The tall, elegant young woman in the black Stetson hat who stopped me outside the Rockefeller Centre in New York, had something important to hand to me. That is to say, it was important to her and to hundreds of thousands of women like her in the United States who are still waiting for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which promises equal employment rights for women, to be enforced. The paper she pressed into my hand argued her case in passionate, if slightly smudged prose; it also demanded 24-hour a day childcare centres and the freeing of abortions from restriction.
And the fact that these women of New York are enthusiastically stomping their case on the side-walks and the streets of the city, is the achievement of one woman more than any other – Mrs Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique; founder of NOW (National Organisation of Women); and today the woman most likely to succeed in bringing a useful notoriety to the activities of Women’s Liberation. Taxi drivers recognise her, journalists crowd into her press conferences, and the lectures which she delivers at university campuses all over the US are a sell-out.
And yet the restless mind and over-driven body of the 49-year-old woman who might be called the founding mother of the Women’s Liberation Movement, (a loose grouping of over 100 women’s associations) carries the burden of a strange set of paradoxes – she has been all but disowned by her own organisation, NOW, who nevertheless cannot do without the publicity she brings them; her crusade for deeper and fuller lives for women has resulted in the ending of her own 20 years of marriage, and her real calling, that of a writer, has been pressed into the background by her increasing, almost unceasing, political activities.
The Betty Friedan of today is a voluble, sexy, Jewish woman who can dress herself up with splendid effect and attract intelligent and distinguished men as her admirers – she is also a woman whose face is a magnificent map of the emotions, generated by nearly half a century’s ardent living. Born in a small town in Illinois, even as a schoolgirl she found difficulty in reconciling a brilliant scholastic mind with the functions expected of women in the twenties. Her student days in the thirties brought her even less contentment; there were unhappy love affairs, one of which terminated a promising research Fellowship at Berkeley.
It was in New York, in Greenwich Village, where she worked as a journalist, that she met her future husband Carl Frieda, volatile and bohemian director of experimental theatre projects, and perhaps the catalyst who was to open out her hidden drives and frustrations – possibly even helping her to dramatise them. Later, after a second child was born, and Carl had joined the establishment as an adman, psychoanalysis relieved her of other hidden aggressions: “I was appalled – I admitted to myself for the first time that I actually hated my mother. She was a promising journalist who sacrificed her career to keep house for my father, a small-town jeweller. Next I had to admit that I was following in her footsteps. Work saved me – I freelanced dozens of magazine articles – but always with the knowledge that I was silently battling with Carl to do it. He couldn’t help resenting the money I earned.”
The outcome of ten years’ upheaval, both emotional and intellectual, was her bestselling book The Feminine Mystique (1963). It was her touchstone, and she put everything into it: the frustrations of marriage, child-raising, housekeeping, that she had experienced herself, and observed her contemporaries from college experiencing; the disappointments of a brilliantly promising intellectual career; the bitterness of a warm and vital woman whose talents had made her seem “different” and therefore unacceptable to the boys and men she grew up with.
“I really believed in that book. It started as a magazine article on the unhappiness of all on housewives, and grew over five years in the writing to a whole statement of my beliefs. My publishers took it grudgingly – they’d long ago regretted their original advance to me – and I had to hire a public relations firm to sell it. My God, how I pushed it! I went on every television talkshow in the country – once I really got mad, and just yelled out ‘orgasm!’ as loud as I could in the middle of a programme. It was the only way to stop some man from needling me. Anyway, the hard-sell worked – the book sold by the millions and made me over $100,000. I was called a militant radical. That would make some of the women’s liberation laugh now – they think I’m a real reactionary square”.
Betty Friedan is a woman. She has no hatred or resentment of men, as some later recruits to Women’s Liberation have. She states publicly and repeatedly that a world of aggressive maleness is as unattractive to men as it to women. Privately, she says the same about aggressive femaleness. A compulsive talker, garrulous, and often off the point, she nevertheless convinces by her unashamed acceptance of what it is to be a human being. She’s emotional, even contradictory, but if she’s wrong, it could be about the “wrong” things – because on the “right” ones, she’s doing fine.
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Author: Michael Behr