The pioneer of Second Wave Feminism, Betty Friedan, author most famously of “The Feminine Mystique” (first published in 1963), died Saturday, February 4th, on her birthday. Her book, which has sold several million copies over the last four decades, is credited with giving a voice, words, and description to the soul-killing angst of the classic 1950′s-60′s housewife. Friedan offered communal solace to a generation of depressed, stay-at-home wives and mothers, in addition to providing one of the texts that would be come a classic for women of my generation and generations to come. Her work also served as a pivotal springboard for discussion about domestic life in novels, movies, and countless women’s magazines.
The problems she described have proven enduring, at least so far as popular culture is concerned; that lonely housewife is a role we’ve recently seen immortalized on the big screen in such iconic portrayals as Julianne Moore’s Laura Brown in “The Hours” and Joan Allen’s listless, flat-charactered housewife, Betty Parker in “Pleasantville.”
But on a more inspirational note, without women like Betty Friedan–whose familiar face came to symbolize equal rights and the feminist movement itself–women such as myself and the students who fill my “Women and Spirituality” courses might not be able to claim our seats in undergraduate and graduate classrooms, never mind in the pursuit of the study of religion, as so many women of this generation do. Because of Friedan, we take for granted today that, of course, we have a place and a voice and a right to the educations we are lucky to pursue today– as well as space on playing fields and in the workplace. Betty Friedan was the icon of one era, and she paved the way for other inspirational icons of today, women like soccer star Mia Hamm (see HBO’s recent “Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team) and the cultural, spiritual, and enterpreneurial working woman phenom that is Oprah Winfrey.
What a legacy to leave us all.