A Feminist in the Late ‘80s : Betty Friedan Helped Launch the Modern Women’s Movement. Twenty-Four Years Later, She Finds the Revolution Still Needs Her. : A Place in History

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<i> Bettyann Kevles is a frequent contributor to The Los Angeles Times. </i>

THE PHONE HASN’T STOPPED ringing since 9 a.m. and Betty Friedan has risen three times from her bath to answer it. It’s past 11 and she’s still not ready to leave her Sea Colony apartment in Santa Monica for a noon lecture at USC. “Who is it?” she calls from the bedroom.

“USA Today,” I answer.

Twenty-four years ago, Friedan wrote a book called “The Feminine Mystique.” A classic of feminist literature, it expressed the latent discontent many American women felt with their position in society, and helped trigger the women’s movement worldwide. Three years later, in 1966, she helped found the National Organization for Women and was its first president. She still has an uncanny ability for articulating the needs of women of all ages.

Her historical role in advancing women’s rights has been likened to Thomas Paine’s in the 18th Century, when his pamphlet “Common Sense” energized Yankee discontent on the eve of the American Revolution. It is not uncommon to hear her compared to earlier feminist leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.


Friedan’s concern these days is for the future of the movement that she helped launch. “The suffragettes disbanded after winning the vote in 1919,” she points out--and two generations later, American women were back in the kitchen, living within the confines of a new mystique: An ideology that insisted that a woman belonged at home, enjoying the greater world only vicariously, through the accomplishments of her husband and children. The advances of the last two decades have been substantial, but feminists today have more to do than maintain a holding pattern. To remain viable, Friedan believes, the women’s movement must have a forward momentum. Its next goal should be a reshaping of both society and the workplace, which she believes are geared toward a “male model.” In this new world--no longer just a man’s world--women would not be forced to choose between family and career.

“There are powerful forces in America today, right-wingers and evangelists who threaten to re-impose earlier roles on women,” she tells a packed auditorium of mothers and daughters at the Westlake School for Girls in Bel-Air one day. These daughters are the people she wants to reach now, members of the “I’m not a feminist, but I’m going to be an astronaut” generation who listen incredulously to Friedan’s descriptions of life with girdles and curfews. She is not asking for their gratitude. She is cautioning vigilance.

On this April morning, while she prepares for the day, I find myself running interference with the phone. Friedan emerges draped in a light blue terry-cloth caftan and grabs the receiver on the counter between the kitchen and the living room. “They want to know,” I explain, “if you have an opinion about the new short skirts.”

Her demeanor changes like quicksilver. The comfortable matron is transformed, her toga no longer an after-swim cover-up but a cloak of authority. Standing as tall as her 5 feet, 2 inches allow, Friedan becomes a spokeswoman for the movement. “I am opposed to short narrow skirts,” she pronounces. “They are undignified and denigrating to anyone over 20. I shall continue wearing my skirts long and flowing and unhobbling and pretty.”


IT IS HARD TO IMAGINE Betty Friedan’s mental map of Los Angeles. Having allotted just half an hour to get to USC from Santa Monica, she urges me to drive faster. She hates to be late and, in fact, seldom is. She has no patience with SigAlerts, freeway construction or lane changes. When things don’t go her way her temper flares without warning, only to be followed by apologies.

She claims to drive on Long Island, where she summers, but she won’t tackle the freeways in Los Angeles and for a few days I’m replacing her regular driver. (“Do you have a car?” she asked in a deep, raspy voice when I first befriended her in Massachusetts in 1981. “I need a lift. I don’t drive in Cambridge.”) She likes to compare herself to author and non-driver Ray Bradbury. “It’s perfectly easy to be a pedestrian in this city,” she says, “as long as you have friends who will pick up and deliver.”


She is usually driven to work in a red truck by a young woman she met at a local NOW meeting. It seems she is short-tempered with her, too, but the young feminist ignores the outbursts. “She is so busy. She does so much, and she doesn’t even have a secretary,” the woman says. Friedan juggles teaching, lecturing, writing and entertaining, aided only by an answering machine.

