Saturday, February 04, 2006

Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan, Women's Movement Pioneer, Dead at 85

I find myself surprised at my reaction to the death of Betty Friedan. As a radical feminist and a Lesbian who lived through some of the ups and downs of the feminist movement in the seventies, I remember being very impressed with her revolutionary ideas in her Feminine Mystique book but soon after my sense of her was diminished when I heard that some Lesbians were being forced to leave NOW, The National Organization of Women, which she co-founded. It appears by 1977, Friedan had somewhat softened her ideas about Lesbians and Feminists who were less mainstream in their thoughts about what to do in relation to men and the patriarchal system. She came to accept it all and by then was less homophobic and them moved on to the study of aging which is my field. I knew none of this really until I read one of the obituaries on her life.

To go back to the beginning, in spite of the negative information I contained in my head about Betty Friedan from the past, I was saddened immensely by her death. Friedan represented a class and generation of women who really needed her fresh way of looking at their reality. My Mother who would be in her mid nineties today certainly was one of them and I think she too benefited greatly from the work of Friedan and others that came from her frame of reference. And I benefited too and very much so from the fact that Friedan could put a face on the reality of our discontent, in my case, an affirmation that it was okay not to have children or marriage. It was okay to not be involved in a system that was clearly not good for women and in a sense not good for men either.

It wasn't until I read Friedan' account of her own Mother's life in one of the obituary accounts that I realized how similar my own Mother's life and reactions to her life were like Betty Friedan's Mother. The Mother felt less discontent as her husband grew weaker and her Mother was able to take on his job selling jewelry. This feeling and perception Friedan called the "feminine mystique" came out of her Mother's life as well as her own. The limited channels these women had available for true expression of their deepest desires and feeling as an individual was the problem Friedan so brilliantly clarified. And it may well be that Friedan did not go far enough in her conception of what could be for women. Strangely enough, she did go in a more alternative direction in her study of aging when she published a major work titled Fountain of Age. She broke the stereotyped thinking gerontologists and medical people often promote that make the old feel less than and devalued. In addition, she spelled out ways the traps of aging could end which was for old people to take charge of their lives and create new communities that met their own needs not those of their children.

Sharon Raphael