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The woman behind the mystique

Interviews with Betty Friedan
Edited by Janann Sherman
University Press of Mississippi

Review by Margaret Foley

Interviews with Betty Friedan, a collection of interviews Friedan gave between 1963 and 1999, is one of the books that sat on my shelf for years. Purchased soon after it was released, it was relegated to that section of my bookshelves that contained the books I used for resources and the books I planned to read someday.

Sure, I'd read The Feminine Mystique in college, and I'd studied the history of the feminist movement, so I thought I knew what to expect when I finally opened the book. I would fill in what I already knew with the candid bits about Friedan's personality and personal life that are part and parcel of the magazine profile. In one respect, that's exactly what these interviews with publications such as Life, Playboy, Redbook,
Off Our Backs
, Working Woman, The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and McCall's, are.

But, in another respect the book is a revelation. I was born in 1965, so there is no point in my life when I do not remember some sort of women's movement or "Women's Lib," as it is referred to in some of the early pieces. However, when read chronologically -- and in quick succession -- these interviews provide a fascinating insight into the feminist movement in the United States as it was happening. This is one book about feminism that doesn't have an overarching narrative imposed upon it. Rather, what the reader sees, through the prism of Friedan's life, is its messy and complicated history.

One of the first interviews Friedan gave after the publication of The Feminine Mystique was to Life Magazine. These early pieces from the 1960s and 1970s are excellent reminder of just how radical her ideas seemed at the time. While she was not necessarily the first person to argue that women needed some kind of life outside the home, she was really the first to create a language that could bring those issues into public discourse in such a way that they could be given political energy. Many of these early interviews describe Friedan with words like "angry battler for her sex, " "Women's Liberation Herself," "overbearing," and "the Jewish girl from Peoria" and describe her book "as disruptive of cocktail party conversation and women's club discussions as a tear-gas bomb." A reporter for the New York Times Magazine accompanies her on a trip to give a speech at "male-dominated and -- oriented" Wake Forest University, where the anticipation is that she will not play well to a Southern crowd. Of course, Friedan draws the largest crowd Wake Forest has ever seen.

When Friedan first entered the national arena, pundits did not quite what to make of her, what slot to put her into. But, when one reads the answers Friedan gives to the questions she's asked, it's clear how much her message must have resonated with readers. Her language manages to be concise, descriptive, and political all at once. As she said in a 1963 interview, just after The Feminine Mystique was published: "But if I can put across the idea that a woman is first of all a person, not a mommy, not a sex object, not an unpaid dishwasher -- that she needn't choose between house and career -- but have both --it'll all be worth it."

Some of the most interesting interviews cover her political work -- as she made the transition from author to activist and began to have philosophical and political conflicts with other leaders of the feminist movement, who were younger and had a different agenda. In 1966, Friedan founded the National Organization for Women to help women participate fully in the political process. NOW favored abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and integrating male-only clubs. But, by the 1970s, Friedan was no longer considered radical, but was considered somewhat conservative because of her continued focus on the needs of women in traditional family structures and because she felt that uneasy with the more radical politics and sexual politics of younger women who became activists. What Friedan discovered was that although she may have provided a political language and a new area of political activity, she could not control its uses and interpretations.

Friedan initially argued that feminists should not actively embrace lesbians and their rights issues, because it would make it "easy for the so-called Moral Majority to lump ERA with homosexual rights and abortion into one explosive package of licentious, family-threatening package." It was not until 1977 that she publicly came out for political rights for lesbians.  She publicly disagreed with people like Eleanor Smeal, Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi and other, yet when asked about Friedan, many of these women who felt that she was not political enough would credit her with being the "first person who awakened women to their oppression and for that alone we should pay homage."

One of the tendencies in American culture is to freeze people in a certain identity. Friedan was (and is) almost always referred to as the author of The Feminine Mystique, which suggests her ideas and interests did not extend much past that early publication. These interviews show that is far from the truth. Freidan comes across as a perceptive interpreter of American culture throughout her life.

If there is one aspect of Friedan's philosophy that was consistent throughout her life, it is her relentless examination of the effects of political and social movements on the family. For example, in a 1982 interview that coincided with the publication of her book, The Second Stage, she analyzed conservative politics in way that is still relevant today:

The Moral Majority, the radical right, people like Jesse Helms [Republican Senator, NC] use the concept of the family demagogically, and they play to real needs of people. I think that people are concerned about families. I don't believe that young people today have a good enough choice on whether to start a family or not. The reality that parents have to work outside the home is not taken into account by society in terms of the family. So we don't have the necessary structure of hours and aids in child care.

It is for the welfare of families that we need things like child care. It's a lie to wave the flag of family and then to prevent action on new solutions that real families -- especially children -- now need.

And in one of the collection's final interviews with The Peoria State Journal, Friedan addresses the intense focus on mothering in this country and how the nature of parenting must change:

And then, on the consciousness level, there must be a more conscious push on parenting not being just the mother's responsibility. Two parents, not even just necessarily the mother and father, recognition of diversity of family shape and structure today. And in all these weeks and years there has been such a focus on choice, and I think that has been right…OK, what about the choice to bear children? That has to be much more focused on the conditions that make it possible for a woman to advance in her career and not have to wait until she's 40 and needs maybe in-vitro fertilization to have a kid. So, there's much more that needs to be done.

Of course, these interviews also give a sense of Betty Friedan as a person, which is one of the pleasures of reading compilations such as this one. She comes across as intelligent, argumentative, thoughtful, funny, rude, and quick to judge. In short, one of those aggravating, yet interesting people, we all like to be around and from whom we often learn something important.

mmo : march 2006

Margaret Foley is a writer living in Portland, Oregon, where she is a founding editor of the litzine, Thereby Hangs a Tale (www.therebyhangsatale.com). She is a regular contributor to the MMO.
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