Friedan first came to live in California last year, as a fellow at USC’s Andrus Gerontology Center. Her return this spring with a joint appointment at the school of journalism and the women’s study center has brought her into the mainstream of university life. She’s received a variety of invitations to participate in local women’s groups. Some, like NOW, are open to anyone. Others, like the Trusteeship for Women, are by invitation only. The trusteeship, a semi-professional, semi-social group of accomplished women--including Marilyn Bergman, an Academy Award-winning songwriter, and Maureen Kindel, president of the Los Angeles Board of Public Works--has impressed Friedan by its ability to implement policy.

She marvels at the contrast between the Los Angeles that New Yorkers warned her about, and the reality. “It was supposed to be plastic, and intellectually a wasteland.” Her base at the university may skew her perspective, but she hasn’t found Los Angeles so bleak. Angelenos would make her feel obsolete and socially ostracized, she was told; instead she has been squired to street theater and invited to Sunday evening screenings at Norman Lear’s. She was also warned about “the cult of youth.” But instead of a youth culture she has been reveling in cross-generational friendships, enjoying evenings with men and women in their 30s and 40s, 60s and 70s.

“You know I left Peoria (where she grew up) for New York because New York was cheerier. Los Angeles is cheerier than New York. L.A. is to New York as New York is to Peoria.” She likes that equation and smiles at the thought. The smile transforms her, subtracting years.

But the crucial difference, Friedan finds, is one of attitude. Friedan is still active in East Coast women’s networks, and she has a “warm, affectionate relationship with New York NOW”--but she is finding life in California more upbeat. “Women here aren’t cynical, or burnt out,” she says. “There’s a political energy. And they aren’t locked into single-issue thinking.”


WHEN BETTY FRIEDAN first came to USC, she came to write--not about women but about aging. At the gerontology center, she was working on a book about “the age mystique.” (She turned 66 on Feb. 4, and her 89-year-old mother lives at Leisure World in Laguna Hills.) At the Grace Ford Salvatori Journalism Building, where she returned this year as a visiting distinguished professor in journalism and as a leader in the program for the Study of Women and Men in Society, 10 file boxes of notes for her book sit untended near her desk. She hasn’t found much time to go through them. Women’s issues keep diverting her attention. “Since I’ve been out here all these things have been happening and I have to respond to them,” she says.


The role of women is her focus at the journalism school. On one recent afternoon, Friedan’s students in her “Women in Media” class are waiting as she arrives with a group of guest speakers. Seated at a table in front of her class, she rests her chin on her hand as she waits for everyone to settle down. Then she stands, her fingers toying with the silver rope around her neck. As she addresses the class, her eyes dart among her students. The words tumble out swiftly.

“Don’t think you ingratiate yourself with me with feminist rhetoric. It won’t work if it’s just rhetoric,” she warns her students--all of them women--as she returns a set of papers. “You need concrete examples to make a point or it won’t sell.” This also sums up her approach to her work at the university. She is impatient with ideology and hairsplitting and demands practical solutions.

Today she introduces Wallis Annenberg, co-publisher and editor of TV Guide; Irma Kalish, president of Women in Film; Fay Kanin, the first woman president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Carolyn See, novelist and book reviewer, and producer Norman Lear. Kanin urges the students to “persist, be a pest,” not be so thin-skinned or easily discouraged. All right, maybe “pest” is an unfortunate term, Kanin corrects herself, but whatever you call it, women need to be more aggressive.

But that isn’t always enough. One of the panelists mentions the “glass ceiling”--the invisible lid on female advancement into executive positions--and the others nod. (Later, at a television studio where Friedan is taping an interview, a woman executive makes the same complaint--that women can rise only so far, and no farther. Strangers do not hesitate to tell her their woes. She always listens. She describes it as one of the responsibilities she has accepted.)

