There have been quite a few losses in recent days—Moira Shearer, the lovely red-headed ballerina whose dancing and acting artistry lit up The Red Shoes; Al Lewis, who respectably ripped off the mature Jackie Coogan’s Uncle Fester in creating his hilarious Grandpa Munster; and playwright of the feminine experience Wendy Wasserstein. Civil rights icon Coretta Scott King, certainly the most prominent among the recent dead, had a televised funeral befitting a queen. But the loss that affected me the most was that of Betty Friedan, who succumbed to congestive heart failure on Saturday at the age of 85. A visible shudder went through my body, and unseen hands pushed me into my den, where I removed my copy of The Feminine Mystique from its place on my bookshelf and ran my palm lightly across its paper cover.
While I certainly don’t begrudge the televised tributes Coretta Scott King has been paid, I have to ask whether Betty Friedan’s contributions to freedom are held in equal esteem? The convictions that guided Betty Friedan’s life and work have been in prolonged eclipse ever since “morning in America” meant waking up in the arms of Ronald Reagan and all his acolytes of the Radical Right. I presume that her founding of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) is one of the reasons news of her death came and went in a day.
As a 50-year-old woman, I can’t pretend that I know precisely what “the problem that has no name” felt like for women of Ms. Friedan’s era. But I do identify with her life to some extent because I, like many women through the centuries, have had to make some of the same painful choices she did.
Bettye Naomi Goldstein was an unlovely girl who never fit into the popular set at her Peoria, IL, high school. But she was smart. She attended Smith College and went on to graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, where she studied under the famous psychologist Erik Erikson. Nonetheless, as bright as she was, she turned down a PhD fellowship at the urging of her physicist boyfriend. Being physically unattractive, Betty felt she had no choice if she wanted to have love. However, the resentment she felt grew too great, and her romance bit the dust. She moved to New York City and became a reporter.
In 1947, Friedan married and started a family. It was during her years of tending to laundry, dinners, dishes, and daisies and letting her education, her brain, stagnate, that she realized how painful “enforced domesticity” really was, and how condescending the remedies she was given for it—charity work, bowling, and tranquilizers. It took her own desperation, and the discovery that she was not alone in feeling it, to make her write about the vapidity of “the feminine mystique” of domesticity as a woman’s highest calling.
Her book kindled a movement in which Betty Friedan, as one of the founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW), would play a crucial part. In addition to NOW and NARAL, Friedan also founded the National Women’s Political Caucus.
The reason that I can look at want ads and not find, “Help Wanted—Female” as a category is because Betty Friedan worked to end that practice. The reason other women have entered politics, medicine, and the military in large numbers is because Friedan worked to see that they had the rights and opportunities to do so. Young women who think a backlash against feminism is a blow for femininity might want to go a little further and have their credit history wiped out and rely on their husbands for their future credit-worthiness. Betty Friedan made economic freedom for women a top priority in her fight for all women’s rights.
Most of all, Betty Friedan made me understand a woman of her generation who means a lot to me—my mother. There were times when her manic cleaning, her short temper, and her intense focus on appearance drove me mad. Now I understand that what I saw was the face of frustration. Thank you, Betty and Mom, for making me a better woman. l