Portraits of Peoria: Betty Friedan

by Molly Deadmond

The woman who started the second wave of feminism and co-founded the National Organization for Women once called Peoria home. 

This article is part of a series that highlights individuals who are being honored through a collaborative mural program with Big Picture Initiative, Discover Peoria, and ArtsPartners of Central Illinois.

Betty Friedan (born Bettye Naomi Goldstein) was an American feminist writer and activist born in Peoria in 1921. She attended Peoria High School, where she became involved in the school newspaper, creating a literary magazine called Tide, which discussed student life. Friedan attended the all-female Smith College in 1938, where she continued her writing career as editor-in-chief of the college newspaper. She graduated summa cum laude in 1942 with a major in psychology. Friedan went on to write for the Federated Press from 1943 to 1946, then worked for the United Electrical Workers’ UE News between 1946 and 1952. After being forced to leave UE News due to her second pregnancy, Friedan became a housewife, supplementing her household’s income by freelance writing for numerous magazines, including Cosmopolitan

During her 15th college reunion in 1957, Friedan conducted a survey regarding the life satisfaction of American housewives. What began as a series of articles regarding what she called “the problem with no name” soon became much more. Deciding to rework and expand on the topic, Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963. The book—widely credited as the spark of second-wave feminism in the United States—discusses the roles of women in industrial societies, with a focus on the full-time homemaker, and the struggles for life satisfaction these women faced. Friedan supplemented her research with her own experiences, pointing out the absence of positive female role-models that worked outside of the home and kept families. She also utilized her background in psychology, criticizing the work of psychologists such as Sigmund Freud, and providing answers to women looking to further their education.

Beyond the realm of writing, Friedan was an activist, participating in and founding multiple feminist organizations. She was a co-founder and the first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), an organization whose purpose is to “promote feminist ideals, lead societal change, eliminate discrimination, and achieve and protect the equal rights of all women and girls in all aspects of social, political, and economic life” (now.org). In the past, NOW has lobbied for several important causes, including the enforcement of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

In 1970, Friedan stepped down from her role as president of NOW, but she was far from finished with activist participation. Friedan organized the nationwide Women’s Strike for Equality on August 26 of the same year, which was the 50th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution granting women the right to vote. An estimated 20,000 women participated in the strike in New York City. The march’s primary goal was promoting equal opportunities for women in jobs and education, but protestors and organizers also demanded reproductive rights and the establishment of child-care centers.

An enormously influential figure in the women’s rights movement, Betty Friedan began her work right here in Peoria. The Feminine Mystique remains one of the most important feminist works to date, and the results of Friedan’s activism can still be felt today. In downtown Peoria, Friedan’s likeness can be seen displayed on the Central Building at the corner of Main and Adams Streets, as part of the Portraits of Peoria project, created by a local artist. Beside her is a portrait of Dr. Romeo B. Garrett, who became the first African-American professor at Bradley University in 1947, and whose story will be shared in the next issue of Giving Voice.

About Molly Deadmond

Molly Deadmond is a recent graduate of Eureka College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications. Born and raised in Peoria, IL, Deadmond has a deep love for her community, and hopes to contribute to making her hometown a better place for all. Deadmond is a lover of all things creative, with a special love for creative writing. She believes that art is a form of therapy and escape that anyone can enjoy, regardless of talent or skill level. She enjoys video games, nature, and spending time with the ones she loves.