Friedan later turns the discussion to the week’s reading assignment, “In a Different Voice,” by Carol Gilligan. The book argues that women think differently from men, that women are more sympathetic and compassionate. Friedan suggests that violence and brutality thrive on the screen today because of male dominance of the media, and that a female voice is needed to decry poverty, disease and the nuclear threat.

Never anti-male, Friedan envisions a future in which everyone will lead more fulfilling lives. As she sees it, “We are stuck at a midway point where we have won some new opportunities, and we are living with them from necessity as well as opportunity, but everything is still based on the male model.” She pounds her fist in her hand to make her point. Why should women, the people who have the babies, have to follow a career timetable geared to men? “What is needed is a basic remodeling of American society into one in which women and men can have equal access to both family and career.”


That is part of her message in “The Second Stage,” which was first published in 1982 and reissued last year with a new afterword. The second stage she describes is a feminism that takes the woman’s movement past demands for equal opportunity in what has been a man’s world, at the same time as it demands changes in that world. She is asking for a more flexible, compassionate society that takes into consideration familial as well as work-related responsibilities.

Without doubt she has moved in a different direction from other feminists. She opposes sexual politics--which pits men and women against each other--and single-issue politics--which, by focusing solely on pornography or abortion, for example, leaves other critical problems unaddressed. She is especially sympathetic with mainstream working women who, she sees, need new public policies that will allow them to choose to have a family, with the knowledge that they will be able to retain their jobs if they opt for children and that there will be adequate day-care available.

Last spring, she accepted an invitation from the women’s center to take part in a series of lunches with prominent women in the community, which has since evolved into a monthly Think Tank headed by Friedan. “I didn’t object to being used because there is a great need for new ideas, new thinking on feminist subjects,” she says. At the first Think Tank, last spring, the issue of parental leave was raised. As a result of that discussion, Friedan’s name heads the list of a coalition that opposed some traditional allies and filed an amicus curiae brief in the landmark California Federal Savings & Loan Assn. case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a California law that guarantees a woman the same job, or its equivalent, after unpaid maternity leave. Along with groups like the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, Planned Parenthood and the California Federation of Teachers, Friedan insisted on the right of women to be workers and to bear children.

The issue split the national woman’s movement. National NOW and the American Civil Liberties Union supported Cal Fed. They feared that different treatment for women harked back to 19th- and early 20th-Century protective legislation that discouraged employers from hiring women altogether. In the court’s majority opinion upholding the constitutionality of the California law, Justice Thurgood Marshall enunciated the right of women as workers to have both families and job security.

At an April Think Tank meeting, the Baby M case is the topic of the day. The discussion attracts more than 40 women to the lounge of the Hillel Building on Hoover Street. Besides USC faculty members and Rabbi Laura Geller, who is host, there are law professors from other universities, a city commissioner, union representatives, advocates for children’s agencies, and representatives of Hollywood organizations such as Women in Film.

The discussion focuses on the issue of surrogacy, and emotions run high. Actress Susan Anspach announces that she is collecting signatures for a petition supporting Mary Beth Whitehead, the New Jersey woman who agreed to be artificially inseminated and bear Baby M for a childless couple. Friedan has herself signed a petition backing Whitehead, but she is sensitive to the complexities of the issue. The couple also have substantial emotional investments, she reminds the group; the interests of the natural mother, while paramount in her mind, are not unalloyed. She is harsh about one participant in the case: the agency that arranged the deal and may make more money off of it than Whitehead herself. To everyone’s applause, she calls for prohibitions against “procreative pimpery.”


On pornography, another issue that has splintered the woman’s movement, Friedan also retains her own vision. She brandishes a flier from a New York conference featuring Gloria Steinem, Susan Brownmiller and Shere Hite. They support legislation limiting publication of obscene material. Friedan opposes all censorship and believes that “the real obscenity is the feminization of poverty.”

