The Tireless Warrior : Feminism: Thirty years after ‘The Feminine Mystique’ sparked the women’s movement, Betty Friedan is warning a new generation about false portrayals of females.


Betty Friedan doesn’t quit.

Thirty years after her book “The Feminine Mystique” launched the women’s rights revolution, Friedan and her book are still selling. At a symposium Monday on “Women and Power: New Images and Realities,” for example, seats for the $60-a-plate lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel sold out in large part because Friedan was the speaker.

Ironically, many of the 200 who attended weren’t even born when Friedan’s book was published in 1963; most of those said they’d never read it.

But they’d learned about the “mother of the women’s movement” in college or they’d heard about her from their own mothers. And they wondered what she’d have to say about the condition of women today.


The answer is: Plenty.

We have a “schizophrenic situation” in this country, Friedan told the mostly female group of cable TV and film executives at the gathering, co-sponsored by Women in Cable and Women, Men and Media. “As women get more real power,” she said, “their image in the media becomes more divergent from the truth.”

There has been a 100% increase in the number of women in management positions in the last decade, she said. And more people now work for companies owned or run by women than work for companies in the Fortune 500.

Yet the image of women in the mass media is “disturbingly reverting to the old feminine mystique"--with females presented as they were pre-women’s movement or, worse yet, not at all.

“At a time when we have just elected more congresswomen than ever before,” when women are assuming important roles in business and finance, “the film industry remains a dinosaur, portraying women as bimbos, bitches and broads,” Friedan said.

Films like “Indecent Proposal” and “Pretty Woman” may be entertaining, she said, but they portray a world in which “all you need is a pretty face and big breasts, and you can go right out and catch that lonely billionaire.”

And although women compose more than 50% of the population, Friedan said, a five-year study conducted by the University of Southern California School of Journalism reveals that it’s men who get mentioned or pictured on newspaper front pages 85% of the time. “The 50% of the population who are women, many of whom are making news, receive only 15% of the mentions on Page 1,” she added.

Even TV and magazine ads are showing regressive signs, picturing women as sexual objects to be handled as chattel. (In the 1960s, when Friedan first fought to give women equal opportunities for work, she recalled that advertising portrayed an equally dumb portrait of females, who allegedly loved nothing more than washing dishes, doing laundry and waxing floors.)

Women’s progress in the last 30 years has been radical, Friedan acknowledged. But don’t take it for granted yet.

“The media--newspapers especially--are on an opposite course to reality,” she said. It’s not a conspiracy, but simply “a blind spot--a symbolic annihilation” of the gains women have really made, “an attempt to blank out” their assumption of power in a time when men are feeling more and more threatened by a weak economy and the disappearance of jobs.

All these pieces add up, she fears, to the possibility that industries still dominated by males may downsize by sending females “back home to raise the children, where they belong.”

“Is it a coincidence that during the Reagan-Bush era we suddenly heard more about the importance of the two-parent family?” she asked. “Sure, that’s nice. But it’s also a code phrase that means one parent should be home all the time with the children. And guess which parent that is?”

But wait. Isn’t Friedan rehashing the old battle of the sexes?

No, that’s not the battle, she insisted. It’s not men vs. women; these are not “women’s issues.” It’s just that in hard times like these, society looks for any scapegoat--and women may be one of the groups that fits that bill.

The activist author, now 72, said women must fight along with men for better health care, creation of more jobs and a stronger economy. “If we can’t solve those problems, the hatred and frustration” built up in a dissatisfied populace may result in abuse against children and women and any other vulnerable group, she said.

Did Friedan’s remarks ring any bells with the crowd?

Janice Arouh, 31, of Showtime cable: “Until a few days ago, I (had) never heard of this woman or her book. But I relate to everything she says. We need to make a statement of who we are and what we can contribute; too often women are overshadowed and overlooked. And those who do get to the top often forget where they began and refuse to help the others.” Because she will give birth to a daughter within a few days, Arouh says she is especially concerned about creating a world in which her child will have equal opportunity with men.

Friedan, said independent film producer Candace Bowen, “is so right. Women are the first to get the boot, the first to go in an economic crunch. In fact, I’ve recently had men come up to me and talk as if I’m taking their jobs away. Women have to all get together--black, Hispanic, Asian. We shouldn’t divide ourselves into separate groups, because that’s how they sap us of our power. We need that power to help make the world a better place for everyone, including men.”

And Sheri Rubin, of United Artists Cable, who expects her first child in a few weeks, said: “I listened to Friedan, and it makes me want to read her book to learn what the early struggles were. My own mother was a housewife who raised four children. My father was a tailor who supported all of us. It was a very hard life for both of them.”

Rubin said she plans to continue working after her baby is born, an option that was not as available to her mother 25 years ago--and which might not be available now if not for Betty Friedan.