If modern feminism had saints, today would be a feast day.
Betty Friedan, founder and first president of the National Organization for Women in 1966, was born in Peoria, Ill., Feb. 4, 1921, and died Feb. 4, 2006.
Today we see Betty as a form of Elizabeth, but in medieval England, Bets and Bettys could be male. Those with the surnames Betts and Betson are likely to have ancestors named Bartholomew. Even women called Betty weren’t all Elizabeths. English Bettys could also be Beatrices. The first examples of girls baptized as “Betty” turn up around 1720.
Betty was common in 18th century England. In the United States, Betsy was preferred. The 1850 census, the first to list all Americans by name, found 18,641 Betsys and only 2,345 Bettys. The 1851 British census, when the two countries had similar populations, found 24,298 Betsys and 42,603 Bettys.
After the Civil War, Lizzie became the top American nickname for Elizabeth. The 1900 census had 11,233 Bettys, 16,363 Betsys and 398,290 Lizzies.
Betty revived around 1890. This was partly because of Sarah Orne Jewett’s book “Betty Leicester: A Story for Girls.” Teenager Betty spends the summer in a New England town, where her vivacious, kind personality cheers up the dour villagers. Promoted as wholesome reading for girls, the book was so popular, a sequel was published in 1899.
In 1900, Betty ranked 100th on Social Security’s yearly baby name lists, rising from 164th in 1890. In 1903, Zane Grey published his first book, “Betty Zane.” Based on his great-great-aunt’s heroism during the Revolutionary War, it was followed by two sequels. Grey’s westerns were best-sellers, making him one of America’s first millionaire authors.
Betty soared in popularity, becoming a top 10 name in 1921 and reaching second place in 1928, behind only Mary. It kept second spot until 1935.
Hollywood reinforced Betty with silent film stars Betty Blythe (known for 1921’s “The Queen of Sheba”) and Betty Bronson (star of the first “Peter Pan” in 1924.)
In 1921, a famous Betty was born when the Washburn Crosby company (later General Mills) invented “Betty Crocker.” Betty, with its “cheery wholesome sound” was perfect for the fictional baking expert, who’s been featured in ads ever since.
Some of the most famous Bettys are cartoons. Betty Boop, the first cartoon “sex symbol,” was created in 1930 (though the name “Betty” wasn’t finalized until 1932). In 1941, wholesome blonde Betty Cooper was created for the “Archie” comics as a best friend and romantic rival for brunette Veronica.
In 1959, Betty Rubble first appeared on “The Flintstones” as Wilma’s best friend and the wife of Fred’s sidekick, Barney.
Meanwhile, during the 1940s, actresses Betty Hutton (most famous for “Annie Get Your Gun”) and Betty Grable (celebrated for her beautiful legs) joined Bette Davis as big Hollywood stars.
In 1952, television made Betty White a star in “Life with Elizabeth.” She won two Emmys as Sue Ann on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” in the 1970s and another as Rose on “The Golden Girls” in the ’80s. Now she plays Elka on TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland” and is one of today’s most recognizable celebrities. She’d win the title of “coolest 92-year-old” hands down.
But none of this kept the name popular. Betty dropped out of the top 10 in 1945, the top 100 in 1963, and the top 1,000 in 1997. There were 38,237 Bettys born in 1930 — only 136 in 2012.
Once popular names often start to revive about 90 years after their last peak, and some of the younger posters on baby name websites think Betty’s poised to become cool with today’s hipster parents. So if Betty White makes it to 98, she may see lots of little Bettys arriving again.