It is in everyone’s interest, she believes, to see that families are well tended. Women are different from men because women have babies; but the differences of sensibility that may stem from unique biological functions are differences of degree, not of kind. She is appalled by the rhetoric of the feminist opposition. “They talk about male civil rights,” she repeats, her voice breaking with outrage. “How can there be male and female civil rights?”


WHEN FILM MAKER Dale Bell bought the old Friedan home along the Hudson River in rural New York, “The Feminine Mystique” was 2 years old and already a classic. The house was a 19th-Century fantasy with three floors, turrets and a porch. Bell recalls that a little girl showed him around and stopped on the third floor to explain: “And this is where my mother wrote ‘The Feminine Mystique.’ ”

When he moved in, the living room walls were bright purple. He repainted them along with the rest of the house. In the study, though, the bookcases were labeled with words like “health,” “education,” “divorce”--topics in the book. He painted around them, historical landmarks to be saved.

The house has passed into other hands, but Bell has never lost touch with Friedan. He says “there was a ghost in that house that connects our lives.”

Ted and Pat Apstein, her oldest friends in Los Angeles, are connected to Friedan by another house in that same rural New York county--a stone barn where Friedan and her husband, Carl, lived before the Hudson River house. The Apsteins bought the barn from the Friedans 30 years ago. A decade later, they moved to Los Angeles; now, they find Betty Friedan remarkably unchanged since the days their babies toddled together. “More confident, but otherwise the same,” says Ted Apstein.


It was Pat Apstein who found Friedan the Sea Colony sublet and then loaned her a sofa and table.

“I gave myself half a day to finish the apartment,” Friedan says. “I wanted a nice, interesting coffee table, and a quilt for the bed.” The prices on Main Street in Santa Monica where she had gone to shop were higher than she had in mind, but she was in a buying mood, so she stopped to try on a sweater. Her face is familiar to people all over America and so she wasn’t surprised when a woman came over and thanked her for what she has done. In response, Friedan asked her how the sweater looked. “Not right for you,” the stranger advised. “What exactly are you looking for?”

“A coffee table,” Friedan said.

The woman happened to have just sold her first script and was celebrating by redecorating. She happened to have a marble-top coffee table and took Friedan to see it. She was also selling a bentwood rocker, an antique mirror and a quilt.

So Friedan sits on the borrowed sofa, her books in front of her on the marble-top coffee table. There are photographs of her family, but she guards their privacy. When Carolyn See one day reflected, “My mother would rather have had a prostitute for a daughter than a writer,” Friedan added: “So would my children rather have had one for a mother.”

Divorced in 1969 and never remarried, she hasn’t stopped enjoying the company of men--maybe more now than as a young woman. In “It Changed My Life,” a 1976 collection of her writings on the women’s movement, she muses about a dinner with a new man, about how much fun it was relating to men in ways she hadn’t been able to before she was married or during her marriage. Perhaps she had been too insecure, “or maybe I was too anxious to get married to really relax and enjoy the relationships with men before.”

Writer Maurice Zolotow, who met Friedan around 1950 at a meeting of the Society of Magazine Writers, explains that “all of her friends are family.” There are old friends passing through like Bob Hirschfield and Muriel Robinson from New York, who drop in one day at the Sea Colony apartment--she introduces them as part of “my commune family.” After the divorce she rented a house in Sag Harbor, Long Island, with four other newly single people. They shared cooking and cleaning and provided surrogate families to one another. Hirschfield and Robinson met at the commune and married a year later.


“Betty was first among equals,” Bob Hirschfield recalls. “She had the biggest bedroom and made most of the decisions.” And took her turns with routine chores. He remembers the night she picked the greens for the community salad from the garden. “We didn’t notice what we were eating until we swallowed. She had picked a whole salad of mustard.”

Zolotow recalls that Friedan in the early ‘50s was “very energetic, warm, sexy and well-dressed.” She was, and is, very feminine, a quality he does not find inconsistent with feminism, but which still surprises people when they meet her.

