PEORIA, IL -- Betty Friedan, author of the groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique and founder of the modern women's movement, is the most significant person ever to come out of Peoria.
(Here's a link to the Betty Friedan Tribute website hosted by Bradley University.)
A display at Peoria's Riverfront Museum, and a talk on Oct. 25 by former Peoria Journal Star editorial writer Barb Mantz Drake combined to show that significance.
Drake is a founder and member of a committee dedicated to recording and promoting Friedan's legacy and her ties to Peoria. She interviewed Friedan in 1999 for a newspaper story, and has researched her life and thought.
Her fascinating lecture, accompanied by a slide presentation, revealed what she described as "a complex, brilliant, difficult woman" who "changed the world," the "most important person Peoria has ever produced."
Friedan is on everyone's list of most important people in the 20th century, author of "one of the most significant books ever written."
Drake described how women were discriminated against in so many ways in the 1950s. Friedan was fired from her job with a labor newspaper when she became pregnant with her second child, which was "perfectly legal."
McCalls, the Ladies Home Journal and Redbook magazines all rejected Friedan's initial article on the themes of the Feminine Mystique. So Friedan wrote a book about the discontent of middle class, educated women with the limited role of housewife and mother. It took her five years, and was hand written.
It was a book whose time had arrived, sold millions of copies, and was translated into a dozen languages.
The magazines that had rejected her ideas then published excerpts from the book, Drake said. "Betty pulled the trigger on history," one critic said.
The revolution that was the women's movement stemmed from the civil rights movement and the legislation to enforce it. Another Peoria area lawmaker, Everett Dirksen, helped pass it, Drake said. Women were included as a protected group in that legislation.
When the federal government failed to enforce the anti-discrimination laws, women formed groups to agitate for enforcement, including the National Organization for Women. Friedan was its first president. She wrote the first sentence of its statement of purpose on a napkin.
The group ultimately split over gay rights and other issues, and Friedan soon found herself out of power, but went on to write other books.
Her greatest disappointment was the failure to pass national legislation to fund high quality child care, Friedan told Drake.
Friedan also had marital problems, was abused by her husband and finally divorced him.
Drake's 1999 interview with Friedan, in her Washington DC apartment, was nearly a disaster. Friedan was prickly, and at one point told Drake and the film crew from the Peoria PBS station, WTVP to "get out." But she then relented and answered questions. "That was the most stressful interview I ever had," Drake said.
Friedan credited her early life in Peoria for giving her the idea that people can organize and do anything. She praised Peoria's "can do spirit."
She also resented the town's discrimination against Jews. Her father, a local businessman, was not allowed to join the Peoria Country Club.
Her mother was a frustrated stay-at-home mom, and her dad was a "free thinker" Drake said, apparently except where women were concerned.
He attended the debate between Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan on evolution, Drake said.
Friedan was a valedictorian at Peoria High School, then went on to Smith College. Though the Feminine Mystique is obviously aimed at upper middle class women, a criticism of the book, she said Peoria gave her "a sense of how to speak to all women."
"Much that I am is Peoria," Friedan said.
Nevertheless, "she changed the world. She changed Peoria," Drake said, by inspiring generations of women.
Here is a recording of Drake's talk.
Here is a recording of the question and answer session.
-- Elaine Hopkins