Betty Friedan comes of age, a successful revolutionary

The Argument

May 21, 2000|By Lauren Weiner | Lauren Weiner,Special to the Sun

One of the people who established the image of the 1950s as a stultifying time in America was Betty Friedan. Friedan, 79, was a high-achieving graduate student in psychology during World War II. Had she taken the scholarly path that lay open to her, rather than settling for life as a New York journalist and suburban mother, she might never have written "The Feminine Mystique" (W.W. Norton, 452 pages, $27.50, 1963). She ran circles around the scholars, using a plain writing style, some pretty arbitrary research methods and most of all her burning dissatisfactions, to produce a book that was more than a book. "The Feminine Mystique" helped make a revolution.

Historians believe "Mystique" exaggerated the extent to which 1950s capitalism repressed women by "forcing" them out of the public sphere and into the role of homemaker. But distorted or not, Friedan's message resonated with legions of American wives and mothers. She became not only a celebrated author, but a pioneer of 1960s and 1970s feminism -- inspiring the founding of the National Organization for Women and the National Abortion Rights Action League.

Reading Friedan's memoir, "Life So Far" (Simon and Schuster, 380 pages, $26), leads me to conclude that she achieved more as a savvy political fighter than as an intellectual. Notwithstanding her lofty place in the annals of contemporary history, the existentialist hauteur of a Simone de Beauvoir is not for her. Likewise, the crazed diatribes of the "gender studies" professors leave her cold. Too abstract. Rather, this bumptious American woman poured her energies into what was right in front of her: her own ambitions and the obstacles to achieving them, in her society and in herself.

Everything -- the international political order, the upbringing of children, trends in psychotherapy, the U.S. Constitution -- is an extension of her personal world. It's a very womanly way of proceeding. Indeed she believes she is Everywoman, coming as she does from Peoria, Ill.

Her description of her early life is engaging. One does accept her -- to a degree -- as the average, patriotic, unpretentious Midwesterner. Though it must be added, she went East to attend Smith College in 1938 to shed her "Peoria-bred insecurities and proprieties" (like her girlhood conviction that sex was reserved for marriage, and her moral aversion to adultery).

Despite initially shying away from the academic life, this striving journalist and busy mother of three ended up there anyway -- as a roving "Great Mind," lecturing and writing at all the big universities, funded by all the big foundations. Humbly, she thanks America for being a country that, far from jailing its critics, listens to them, even lionizes them.

At every stage of her career, whether the subject has been women's roles or how to age gracefully, her research, her political organizing and her writing have grown out of her own personal situation of the moment. If she heads off to the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami in the late 1980s, it's because she's scouring the country in search of the most forward-thinking gerontologists ... and because she needs to lose some weight. As a reward for diligent labors -- and her diligence is impressive -- this practical revolutionary gets a book out of it ("The Fountain of Age," Touchstone Books, $17, 1993) and a slimmer waistline.

That she so completely lacks detachment does not negate her intelligence. It simply means the mystique surrounding the author of "The Feminine Mystique" misrepresents her. She's no philosopher.

Crudely, she careens from social reform to whether she's "a good lay" (she reports that she is) to her children's and grandchildren's lives to the CIA's supposedly infiltrating feminist conferences by sending in disruptive lesbians. She jumps world peace to the houses and apartments she has inhabited over the years to the sex-based double standards by which Hollywood operates.

It's chockablock, and all roads lead to her. Smack in the middle of an insightful passage about how old movie actors are treated as if they had sex appeal but old actresses aren't, she caps a generality about the American woman's fear of aging with some down-home considerations. Namely whether or not, in her own case, she would choose "the sort of flattering tan color my cousin had turned her hair." She declares: "I'm not going to dig myself into a fox hole on this by swearing I won't ever try coloring my hair."

What a goof! I was charmed, I confess. On the left they insist "the personal is political." Friedan has succeeded with this formula better, possibly, than any other American. It is as if one's Aunt Adele from Ashtabula had been set up as the Jean Jacques Rousseau of her age.

Theoretical nuance is not her strong suit. Still, it is interesting to note how the memoir implicitly corrects the "equity feminists" and "difference feminists" who feud inside the movement Friedan helped to build.

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