On the feminist front Hardly the retiring type, Friedan takes on obsolete images of aging

March 10, 1993|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

This year, "The Feminine Mystique," a book that launched an American social revolution, turned 30.

And its author, Betty Friedan, turned 72. "The figures are freighted with a whole mystique of age, blah, blah, blah, but I never felt more full of beans in my life," Ms. Friedan says in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

The cantankerous crusader -- the founding president of the National Organization for Women who also helped to start the National Abortion Rights Action League and the National Women's Political Caucus -- is hardly a foremother emeritus. Her mind races impatiently with study findings, statistics and ideas for improving society. She is a visiting professor at the University of Southern California, will teach at New York University in the fall, speaks widely -- she will lecture tomorrow night at the Johns Hopkins University -- and runs a think tank on women's issues.

There is flak to catch for her healthy ego and stance on family. "Backlash" author Susan Faludi called Ms. Friedan a traitor for acknowledging the "maternal call" in her 1981 book, "The Second Stage." And in a Playboy interview last year, Ms. Friedan accused women's movement leaders, namely those who did not invite her to speak at the 1992 pro-choice march in Washington, of attempting "to write me out of history."

Try as they might, younger feminists cannot leave her behind. Ms. Friedan keeps racing ahead of the curve.

Her new book, "The Fountain of Age," will be published by Simon & Schuster later this year. Ms. Friedan hopes that "Fountain" will correct widespread misconceptions about age in the same way "Feminine Mystique" took on "the now obsolete image" of women.

"I think that I successfully exposed and broke through an image of age that is defined solely as decline and deterioration from youth, and disease, senility, isolation as problems for society. [There is an] enormous dread and fear of age," Ms. Friedan says.

"What I proposed to do is look at these new years after 60 as simply a period of human life, and look at them on their own terms: Do we love the way we loved when we were 30? Do we work the way we worked when we were 30? The whole sense is different."

As she researched and wrote, Ms. Friedan examined her own attitude toward aging. In the process, she underwent a sea change that mirrored her transformation from frustrated housewife to revolutionary three decades earlier. "This was harder in a way," Ms. Friedan says. "The mystique of age is even more pernicious, and deadly and dreary, and I'm not free of the denial.

"I had to work through it, even to look at my own life with different eyes."

It was an invaluable journey, she says. "Once you break through all that denial and look at it in reality, you're free to live your age in all terms and to risk adventure. . . . Now I have less holding me back. What have I got to lose?"

"The Feminine Mystique" coincided with a decade of social flux that toppled all kinds of American myths. With her new book, Ms. Friedan's timing is again impeccable. Today, Americans are graying, and eager to banish the very stereotypes of age that kindled unrest in the 1960s. "The Fountain of Age" may serve that purpose famously.

Just the same, Ms. Friedan laughs at the image of the "yuppie generation and baby boomers having hysteria at the idea of being 40, much less 50."

Meanwhile, the men and women born since the publication of Betty Friedan's landmark work are still learning its lessons, often the hard way.

Ms. Friedan wishes she could be in Baltimore tonight to participate in Goucher College's "Take Back the Night" rally. The protest against rape and the physical abuse of women was deliberately scheduled to conflict with the "Miss Goucher" contest, a mock beauty pageant performed by men in drag.

The idea of the spoof, which last year included a simulated sex act, does not amuse Ms. Friedan.

"It seems to be absolutely gross. I don't use the term lightly, but it'sharassment, isn't it?" Ms. Friedan says.

But who ever said the women's movement was perfect, or complete? "I never promised you a rose garden," Ms. Friedan says bluntly.

Skirmishes with the "piglet boys at Goucher" notwithstanding, "The Feminine Mystique," -- more than 2 million copies sold in a dozen languages -- has left its mark.

"Let's not ignore the enormity of [what has happened] in the 30 years since 'The Feminine Mystique,' " Ms. Friedan says.

"It's the assumptions that your generation grew up with. . . . Women make up 40 percent of law school enrollment. There are three times as many women elected to Congress than ever before. The fact that you have first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as the living embodiment of a women in an equal marriage and fully using her abilities.

"There is no question there has been an enormous change in society, a paradigm shift."

Ms. Friedan is heartened by the Clinton administration's early attention to the needs of Americans.

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