Betty Friedan, 1921-2006
Betty Friedan passed away on Saturday at the age of 85. She is a fantastic example how one person’s voice, speaking up on an issue on which they are passionate, can change the landscape for generations to come.
Friedan was a graduate of Smith College, my alma mater, and I once had the privilege of meeting her during her visit to campus. I had, of course, read The Feminine Mystique, and had tried to absorb what it meant at the time it had been published, reading it several years later when I was a teenager — and what it meant to me growing up in a small town in WV where the thought process was still that girls weren’t supposed to be smart and ought to be taking home ec. instead of physics.
Her words helped me to understand that, despite the external social pressures of my current environment, I could make my own choices as to what my life would be, instead of allowing my life to be defined by outside expectations and constraints. It was a revelation, and meeting her in person, I became a stammering fangirl — but she was quite gracious about it, and I eventually summoned the nerve to thank her for showing me that I was more than capable of standing on my own two feet. She had a quick, and ornery grin, and although it was something she had likely heard a bazillion times before, she grabbed my hand and squeezed and told me that I had a lot of bright choices to come as well — to never stop growing and reaching for my dreams.
It’s good advice, especially coming from a woman who wrote about a world that ought to be pro-choice, gender neutral in employment advertisement, supportive of maternity leave…all things that today’s younger women take for granted as a given, but which were nonexistent in her post-Eisenhower environment when she was writing it. Friedan founded the National Organization for Women as a reaction to the inaction of the federal government on women’s issues.
For all women who have found their own voice, stand on their own feet, and make their own choices — whether to work or stay at home, whether to have children or not, whatever. We all owe a debt to Betty Friedan. PBS did an interview with Betty a few years ago, and it is just as fresh in the reading today as it was back then.
It’s not really either/or. I mean, you say, "Well, do you get more thrill out of the books you’ve written, or your kids?" You can’t compare, can’t compare. I wouldn’t give up at all, ever, the experience of having my kids and the joy they’ve given me and now the grandkids. That’s a great part of life, very satisfying. But so is the fact that I have written several books that had an impact on my life and times, you know, the life of my time, as you might say. And there’s a great satisfaction in whenever I take time to think about it, which is almost never. To have used my life in a way that opened up possibilities of life for those that came after me. So I feel good about that.
Thank you, Betty Friedan. For daring to open the world to everyone, and for putting into words what so many women were feeling in 1963 — and for taking that next step in moving your thoughts forward into action.
NOTE: Here are the guests on the Sunday Talking Head shows. It’s a mixed bag today.
UPDATE: David Ehrenstein reminds me of the "Lavendar Menace" and Friedan’s history with lesbians in the feminist movement. This wiki article is worth a read for more of the history of this conflict. I tend to agree with reader fauxreal that human beings are complex and we can’t simply take a single instance of behavior as the sole representation of the whole — but then again, you can’t exactly ignore the bad exclusively for the good either, can you? (Or at least, you ought not do so, anyway. Because then you’d just be Fox News. Mwahaha.)