THE BLOG
02/09/2006 11:19 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Who Was Bettye Naomi Friedan?

Yes, I've been mulling over Betty Friedan's death the past couple days. I feel so little pathos, as if I barely knew her.

I kick myself a little. I understand that The Feminine Mystique was one of modern feminism's milestones. But during my coming-of-age in the '70s, Friedan was ignored and disdained by my peers. There was a tremendous gap between her milieu and mine.

She seemed so old, so distant, rich and removed. Bored housewives? I couldn't relate. When I first heard her described as a "bourgeois feminist," that seemed to sum it up. I didn't know that she was once a "Teenage Marxist" (as I was), until I read her obit yesterday.

Her antagonistic comments about lesbians, (The Lavender Menace!) and sexual revolution, were anathema to those of us who felt like sexual politics were the beating heart of feminism. And we certainly were the ground troops.

I associated Friedan's feminism with the right for a married woman to get her own name listed in the White Pages, to not be "Mrs. John Doe."

But those priorities didn't speak to my passions at the time. I thought NOW meetings of the '70s were "racist, classist, heterosexist," and worst of all, "liberal wusses." I'm using the words I would have used at the time! Plus, their members were all twenty years older than me, which made me squirm.

As years went by, I would read a quote by her and realize she was very sharp, always considering things from a woman's point of view. She recanted her homophobia, apologized for being a "square," and was a fierce free-speech advocate.

She thought all the energy poured into fighting "pornography" was a complete waste of time. Her anathema to Dworkin/MacKinnon was partly because she thought the women's movement was doomed if it got involved with sex, positively or negatively. The very word "orgasm" just made her mad; she saw it as a distraction from matters at hand.

In her latter years, she used her extraordinary influence as an advocate for elders. But I still can't see her as a Gray Panther.

Friedan was someone who pushed the capitalist crowd to realize that it could embrace a great deal of feminism's prerogatives to their own advantage -- and come out smelling like a rose. Equal rights don't have to be continually at odds with profit motives. You see the same strain in all civil-rights movements.

It's funny that I would identify more with Dworkin, given our differences, but it's a cultural thing. Andrea was an artist, and a self-styled revolutionary, and had this "off-the-pig" thing going on that was very hot with 16-year-old radicals at the time!

Betty seemed like someone's stuffy old mom. In retrospect, although I correctly identified our differences, I was irreverent towards her, dismissive. Her greatest crime, to my adolescent mind, was that she was a woman over 40. Today, I'm more respectful to anyone who gives a damn, and to any woman who has the stamina and passion to write such an influential book. She was a firebrand, and there's nothing stuffed about that.

When I think of all those articles I see today about Ivy League babes giving up their careers to get "The Perfect Trophy Wife & High Achieving Mother Award," I feel like sending them a dog-eared copy of The Feminine Mystique. I'm sure they, too, will be experiencing "the problem that has no name,"' and could use a little eye-opener from Betty:

Over and over, women heard the voices of tradition and of Freudian sophistication that they could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity.

Experts told them how to catch a man and keep him, how to breastfeed children and handle their toilet training, how to cope with sibling rivalry and adolescent rebellion; how to buy a dishwasher, bake bread, cook gourmet snails, and build a swimming pool with their own hands; how to dress, look, and act more feminine and make marriage more exciting; how to keep their husbands from dying young and their sons from growing into delinquents.

They were taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine, unhappy women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents. They learned that truly feminine women do not want careers, higher education, political rights -- the independence and the opportunities that the old-fashioned feminists fought for. Some women, in their forties and fifties, still remembered painfully giving up those dreams, but most of the younger women no longer even thought about them. A thousand expert voices applauded their femininity, their adjustment, their new maturity...