“Feminists can also dream of long-enduring love and marriage,” Friedan says, sinking into the sofa beneath a Picasso hanging of knights and unicorns that she unrolls wherever she happens to be living. “I have nothing but admiration, and envy, for people who achieve that in life.”

A question about First Lady Nancy Reagan brings back her public pose. “The reality of the role of the President’s wife is we do look to her somehow as a role model for American women. I think she should have identified more with women’s rights. In the first year she was only interested in $10,000 ball gowns. Now she comes into focus as a strong, tigerish wife.”

But she does admire their devotion to each other, and calls Nancy-bashing a red herring. “The issue is Ronald Reagan’s competence. There is nothing wrong with a strong First Lady. In fact,” Friedan says, “maybe the President’s wife should have a job title and job description and pay.

“As for Nancy’s devotion to her husband, there seems to be a genuine bond and love between them. That is what is admirable. Everyone loves romance and the idea of enduring romantic love.”



RABBI LAURA GELLERintroduces Friedan to a Hillel audience in the Taper Auditorium. The rabbi, 37, is a contempo rary of Friedan’s children, and is both her student and mentor.

A decade ago, Geller tells the students, when she was newly ordained as one of only nine women rabbis in the United States, she discovered that the Reform rabbis were holding their convention in Arizona, which hadn’t ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. She called Betty Friedan for advice: Should she boycott or attend the meeting?

Friedan advised her to attend, and volunteered to come herself, which she did, addressing the women rabbis in an informal session. Geller tells the audience: “It is pretty clear I would not be a rabbi if there had not been a Betty Friedan” who paved the way for all professional women of her generation.

Now the older woman is sitting at the younger woman’s feet as part of a monthly Torah study group. Friedan was not particularly religious until, a few years ago, she came to sense “a mystical connection between feminism and Judaism.”

“Growing up as a Jew in Peoria, I knew what it was to be an outsider,” she says. She sees this as having helped form her sensitivity to the underdog’s view of things.

“I would not be the first in the history of the Jews to play the role of a visionary or prophet,” she says, “a female Moses leading women out of the wilderness. . . . I wouldn’t be the first in our history to take a sense of injustice and apply it to the larger, human category.”


When anti-ERA forces pressured the Illinois Legislature before a crucial vote, they called the ERA a “Zionist-communist plot” and showed photos of mutilated Israeli girls in tanks. On other occasions, at International Women’s Congresses in Mexico City and Nairobi, Friedan faced organized anti-Semitism.

In March, at a Torah reading at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, she was asked to comment on the scriptural lines for the day. These were about Moses breaking the tablets on his descent from Mount Sinai when he saw the Israelites dancing around a golden calf. The words seemed especially apt to her: “This is about feminism, the way some feminists have stopped evolving. Humans always have a tendency to make graven images. That is what threatens the women’s movement. It is dangerous to make a graven image of feminism. That prevents life from evolving, growing, changing. The answers of the ‘70s will not satisfy the questions of the ‘80s.”

She acknowledges the “patriarchal ethic embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition” but believes that strong women are also part of that tradition. In Judaism, Friedan has found spiritual support for her continuing quest for human liberation.

“Becoming proud of my identity as a woman, I learned to be proud of this other part of my identity, my Jewishness. That taste for authenticity that I got with defining myself as a woman gave me a taste for authenticity that brought me to Judaism.”

After the landmark 1970 protest march on Fifth Avenue in New York, an event that drew more than 50,000 women and signified the coming of age of the woman’s movement as a national phenomenon, she addressed an enormous crowd in back of the New York Public Library. In that moment of exultation she recalled that in “the religion of my ancestors men used to pray each day thanking God for not being women. And women prayed simply to submit themselves to the Lord’s will. I said, not anymore. I believe women all over the world will be able to say, I thank you Lord for making me a woman.”