"In the beginning was Betty Friedan," said Muriel Fox, a co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW).
Friedan, despite a temper and huge reservoir of hostility, "was a great woman, one of the greatest people of the 20th century," said Fox, who also is chair of Veteran Feminists of America. "What Betty accomplished changed the world forever."
Friedan's singular accomplishment, said Fox, was not only to write a transformative book, "The Feminine Mystique," but also to build a movement to bring her ideas for women's equality to fruition. "It's as if Harriet Beecher Stowe had started the abolitionist movement after writing 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.'"
The occasion for these tributes was the celebration of Friedan's life, April 24 at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR). Sponsored by the Provost's Office, the Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies (FGSS) program and the ILR School, the event was attended by about 100 people, including Cornell Provost Biddy Martin, ILR Dean Harry Katz, two of Friedan's children, scholars, students, feminists, friends and former colleagues of the renowned author and activist.
A founder and first president of the NOW, Friedan, who died this February, had links to Cornell going back to 1969, when she took part in a seminal conference on women and launched the first large lecture course in women's studies on any campus. From 1998 until her death, she was a distinguished visiting professor at the ILR School and leader of its Institute for Women and Work's New Paradigm Project, involved in symposia, strategy sessions and conferences on women, men, work, family and public policy, all supported by a $1 million Ford Foundation grant.
Although her ideas were revolutionary at the time, Friedan was committed to making women's equality a mainstream movement and steered away from fringe groups, recalled Sheila Tobias, science educator, author, activist and co-organizer of the 1969 Cornell Conference on Women. "She attracted married, educated urban and suburban women, but not students, who started the Women's Liberation Organization" and not radical feminists or gay rights activists, who rejected many of her ideas and minimized her role, said Tobias.
Friedan's ideas also were often misunderstood by the media and the public, said Fox. For example, even though Friedan called early on for "an active, self-respecting partnership with men" in NOW's Statement of Purpose, which she co-wrote in 1966, she was frequently portrayed as a man-hater.
Many participants spoke of how Friedan's ideas evolved over time. Francine Moccio, who directs the Institute for Women and Work and co-taught the Changing American Workplace with Friedan to Cornell-in-Washington students, said: "In the '60s she felt that gay-lesbian issues would implode the women's movement because they weren't mainstream. However she said she learned that LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] issues are at the core of women's liberation because choice in women's sexuality is at the core of civil rights for women, and if it's not taken seriously, the whole thing is a sham," said Moccio.
Martin said: "Betty wasn't necessarily the best, but her sense of the moment, of the '50s and '60s, the postwar society, was amazing. The woman had character." However, "historical development arrives at different times in different places," said Martin, and achievements of the women's movement have yet to be universally realized.
Conference organizer Amy Villarejo, associate professor of film studies and director of FGSS, credited Friedan with confronting the way things are, saying "no" to injustice and shifting her ground. "Betty's new paradigm for men and women in the workplace seems an appropriate response to globalization and privatization," said Villarejo.
Seth Spiel, a junior in engineering who is active in Cornell Students Acting for Gender Equality, said that the panelists brought up important issues, such as the diversity of viewpoints within feminism. "We're all united under the front of emancipation," he said.
And Kate Bentsen, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences, said the speakers also reminded her that, "It's important for my generation to remember history and not take anything for granted."