On Being Shown the Door: Betty Friedan

A journalist’s lot can be a tricky one.

I found this out when I started interviewing intellectuals and egocentrics whose claim to fame rested more on an authoritarian assessment of themselves rather than an acknowledgement by their peers.

There seems to be a thin line between pure arrogance and deluded knowledge. People who belong to either category are nevertheless intriguing despite their haughtiness and sometimes unspeakable manners. I encountered a few of them during my long career of interviewing the good, the bad and the learned over a span of thirty years.

I would like to start this new series with Betty Friedan, who was an American feminist writer and campaigner for women’s rights. Born in Illinois in 1921, she was educated at Smith College. While a housewife in New York she wrote The Feminine Mystique (1963), which analysed the role of women in American society. She was founder and first president of the National Organisation for Women (1966), and in 1970 she headed the National Women’s Strike for Equality. Her other books include It Changed My Life (1977), The Second Stage (1981), The Fountain of Age (1993), and her autobiography, Life so Far (2000). She died in 2006, aged eighty-five.

She was described by Germaine Greer as someone who ‘…would become breathless with outrage if she didn’t get the deference she thought she deserved. Though her behaviour was often tiresome, I figured that she had a point. Women don’t get the respect they deserve unless they are wielding male-shaped power’.

To get an inkling of her persona, here’s the full text of my interview with her in 1997.

If I feel a certain anxiety beginning this interview because I have read that you don’t like challenging questions and sometimes threaten to terminate an interview … is that true? 

You’ve read some obnoxious thing by that woman who came over from Harpers and Queen and my experience with her was enough to turn me off British journalism. I agreed to see her because my new book, The Fountain of Age, was coming out in England and she started to barrage me with all these questions about things I said 35 years ago in The Feminine Mystique. I have a proud record of having helped towards the raised consciousness that led to the women’s movement for equality, and I have no apologies to make on that. The Feminine Mystique broke through previous obsolete definitions of women that kept us from seeing our real possibilities, and the women’s movement is enormously diverse as a result of that. But that woman was supposed to be interviewing me about my new book, The Fountain of Age, which she hadn’t even read, and I show people the door when they come to interview me without having done their homework.

According to Carol Sarler in the Sunday Times, you come with a prepared script to deliver. She writes, ‘The interruptions Betty Friedan will not tolerate are questions. These are either ignored completely or dismissed with abuse.’ How do you react to that? 

I react by wanting to show you the door, because that’s irrelevant. If you’re interviewing me you will get your own impression of me. If you have come expecting me to have a prepared script, then you’re wasting your interview with me. That woman wanted to redo old schisms in the women’s movement that are irrelevant. I wasn’t interested then and I’m not interested now.

The place where you grew up in Illinois is generally regarded as the quintessential cradle of mid-west provincialism. How on earth did you manage to escape from the constraints of such a background? 

Because we do, we do. Growing up as a young Jewish girl in Illinois was not a very happy experience. But it made a writer out of me in a way; it made me an observer, and a social scientist, because as a Jew I was on the outside. Then of course I was very bright and I went to a good college, and I didn’t go home again.

You said recently, ‘My mother was bright, but frustrated because of her limited life. I saw what that did to her husband and children.’ What did you mean exactly? 

My mother was born in Illinois and went to college there, and then she was the editor of the women’s page of the local newspaper, which she loved. But when she married my father and became the wife of a businessman, she could not continue in her career. That was the way it was in America in that era. So she was at home, she had children, she was a perfect hostess, she was everything around the house, she was perfect at all that. But that was not enough to use up her ability and her talent, and I think she was very frustrated. She took it out on us: nothing my father did was ever good enough, nothing the children did was ever good enough. If ever I wonder what made me spend so much of my life on the whole question of women and the women’s movement, I think it was because even as a child I was so sharply aware of my mother’s frustration, and what it did to the rest of us.

How did your parents rate your success? 

My father died when I was twenty-one, but he was very proud of me. I had a brilliant record in college, and he kept newspaper clippings in his safe of the things I wrote. He would have been enormously proud of me if he had lived. My mother buried her third husband at the age of seventy and took up a career; she became a duplicate-bridge manager. She’d always been a brilliant card player, and after her third husband died she got herself a licence and ran duplicate-bridge games in California, and she didn’t die until she was ninety. She was a veritable role model for The Fountain of Age, though I don’t know how much she identified with what I was doing. But I’m sure she was proud of me.

