02/06/2006 01:04 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Betty's Dead. Long Live Betty

I knew she was right decades before I had a husband and children of my own. It wasn't just the example of my own mother and my friends' mothers, women sinking in mysterious misery before our little wondering eyes. It was gut instinct, and to know someone validated it helped me make choices I have never regretted.

Unlikely heroine, the daughter of a Peoria jeweler, she was born Bettye Goldstein. Under her husband's name, not her father's, she wrote her great book, The Feminine Mystique, and later helped found the National Organization for Women and the National Abortion Rights Action League.

Hers was a masculinist era, dominated by war-ravaged men who needed mothering and security. She took it all down, dutiful scribe, quoting from Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, so that even today, almost fifty years later, we know what it was like back then.

"In the fifteen years after World War II, this mystique of feminine fulfillment became the cherished and self-perpetuating core of contemporary American culture," she wrote. "Millions of women lived their lives in the image of those pretty pictures of the American suburban housewife, kissing their husbands goodbye in front of the picture window, depositing their stationwagonsful of children at school, and smiling as they ran the new electric waxer over the spotless kitchen floor. Their only dream was to be perfect wives and mothers; their highest ambition to have five children and a beautiful house, their only fight to get and keep their husbands."

Sound like anyone you know? If not, you haven't been hanging out on a soccer field lately.

The AP obituary says she died of congestive heart failure. It doesn't say how long she was ill, whether she was still reading the papers back in November when the New York Times ran a cover story on the young Yale law school women who planned to put their degrees to use getting married, staying home and raising children.

In a PBS interview a few years ago, she talked about young women choosing housewifery over careers. She said that was fine, because they had a choice now.

"There is a new focus on really adequate parental leave, and flexible working hours, that it's taking into account the reality that most of the people in the workforce today will spend some years when they also have children and family responsibilities.

She said: "People."
She did not say: "Women."

The mystique of femininity dies hard. We don't really want to extinguish it. We like our lipsticks, our doors opened, the languor of being cared for. The mystique of motherhood is the hardest to part with. Women are still eschewing painkillers for natural childbirth, breastfeeding long past the arrival of tiny
teeth, applying the savvy and organizational skills of businesswomen and lawyers to food-processing homemade baby food and keeping household dust in check.

There are many women, one and two and three generations removed from Betty, who still insist that the fathers of their children, men as biologically invested in the tiny human projects, are innately incapable of properly caring for their offspring. These women opt to let their men off the hook entirely. They sport diamond rings in exchange for transforming themselves into stay-at-home, full time child-care workers. They are among those who would say 'women' instead of 'people.' The feminine mystique remains the easy way out. New mothers don't want to turn lovers into griping, full-partner nannies. The guys don't like that kind of work, and so "they can't" do it. If you believe that your man can't adequately care for a kid, it's hard to leave him in the house and go off to a job.

It's not 1963, but women who keep on working lack for mentors. Last night, I met a young woman who once wrote for The Daily Show, telling a typical story from the provinces of the cultural elite. She doesn't work there anymore because the guys who write the jokes aren't really comfortable with an attractive
young blonde woman in their midst, funny though she may be. They're more comfortable with their own kind. I can understand that. I don't have much in common with male, twenty-something ex-Harvard Lampoon editors and I never did. I seek out colleagues who get me. Inevitably, they seem to be female.

People with power share it with people like themselves. To change that, someone has to get up in their face. Who wants to do that anymore? Betty Friedan helped American women move into the public sphere. Her prose motivated a generation to get in someone's face, whether husband or boss. I, my
girlfriends, my daughter, all owe her a debt of gratitude.

The feminine mystique is alive and well, though. The culture still considers child care primarily or solely female work. Erasing that notion is the next great battle for American women. After that, will the boys' clubs start letting in women? Not in my lifetime.

In the Pink Floyd song, Wish You were Here, there's a line: "Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?" When I was fifteen and listening to that music, I had a very specific image of that war and that cage, and it came out of Betty's book.

Are we up for the long fight? I don't know. Fewer and fewer of us are inclined to choose a walk-on part in the war. More get back in the cage, like those young, energetic Yale law students who will put their expertise in torts to work building better peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. That's their choice,
though, partly thanks to Betty.

Saturday was her birthday. She just made it to 85. She died on the eve of Super Bowl Sunday.
Betty is dead. Long Live Betty.