] I had to do something. So I started freelancing for women's magazines. 

And then I was asked to do a questionnaire of the alumni reunion at Smith, 15 years after we graduated, so this would have been 1957. And I, after all, had had some training with questionnaires [as a] psychologist, and as a reporter. But I put entirely too much work in this questionnaire, [and] I decided I'd make an article. I wrote for the women's magazine and [for] McCall's, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal. 

There had been a book out called Modern Woman, the Lost Sex, which said [that] too much education was making American women frustrated in their roles as women, and they would readjust to their role as women. But I believed in education for women so I thought I'd disprove this with my questionnaire. But, of course, my questionnaire didn't disprove that. But it showed that with all the education, American women were frustrated in just the role of housewife - but they also managed to enlarge it. And they weren't just housewives, they were community leaders, at least the Smith graduates were. But whatever I wrote was heretical. It offended the editors of the women's magazines. So after I had about four versions of it turned down, I said, "Hey, what's going on here?" Because I had never had an article turned down. And I realized that what I was saying was threatening, somehow, to the editors of these women's magazines. That it threatened the very world they were trying to paint, what I then called the "feminine mystique." And I would have to write it as a book, because I wasn't going to get it in a magazine. And the rest is history. 

QUESTION: Let me ask you a question. When you were raising your children, did you regard that as fulfilling work as a human being? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: Oh, I wouldn't even have asked a question like that. I I loved my kids. And I loved my house, and I loved a lot of things about my life in the 1950s. But there were a lot like me in that era, very overeducated housewives. 

QUESTION: What I was trying to ask is this: Isn't the role of child rearing, be it by most typically, a woman, or by a man, isn't it of and in itself quite a creative task? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: There were many parts of the accepted role of women at that time that were genuinely satisfying. Certainly little kids are, in raising them. Cooking can be okay. [As can] messing around with the décor of your house and so on and so forth. But for my generation and those that followed us, of educated women, you could be plenty busy as a housewife, mother, when your kids were little, but it's not enough. When [the] life span of America women is approaching eighty years, as ours was, having kids is not going to take it up. 

QUESTION: So what was the reaction to the book? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: The book, it took me five years [to write]. It always takes longer, at least for me, than you think it's going to. And it came out in 1963. And it was quite fantastic the effect it had, it was like I put into words what a lot of women had been feeling and thinking, that they were freaks and they were the only ones. And I called my first chapter "The Problem That Had No Name." And, I mean, I still meet women all these years later and they say, "You changed my life or it changed my life," meaning the book. 

And then that book certainly helped fuel, or give a conceptual rationalization for, the new movement of women outside the home into professions, jobs, careers. 

QUESTION: And you became an activist in that cause? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: Well, there was no activism in that cause when I wrote The Feminine Mystique. But I realized that it was not enough just to write a book. There had to be social change. And I remember somewhere in that period coming off an airplane [and] some guy was carrying a sign. This was [when the] student movement was happening and all that. It said, "The first step in revolution is consciousness." Well, I did the consciousness with The Feminine Mystique. But then there had to be organization and there had to be a movement. And I helped organize NOW, the National Organization for Women and the National Women's Political Caucus and NARAL, the abortion rights [organization] in the next few years. 

QUESTION: And who were your colleagues in that founding generation of the women's movement? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: Well, as I say, this was before there were really career women. So there would be a few women lawyers, but not many. They would have been leaders of the League of Women Voters or somewhere, some from the labor movement, some working in Washington. And Eleanor Roosevelt was behind the first commissions on the status of women, both federally and in the states. And so these were women leaders of the women's organizations put on these commissions on the status of women, and studying the question of what was happening to women. 

QUESTION: Now, did the women's movement, after it began - we're talking the late 1960s to early 1970s - did it go through a period that was anti-male, when there was all the bra burning and - 

BETTY FRIEDAN: Nobody ever burned a bra. I mean, I would have known about it, and nobody ever burned a bra. The anti-bra or anti-girdle style was the work of male designers, but it certainly fit the ethos of the period. There was, when we immediately began to break through the feminine mystique and rebel against it, there were some radical versions of it that, you know, don't wear makeup, don't shave your legs, stuff like that. But my part of it, you know, the mainstream, what I thought it was all about was simply equal opportunity. 

QUESTION: But was there a part of the movement - and I know you were not part of it - that was well publicized and really became known as being anti-male? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: Well, there was that. I mean, there [were] many currents, as in any movement. There was one distortion of sexual politics, which tried to make what I considered an erroneous, literal analogy of the situation of women and men [based] on the model of class warfare, and, oh, even racial rebellion against repression. But the situation of women and men is not comparable to worker-boss or black and white, you know. 

QUESTION: This tendency within the women's movement to engage in sexual politics has been blamed in some part for the rise in the divorce rate and for the erosion of the family. What do you think about that? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: No, it really infuriates me the way women are blamed, or women's movement [is] blamed, for all sorts of thing that research shows is simply not true. For thirty years they've been trying to do research showing that it was harmful [to] children for mothers to work outside the home, and it isn't. It isn't. There is absolutely no evidence that it is harmful to children if their mother's health, well-being and autonomy and control of her own destiny is maximized by work outside the home. 

QUESTION: At the time of the explosion of the women's movement, there was also a rise in the divorce rate. 

BETTY FRIEDAN: Oh, God. I mean, this idea that you get. I'm so tired of it. That the employment of women, the movement of women outside the home into the work world, and their demand for equality is somehow responsible for increasing juvenile delinquency or the increase in divorce rate, and it is just so much bullshit. 

No, seriously, [what really caused] the increase in the divorce rate in the United States were the 1950s marriages, were the marriages of the feminine mystique era. Where [the] man was the breadwinner; he went out in the world and the woman was the housewife. That didn't make for such great lasting marriages, especially in the winds of change that began in the 1960s. 

Those 1950s marriages began the 50 percent divorce rate. Not the marriages, which were somewhat later, of women that had careers all along, and were on the road to equality, and the husbands were a part of that. 

QUESTION: As you look at your life, what are you most profoundly pleased with: your family or your professional activity? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: It's not really either/or. I mean, you say, "Well, do you get more thrill out of the books you've written, or your kids?" You can't compare, can't compare. I wouldn't give up at all, ever, the experience of having my kids and the joy they've given me and now the grandkids. That's a great part of life, very satisfying. But so is the fact that I have written several books that had an impact on my life and times, you know, the life of my time, as you might say. And there's a great satisfaction in whenever I take time to think about it, which is almost never. To have used my life in a way that opened up possibilities of life for those that came after me. So I feel good about that. 

QUESTION: I hear a lot of young women these days saying they really want to leave the labor force when they have their children. They're not by any means saying they don't want to have a career, but that there is sort of a new post-feminist appreciation of having and raising children. Do you find that to be true? 

BETTY FRIEDAN: Well, I think you would be wrong in somehow postulating the joys of having kids as if it's either that or career. That was the way it might have seemed fifty years ago. But part of the result of the women's movement - as I helped conceptualize it, give it vision, and lead it - is an end to such a no-win, either/or choice. Women today have choices and demand choices, choices to have kids or not and the reproductive technology thereto. And it is a fact [that] most women continue to chose to have children. They know it's a choice now. But they don't choose to have too many, and they don't choose it as either/or, career or children. 

There is a new focus on really adequate parental leave, and flexible working hours, that it's taking into account [the] reality [that] most of the people in the workforce today will spend some years when they also have children and family responsibilities.


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