Celebrating Women’s History Month: Betty Friedan and Her Early Days in Peoria Illinois

While Betty Friedan may not be a household name, her work helped many women get out of the kitchen. And though in her death this past February millions of feminists lost a leader, her contribution to the women’s movement continues to inspire millions more.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Friedan is commonly credited with the formation of the feminist movement of the 1960s, thanks to her groundbreaking work, The Feminine Mystique. She was also the founder of the National Organization for Women, and was one of the top activists in the women’s liberation movement. Her early life in Peoria, however, is one of the main reasons she became influential in the first place.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Bettye Goldstein was born February 4, 1921 at the old Proctor Hospital. Her father, Harry, owned Goldstein’s Jewelry Store, which he dubbed “the Tiffany’s of the Midwest,” according to a book on Friedan’s life by Daniel Horowitz called Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique. Her mother Miriam was a graduate of Bradley University and, before she married, was the women’s page editor for a Peoria newspaper.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Friedan called Peoria, “the middle of middle America,” according to an online transcript from the PBS program “The First Measured Century.” She described her family as comfortable middle-class citizens, thanks to the profits her father earned from his gem, silver and china sales. Friedan, her parents, and her two siblings lived in an area of Peoria known as the Bluffs. They situated themselves in an eight-room house on Farmington Road overlooking Bradley Park. While her house wasn’t the fanciest, Friedan and her family were able to make-do with a butler and a maid until the Depression. The Goldsteins also belonged to the North Shore Country Club, mainly because Jews weren’t allowed admission in the Peoria Country Club.
The family belonged to the Anshai Emeth Temple, which is currently located on University St. Although her parents were active in the temple, the family celebrated Christmas, and in high school Friedan admitted to her rabbi that she didn’t believe in God.
As a child, Friedan was volatile, often to the point of violence. She once hit a boy in the head with a hoe, and tore a patch of hair out of a girl’s head. She tormented her brother and sister as well. But most of the fights that broke out in the Goldstein home were between Friedan and her mother. Miriam Friedan regularly ridiculed her daughter’s appearance, annoyed with the fact that Friedan couldn’t live up to her expectations. Miriam was active in many activities that were largely feminine: golf, tennis, bridge, mah jongg and shopping. Her daughter, however, found solace in books and writing.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Friedan took sides with her father, with whom she had a genial rapport. He was proud of her intellect and often quizzed her on current events around the dinner table. The pair frequently took early morning walks through Bradley Park together.�¯�¿�½

The future leader of NOW’s adolescent years had their ups and downs. Mrs. Goldstein had persuaded her daughter to try out for the newspaper when she got into high school. While working at the student newspaper at Peoria High School, she received her own column and frequently wrote stories about national and international politics and issues. Friedan also launched a literary magazine with a few fellow classmates. Her writing was an outlet with which she could describe the social forces working around her.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

After reading Middleton, a book by Robert and Helen Lynd about Muncie, Ind., Friedan became conscious of the class divisions in Peoria, especially between her family and the working class. She was also made aware of the racism that haunt her for most of her high school days.�¯�¿�½

In the PBS interview with Friedan, she called her adolescence miserable. Her description of an “Emily Dickinson adolescence, reading poetry on gravestones,” differed greatly with what she actually wanted. In her sophomore year she was refused from joining her high school’s sorority because she was Jewish. The rampant anti-Semitism around her made her feel isolated and kept her even more involved with her books and writings. What she had really wanted to do, she said, was go down to Hunt’s for hamburgers with her classmates, but her ostracization from her school’s sororities made this difficult.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

During this time of intellectual awakening was when Friedan began to form the foundation of what would become the women’s movement. She realized how unhappy her mother was with her situation. Mrs. Goldstein had loved working at the newspaper; when she married she was forced to quit, which was a common occurrence at the time. In Horowitz’s book, Friedan says this was part of the reason for her feminism. She was frustrated with the fact that her mother had no outlet for her talent and ability, and this frustration led her to start, in her writings, working out the societal problems she saw.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

The “most famous person to come out of Peoria,” as she described herself in a 1999 article of the Peoria Journal star, was also celebrated in her later high school years. She won many awards in school, including one as a senior for portraying the madwoman in a production of Jane Eyre. When she graduated in 1938, she was honored as being one of the six valedictorians from her class, according to the Historic Peoria website.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Later in life, Friedan would admit that being from Peoria used to embarrass her, saying it was “a vaudeville joke,” and “the epitome of a hick town,” according to Horowitz. But, according to the Journal Star article, she still keeps the “Peoria High School’s Distinguished Alumnus Award” she received on a shelf in her Long Island apartment. The 85-year-old feminist may have criticized her native roots, but she didn’t forget them.

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