You took a degree in psychology during the war. Was psychology still quite an unusual subject for women to read in those days? 

Psychology as we know it now was just beginning to take shape. I had the great luck of being a protégée of a brilliant gestalt psychologist, and I graduated summa cum laude and went on a fellowship to Berkeley where I was the first woman and the first student of psychology to win the biggest science fellowship. It would have taken me straight to my PhD but I turned it down. I was going round with a physicist at that time and when he said, ‘I’m never going to win a fellowship like that, so we’re through,’ I was devastated. The whole Freudian psychology was beginning to take hold – what I later called the ‘feminine mystique’ – and I gave up. The image of feminine fulfilment only through marriage, through motherhood, through sexual fulfilment, was beginning to take shape in the popularization of Freudian psychology, and I really bought into it, and turned down that fellowship because I didn’t want to be brighter than the boys. I came to New York, got a newspaper job, figuring that it would be fun and not the sort of academic job where I would be too bright. Then I got married to a returned GI and I had my three kids. I got fired for being pregnant with my second child, and when I went to the union to protest, arguing that no one had ever questioned my ability as a writer, they just said it was my fault for getting pregnant. We didn’t have any law then on sex discrimination – we didn’t even have a word for it – and anyway I was being made to feel guilty for working in the first place. In that era of Freudian thought it was decreed that if you worked outside the home, you were losing your femininity, and you would undermine your husband’s masculinity and neglect your children. So I entered the housewife years and stripped six coats of paint from the stairway banisters and went to auctions and got the house furnished for virtually no money and did car pools for the children, but I couldn’t suppress the itch to do something else. So I freelanced for women’s magazines, but it was like secret drinking club in the mornings, because I was the only mommy in the suburb where we lived who was doing any work like that.

How much did your study of psychology help with The Feminine Mystique, or would you say it was written more from your own experience of life? 

My life came together in that book in the most mysterious way. Certainly my training as a psychologist helped, but the passion of it came from my own experience. It was a combination of my being both journalist and social scientist. Once I understood the image of women that was accepted by everybody in those days had something wrong with it, I got on the trail of the story and did interviews and listened to the real experience of women. A woman was defined solely in terms of her sexual relation to man, a man’s wife, mother, sex object, housewife, server of physical needs, but not ever as a person, defined by her own actions in society. That image which came to us from all the mass media, from television commercials and from the sophisticated psychology textbooks, was so pervasive that it blotted out of consciousness the whole hundred-and-fifty-year struggle for women’s rights that ended with winning the vote the year after I was born. There was a noise coming out of these suburbs where women who lived according to this image should have been blissfully happy, and it was a noise of discontent. I took the experience of women seriously when it didn’t fit the previous image, and my book The Feminine Mystique enabled millions of women to move in new ways.

You once said that The Feminine Mystique brought you fame but not fortune. Would you rather have had the fortune? 

Oh come, that’s not a question. Of course you would always want to have the fortune. When I consider that the book sold millions and millions of copies and that it is on every list of ten books that have changed history most in the last century, it is ironic that I didn’t make a lot of money.

Would you claim to have started the women’s movement? 

The history books say that The Feminine Mystique marked the beginning of the modern women’s movement, that it had the critical and catalytic breakthrough effect in consciousness, which is the first stage of any revolution. Interestingly enough, ten years earlier, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex did not have that result. It was an enormously depressing book which did not have the galvanizing effect of my book.

Are you happy to share the glory with others, such as Marie Stopes, Annie Besant and Virginia Woolf? 

Virginia Woolf is a literary icon as far as feminism is concerned, but she didn’t start any movement. Marie Stopes had something to do with writing about sex, and though I’ve heard of Annie Besant, I don’t know who she is.

Your book The Second Stage was greeted by the anti-feminist lobby, certainly in Britain, as a recantation, in so far as it appealed to women to recover their lost femininity. You seem to be angry with this reaction. Were you also surprised by it? 

Of course I was. The Second Stage was a necessary step in the evolution of feminism and of feminist thought. I was by no means recanting The Feminine Mystique or the women’s movement for equality, but I saw a new generation of women using the rights we fought for, entering into careers which were still structured in terms of the lives of the men who in the past had wives to take care of the domestic details. Women were somehow misinterpreting feminism in ways that evaded what I considered part of their identity. In breaking through the feminine mystique which I had done and helped other women to do, that didn’t mean and shouldn’t have been interpreted to mean that we were going to say no to marriage and motherhood. In other words, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. To equate feminism with a repudiation of marriage, family, motherhood was a distortion. I thought that needed correcting and that we needed to move on to a second stage of resurrecting work and home, not just for women, but for women and men who inhabit this planet together and who more often than not make homes together and have children together. I was outraged that reactionaries greeted this as a recantation of feminism, and I was even more hurt that some of my sisters tried to attack me as if I was betraying feminism because I said we had to pay attention to these other areas of women’s existence.

