Betty Friedan  1921−2006

Betty Friedan is widely considered to be the mother of women’s liberation, a leading exponent within liberal feminism and the figure who instigated the second-wave of the feminist movement.

Betty Friedan, a key figure in the development of liberal feminism, examined the role of the public and private spheres, central to liberal thought . These spheres are used to keep government limited in the sense that liberals believe that the private sphere is not a realm for state interference, and that tyranny and authoritarianism will result from a government that interferes in the personal relationships of the home . Betty Friedan agreed with this limited role for government but argued that women were often trapped in domestic life and needed to be able to leave the private sphere if they wished and enter the public world of politics, education and work . However, what makes Friedan a staunch liberal is that she believed this firmly to be a matter of choice and individual freedom . Her best seller, The Feminine Mystique (1963), inspired the development of second-wave feminism . It was hugely influential, changing the lives of many American women, and is regarded as one of the most important books of the twentieth century . Written while Friedan was a suburban housewife, and based on interviews with similar women, it examined the false belief or myth that women are satisfied by domestic life .

Friedan argued that many women were bored and unsatisfied, but were too ashamed to admit this . These women had sacrificed their desires (and positive freedom) for family life, and had no choice in this matter due to social expectations . This clearly goes against core liberal values . Another key liberal trait in Friedan’s work is her commitment to reform via legislation and through pressure groups . As well as being a writer she was an activist and feminist who set up the National Organization for Women in 1966 and campaigned for legal equality and abortion rights . 

In The Second Stage (1981), Friedan angered many feminists by criticising feminism for becoming too radical and alienating the many women who wanted and were satisfied by a domestic, family-based life . This highlights her commitment to liberal values of freedom, choice, equality of opportunity and individualism 

Her most important contribution towards the ideology of feminism is ‘The Feminine Mystique’ in which she sought to highlight the manifold issues facing the American housewife. Friedan exposed the stifling boundaries placed upon women (particularly mothers and housewives) and identified the multiple frustrations of those who felt trapped by the confines of social expectations.

During her interviews with American women, Friedan found that very few of them had ever seen a positive female role-model who worked outside of the home whilst having a family. She also found that housewives were ‘tied to the kitchen sink’ due to the constraints of family life. Friedan concludes that women were afraid to ask themselves the devastating question – “is this all?” Her research identified what she memorably called “the problem with no name,”a tangible sense of dissatisfaction that lay buried deep within the minds of the American housewife. Friedan claimed that women were prevented from fulfilling their potential in life (especially in the public realm) due to the confines of this cultural myth. In doing so, she pointed out in graphic language that “the shores are strewn with the casualties of the feminine mystique.”

As her investigation progressed, Friedan came to identify the importance of advertising in the creation of the feminine mystique. Ultimately, the feminine mystique was an illusion maintained by the male-dominated advertising industry. According to Friedman; “the feminine mystique says that the highest value and the only commitment for women is the fulfillment of their own femininity.” Women were therefore sold a lifestyle that centered around marriage, the home, the family and their associated material goods. However, many women wanted more from life than that on offer to them.

Friedan believed passionately in the emancipation of women from the confines of a patriarchal society. During a time of conservative social mores, Friedan argued that women were as capable as men in terms of performing any type of work or career path. She was also an advocate of raising consciousness and lobbied in favour of legislative reform to address gender inequality. Friedan’s approach to the problems facing women typify the liberal feminist position on the path towards female emancipation. Whilst the political process is dominated by men, Friedan and others believe there is sufficient scope within its boundaries for women to advance the feminist position.

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.