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Visionary feminist ignited change


Betty Friedan, the visionary, combative feminist who launched a social revolution with her provocative 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, died yesterday, her 85th birthday. She died of congestive heart failure at her home in Washington, said Emily Bazelon, a cousin speaking for the family. She said Ms. Friedan had been in failing health for some time.

Her best-selling book identified "the problem that has no name," the unhappiness of post-World War II American women unfulfilled by traditional notions of female domesticity.

Melding sociology and humanistic psychology, the book became the cornerstone of one of the last century's most profound movements, unleashing the first full flowering of American feminism since the 1800s.

It gave Ms. Friedan, an obscure suburban New York homemaker and freelance writer, the mantle to meet with popes and heads of state and to lead an international movement that would shake up marriage and the workplace, politics and education.

She founded the National Organization for Women in 1966, making it the first new feminist organization in a half-century. She also was among the founders of the National Women's Political Caucus and the group that became the National Abortion Rights Action League.

"I never set out to write a book to change women's lives, to change history," said Ms. Friedan, who always kept a sense of wonder about her place in history as the mother of the contemporary women's movement.

Her affinity with mainstream values was the foundation of her authority. 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. "She found that love between unequals can never succeed," Gloria Steinem once said, "and she has undertaken the immense job of bringing up the status of women so love can succeed."

Her more moderate brand of feminism, combined with her often irascible nature, led to ruptures with other movement leaders, such as Ms. Steinem and the late Bella Abzug. Some feminists eventually denounced her as a reactionary.

By the 1980s, feminism had ceased being her primary focus, and she spent her last decades focused on issues of aging, families, work and public policy.

Ms. Friedan was born in Peoria, Ill., on Feb. 4, 1921, the year after American women won the right to vote. In high school, she was valedictorian, but her braininess, she said, made her feel "like a freak."

Her mother was an unhappy housewife whose disposition and health improved when her husband's health faltered and she took over management of his jewelry business. In a 1976 book, It Changed My Life, Ms. Friedan said her mother's discontent gave her an early glimpse of the perils of the malaise she would later call the "feminine mystique."

Ms. Friedan attended Smith College in the late 1930s. She became editor of the campus newspaper and quickly established a reputation for brilliance. She graduated summa cum laude in psychology in 1942.

By 1943, she was immersed in popular-front journalism, first at The Federated Press in New York and later at UE News, the official newspaper of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, then one of the nation's most radical unions.

In 1947, she married a theatrical producer named Carl Friedman, who changed his name to Friedan. The couple had three children.

Although she was determined to be a happy housewife, she suffered renewed attacks of her childhood asthma and resumed psychotherapy. Urged by her therapist not to waste her education and training, Ms. Friedan began to write for women's magazines.

In 1957, she was asked to conduct a survey of her Smith classmates for their 15th reunion. She found that the women who did not conform exactly to traditional notions of womanhood were happier than those who did. "Maybe it wasn't education that was the problem, keeping American women from 'adjusting to their role as women,'" she wrote, "but that narrow definition of 'the role of women.'"

She wrote a magazine article based on that argument, but it was repeatedly rejected. She decided to bypass that venue and put her ideas into a book instead.

Seeking a theoretical basis for her views of women's plight, Ms. Friedan turned to the work on identity and self realization by psychologists including Abraham Maslow and Erik Erikson. Their ideas informed what became her central tenet: "that the core of the problem for women today is ... a problem of identity - a stunting or evasion of growth that is perpetuated by the feminine mystique." Ms. Friedan produced a 1,000-page manuscript.

Her publisher, W.W. Norton, printed only a few thousand hardcover copies in 1963. Ms. Friedan did not experience the full force of fame until Dell issued the paperback in 1964. That year, The Feminine Mystique became the top-selling nonfiction book in the country. Much of the initial reaction was not favorable.

In June 1966, Ms. Friedan joined members of state commissions on the status of women for a national conference in Washington. Four months later, they reconvened and she was elected president of the nascent National Organization for Women. In 1970, the largest feminist demonstration since the suffrage movement took over Fifth Avenue when Ms. Friedan called for a national Women's Strike for Equality.

Her marriage ended in divorce in 1969. The next year, she would step down as NOW president amid growing dissatisfaction with her vision of the movement.

She wrote six books and taught at many institutions, including Yale, Harvard and the University of California, Los Angeles.

She continued to deplore the lack of progress on issues that affected the quality of family life, such as flexible scheduling and better and more affordable child care.

Yet she seemed to look back on her life with pleasure, saying that the women's movement had succeeded in the United States and other advanced countries beyond her wildest imaginings.

Elaine Woo writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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