You have always maintained that the women who are strong and powerful can be a liberating source for men. Surely there is evidence to suggest, particularly in the USA, that men often feel threatened by modern women, even to the point of impotence? 

Come on, that’s a canard. Women who have their own sense of self and security are much freer to love men, and do not demand or play out other destructive agendas in the sexual arena. There is interesting research I cited in The Feminine Mystique that showed that the experience of female orgasm increased in rough correlation over the decades of this century to the winning of women’s rights. Women used to be considered innately frigid; they were meant to submit to sex but not enjoy it. But women’s actual enjoyment of sexual relations with men increased as their own independence and equality in society increased. A study that came out ten years into the women’s movement showed that married women and men in America were having sex more often and enjoying it more. In other words, it’s simply not true what you say. A castrating woman who can scare a man into impotence is usually a woman seething with frustration.

You have never been a man-hater but have always believed that women and men need each other sexually, socially and emotionally. This must alienate you from large sections of the sisterhood who at best regard men with suspicion. Are you happy to be alienated in this way? 

Nobody likes being attacked, but I think I’ll go with the judgement of history. I have helped to create a consciousness that broke through the feminine mystique to the personhood of woman, and made possible the massive movement to equality in my own country and other countries. I have continued to keep faith with that larger truth and to try in my professional life, as a university professor, lecturer, teacher, writer, to continue to try to make feminist thought evolve, as my own thought has evolved. I don’t think it can ever harden into a fixed doctrine. I am not politically correct. I don’t see every form of sexual relationship between women and men as oppressive to women. I don’t see pornography as the greatest evil on earth. I am much more concerned with the economic empowerment of women than I am with some of those sexual issues. I am very worried at the moment by the male backlash in America and by the way women are being made scapegoats for the enormous economic insecurity that men are feeling as a result of the job downsizing. I’ve gone on to apply the lessons I learned from helping to energize the women’s movement for equality to the whole question of age, where you see a comparable thing going on. People will buy anything and anything to deny age, but they have to break through the age mystique the way thirty years ago women had to break through the feminine mystique.

What hope is there for the countless women who are still at the mercy men economically, socially, sexually? What do you say to them? 

I don’t know that this is the lot any more of the majority of women. In the United States the great majority, even women and young children, are working outside the home and earning. Even if they don’t earn in most cases as much as the men, that second paycheck is absolutely essential to the family’s wellbeing. They are not now completely at the mercy of men, and the younger generation of women doesn’t intend to be either. For the women and men in utter poverty, the real underclass, it isn’t men who are the enemy, it’s the economic circumstances.

You’ve mentioned pornography… issues like pornography, abortion, rape and battering have tended to be central to the women’s movement and feminist thinking. Do you question their centrality? 

Yes, I do. Sexual politics has dominated too much. The real empowerment of women has come from their ability to earn. It is through having equal opportunity and beginning to have a voice in the larger affairs of society that women have become powerful both in the political and economic sphere. A part of this empowerment is control of their own reproductive process: they must have safe legal access, not only to all forms of birth control but also to abortion. It was also a part of the empowerment that women would blow the whistle on wife beating, on assault, on rape, when before they used to be helpless victims. They’ve even defined the terms of sexual harassment, but what is interesting is that law which has to do with equal employment opportunity.

Have you ever felt disadvantaged as a woman? 

Of course I have. When I was young I might have gone to law school and gotten into the whole political arena, but Harvard Law School didn’t take women. There are lots of fields that I might have enjoyed, but it didn’t even occur to me to try because I was a woman. I was fired for being pregnant, and you couldn’t go hot for another job with your belly sticking out. Historians put my book among the ten books that have shaped history in the last century, but I’m not nominated for a Pulitzer Prize or Nobel Prize, and that has something to do with the fact that my book has been enormously important to women.

Why do you think you have attracted the label of lesbian basher? Do you regard this as an undeserved attack? 

