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Betty Friedan: This Feminist was Fun

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February 4th is the first anniversary of Betty Friedan's death. There have been many editorials and obituaries since her departure one year ago. Few mentioned fun, so here is my memory, my tribute to Betty.

I don't think feminists were always fun. Sappho had her 7th century poems and her island - that may be literate, it may be important but it doesn't sound like life at the circus. Simone De Beauvior had style, yes, but was she really fun? Did Jean Paul invite her to sing limericks at their keg parties? I think not. He had his own place in his own arrondissement for that. Virgina Woolf? How much fun can you have in a room of your own?

[I use the term fun as a paradigmatic construct as defined by Erving Durkheim, Emile Goffman and Charles Bronson which means, in theoretic terms, the whole enchilada.]

Some early feminists in this country, Susan B. and Elizabeth C., had long dark dresses, long wordy letters to each other and long faces in their photos - not who you think of when you say I'd like to have some feminists over for poker. Or paint balling. Or anything else that's fun like saying yes to Woody Harrelson to see a movie screened at a friend's house.

But see Betty Friedan would do that. In fact, did do that. Back when I was director of a research institute at USC and Betty was newly assigned to us as guest lecturer - mid 80's this was - we ran into Woody and he asked her if she wanted to see a movie at somebody's house, the house of Hollywood attorney Skip Brittenham, his lawyer and Skip's wife, gorgeous actress, Heather Thomas. Of course Betty said yes, because Betty was game, always.

(Woody and Betty were an interesting couple...)

The movie, which turned out to be White Men Can't Jump was a sort of innocent, jock, socio-comic celluloid optimism but Betty's enjoyment of it for what it was, was delightful. She thanked our hostess and gave no critique, and for that alone I've always been grateful.

[She had a fiery temperament, well-publicized before I ever met her. She could be affronted if deference was not paid, credit was not noted - but she had a sense of the absurd that made it manageable: once she flared up at some proposed action that USC was going to take that more or less ignored her. She sat up straight and started agitatedly collecting her bags. "I'll just go back to Marina Del Rey," she announced to me, citing the community 14 miles south-west where she was borrowing a condo. I looked at her and said calmly, "Betty, you don't drive." Suddenly, she laughed, then with a lop-sided, smile, "You'll drive me."]

It was fun to go to pow-wows with Betty. We went together to Iceland, Ireland and Martha's Vineyard. The Vineyard event was something like Pro-Choice-and-Pro-Children and it had lots of meetings, hours of meetings - Communist cells didn't devote more time to their issues and here we were in this idyllic idyll and nothing but talk. Finally, a break was announced, two hours of free time.

I gathered Shana, my college-age daughter, my backpack of essentials - hand cream, sunscreen, change purse, traveler's checks, hairbrush, Kleenex, tic tacs of unknown vintage, 16 shiny and 2 matte lip glosses (I have dry lips), pens, calligraphy and ballpoint, post-its and the phone number of the hosts of the conference - and announced we were going to rent bikes and pedal around the island.

"I'll come." Betty said. Ms. Friedan was then in her 70's (This was around the time she said to me, "You know, the style now is short skirts, even for professional women." Yesss, I hesitated. "I happen to have very good legs." "Betty," I interrupt, "we're probably not gonna talk about this anymore.")

So Betty wants to come on a bike ride. It's across meridians and main roads, through villages and past those meretricious mansions that they call cottages there, down lanes and through traffic - professionals on performance-enhancing drugs might falter, but Betty wants to go. Moreover, I happen to know, her vision's not great, she's not exactly fit as a fiddle and she can't hear.

I grab a young woman from California, the head of CARAL as I recall, and say, "You're lead bike and traffic controller. Call out impediments as you see 'em." I ask Shana to go next, then Betty. I follow behind, yelling encouragement and warnings with frequent updates. When we return to the conference, all of us intact, three of us have lost a combined total of 24 lbs. in fear, sweat and shouting. Betty had fun.

