Betty Friedan tells her side of the story, in an autobiography so amiable that friends and enemies alike will wonder what happened to the confrontational woman who was the intellectual tsunami in the second-wave struggle for women’s rights.
Friedan (The Fountain of Age, 1993) sticks with the basic outline of earlier (unauthorized) profiles. Growing up “different” in Peoria, Illinois, Friedan felt out of step. Mainstream society (or her vision of it) shaped her thinking: change comes from the middle class, as she said later. Smith College disciplined her mind but did little to relieve the social pressures (in support of marriage and childrearing) that she felt she could not measure up to. Reflections on her children (“I never had problems with my kids”), her marriage (divorce only after years of black eyes), her lovers, and her travels are interesting enough, but they pale beside the recapitulation of her thoughts as she shapes The Feminine Mystique. With due credit to the then-anonymous women who urged her on, Friedan recounts the founding of the National Organization for Women. She walks us through the controversies that were engendered within the movement by a growing opposition to her belief that men are not the enemy, and although she admits disarmingly that her opinions have changed on some issues—especially her feelings towards lesbians—she still maintains that male vs. female separatism is a mistake. As the separatists gained power, she dropped out (or was maneuvered out) of feminist centers of power and moved on to preach independently about “second-stage” feminism. With a million-dollar Ford Foundation grant now behind her, Friedan now continues her research and writes on the “new paradigm” of social organization (emphasizing such practical supports for working families as childcare). Although friends say she has mellowed, Friedan declares bluntly that “I’ve always been a bad-tempered bitch.”
On the personal side, a best-case scenario; on the political side, a brilliant thinker sets the adrenaline flowing all over again.