Absolutely undeserved. I believe that the dominant thing in the women’s movement is the personhood of the woman in all its diversity. I think we should celebrate the differences between women and the differences between women and men; not deny them. But just as I object to women being defined solely in sexual relation to man, I’m certainly not going to accept as a substitute for that a definition of woman solely in terms of sexual relation to other women. That would be just as much of a distortion. I support the right of people to their own kind of sexual expression, as long as it’s between consenting adults. But you shouldn’t be asking me these stupid questions. They are really not relevant now. I really feel like showing you the door. I really don’t want to go on with this, because you’re doing the same thing as that stupid woman.

I’m not attacking you. I’m just trying to clarify your position. Let me move on. Your ability to process your own experience and market it as universal truth has invited comparison with Germaine Greer. Would you be pleased by such a comparison? 

I don’t know what you’re talking about. The Feminine Mystique was based on interviews with a great many other women. I took their experience seriously even though it didn’t fit the book, and I used my training as a psychologist and a journalist to get the story, to figure out what had happened and why it had happened. In a certain sense I did the same thing with The Fountain of Age. Germaine Greer is a completely different type of person. She is a sort of exhibitionist of her own experience. Do you understand what I’m saying? You are trying to make out that I am assuming that my experience is universal. I wrote about the experience is universal. I wrote about the experience of other women that made a chord also with my experience, and it turned out to be universal. You don’t understand anything.

I do, I do. You have often professed a need for strong bonds – children, grandchildren, friends … do you feel you are blessed with plenty of strong bonds? 

The research I dug into for The Fountain of Age indicates that the two most important things for a vital long life are purposes and projects which use your abilities to give complex structure to your days, and bond of intimacy. Love and work. Freud was wrong about women, but not about everything. Friendship is an enormously important variable in my life.

What about lovers… do they constitute a strong bond? 

Those bonds are very precious indeed, but in recent years some men I loved very much have died.

Your marriage ended six years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique. Was the book instrumental in the marriage break up? 

I suppose it gave me the strength to go on by myself, which I probably had to do. To get divorced was not an easy thing for me. I was terrified of being alone. But the father of my children and I are friends now. Three or four years ago, as our children married and had children of their own we had a kind of rapprochement, and so that’s a strong bond too.

You are quoted as saying, ‘I couldn’t go on being Joan of Arc for American women and a worm in my marriage.’ Does this mean you behaved badly in your marriage? 

Well, it depends on what you mean by badly. I’d certainly acquiesced in it, but I couldn’t go on taking that sort of treatment in my marriage. It got to be insupportable.

The marriage lasted twenty years and you have three children. Looking back over your life, how does that period rate in terms of happiness, or fulfilment? 

It’s a very rich period of my life. I wouldn’t deny that for a minute. I realize that when I see my children now. My sons are wonderful fathers and my daughter is a wonderful mother, and as I see them all now in their nesting years, it brings back to me what a rich texture those years had.

Did you ever consider marrying again? 

I thought I wanted to; in fact I still wouldn’t absolutely say that I wouldn’t be interested in it if something possible came along. I suppose by now I have such a persona that it would probably be a little intimidating for anyone.

Do you ever feel lonely? 

Yes. I have a busy life and it’s full of people. I have lots of friends and I live my life mostly in public, but I think one always feels lonely if one does not have to share the everyday thing as well as the sexual thing.

How important is sex in a relationship? 

One doesn’t go around feeling deprived if one isn’t having an active sex life, but it is a life force. There’s no question about it. Just the loving and being loved, or touching somebody in the most intimate way, and sharing moments. You don’t have to love the way you loved when you were thirty but I think that some capacity for this life force is in us … and it’s very enjoyable.

There is a tendency to imagine that women who write books about female destiny and who have been at the forefront of the women’s movement are very secure in themselves. Is that true in your case, or are you a prey to self-doubt? 

When I’m on a wavelength of truth, I don’t have doubts about that. But I can have doubts personally. I’m no angel, for God’s sake, and I’ve got a terrible, terrible temper – though people think I’ve got more mellow in my older years. I still flagellate myself when I’ve done something wrong or made a mistake or been mean to somebody.

You have had open-heart surgery – more than operation. How did you cope with ill health and the possibility of not surviving? 

I’ve had asthma off and on all my adult life, otherwise I’ve been extremely healthy. But a year and a half ago without realizing it I developed a very serious infection on the aorta valve of my heart, and by the time I figured out it wasn’t an asthma attack, I was in heart failure. I didn’t really fear death. I’d just finished The Fountain of Age, and I wanted to get the operation over with and get to the book launch. So I was in complete denial, which is not always the worst thing to be.

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