We went to Iceland in 1990. Betty, my friend Kathy, some Kellogg fellows, the dazzling Olympia Dukakis fresh from her Academy Award, my 6-yr-old daughter Cailin and me. Our flight from New York was delayed four hours and we were isolated in a cavernous room at JFK for some reason, Cailin and Kathy sang Holly Near songs to exhaustion, Olympia gave us gossip about movie stars and Betty told tales about Nairobi all while seated on a skimpy metal folding chair with the rest of us at her feet. In between times she dozed.

In Reykjavik we met the President, Vigdis Finngadottir, a lovely Viking Masthead with curly blonde hair and smiling face. The press took lots of pictures of the famous Americans (Betty & Olympia) and the lil' girl with their president, until President Finngadottir said to Cailin, "Is there anything you want to know?" I could see Betty lean in to hear as Cailin said, "Is your hair naturally blonde?" Later Betty said, "Good question."

In Ireland we went to a pub. We'd just landed. It was Betty, Kathy, Irene Natividad, Cailin (now 7) and me. The Irish side of the table was their equivalent of Congress, ministers from here and there, a representative from President Robinson and like the, academics. There were grave discussions about what we'd drink. Would we have Ballygowan, would we have Guinness, would we have Stout? (Betty had whiskey, and the Irish liked her for it.)

Shopping with Betty was an anthropological experiment. The conference at the Jury Hotel in Dublin was a stone's throw from a collection of clothing stores recommended by Mary Robinson, Ireland's president. Betty brought me a cerise and green wool shawl. When I told her I didn't really wear cerise she said, "I think you do." It's a little scratchy but I wear it to this day. I guess she was right.

The thing is Betty was fearless. Arianna Huffington has written a book called On Becoming Fearless where she describes "women who ruffle the feathers of those birdbrains constantly parroting the status quo." "Fearless women," she says, "come in all shapes, forms, ages and professions."

Betty's fearlessness was in having style but not surrendering to it; challenging the press, the public, the powers that be and standing up in the blowback from that; in earning her own way but not being owned by the security of the purse; in growing older without regret, in loving, risking in relationships, revealing herself to friends, colleagues, men.

Betty liked men. At the 25th Anniversary of The Feminine Mystique the institute threw a big party for Betty. She had her hair done, her nails. She looked snazzy. We had 3 toasts: one by Mayor Tom Bradley, one by producer Norman Lear, one by business professor Warren Bennis, all friends of Betty's. All - in case you didn't happen to notice - men.

And why not? Can't have a revolution without half the human race. At this point the revolution was against a role, a rigid social role that Betty (despite her Mid-western roots) rejected. She wrote of one who could have been herself:

When she stopped conforming to the conventional picture of femininity she finally began to enjoy being a woman.

Betty was essentially a working journalist who became the story she covered. She was as brilliant, charming and personally powerful as any man so why should she be defined out from those attributes? Why shouldn't gender - the sex role, as we then termed it - be an elective?

Who knows what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves? Who knows what woman's intelligence will contribute when it can be nourished without denying love?

To her credit - after initially being what she called "very square" about gay women and their gender choices, in Texas in 1977 she seconded the motion supporting lesbian rights, to ratify the U.N. Platform for Women. The debate raged and rumors of a conservative, religious women's take-over inflamed the crowd. When Betty took the mike, 10,000 women delegates held their breath. Betty made a strong speech pledging her support. Some cheered, some wept, thousands of lavender balloons were released from the ceiling. When the vote was held, the motion passed overwhelmingly.

The time is at hand when the voices of the feminist mystique can no longer drown out the inner voice that is driving women on to become complete.

She was not a hustler or opportunist not a Queen Bee but a major entity, a creative force. Like any writer, Betty wanted to be judged for her work - not her sex, not her personality. Because her words were powerful and penetrating, her insights keen and without social hypocrisy so prevalent among magazine writers of her era, she was never boring.

Actually she was a lot of fun.

Diana Meehan is the co-founder of The Archer School, author of Learning Like a Girl

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