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When I was a small child, I did not care much for my grandmother, whose name was Elizabeth, but who was called Betty.

She was temperamental, sarcastic, and prone to emotional excess. I was always wary around her, because it seemed that any random, innocuous thing could set her off. I was much more like my father's side of the family, introverted and bookish, and the rapid-fire interactions and kaleidoscopic emotions of my grandmother, mother, and aunts always made me feel as though I had been dropped onto another planet. I would sit on the sofa while they played the piano, sang, laughed, and argued, watching but trying not to draw attention to myself.

That side of the family was very musical, and my grandmother was no exception. She was a talented pianist and organist, and played for her church and for her Eastern Star group. She was also a fine singer. She had a knack for words; she loved puns and witty repartee, and had a huge library. She normally had several books in rotation at a time, and she loved to play Scrabble and other word games.
I inherited her ear for music and her sense of pitch, but not the drive to perform. My grandmother preferred my more outgoing cousins, who loved the spotlight and an audience. I settled into indifference toward her at a young age, and I generally tried to avoid attracting her attention, because she was so unpredictable.

This past Sunday, Betty Friedan died at the age of 85. She was the author of The Feminine Mystique, and one of the pivotal feminist voices of the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Her book helped to change the political landscape for women; it is hard for me, a kid of the 1970s, to fathom that there ever was a time when women found it revolutionary to want purposeful lives, or for a woman even to ask what she wanted from her life if it wasn't a husband and children. I cannot imagine what that sort of limited life would be like. Ever since I can remember, I have been told that the world is wide open to me, and that my life was what I chose to make it, not just a fulfillment of a societal script. For this, I must thank Betty Friedan, and many, many other women.

At the time The Feminine Mystique was published, in 1963, my grandmother already had been married for decades and had five children. She had worked for years for the family business, in addition to having and raising children. As I entered college, I began to see similarities between my grandmother and myself, and I started to have empathy for her. There was no college for her, despite her intelligence and wit; there were only stolen moments to read and practice music and do crosswords when her family was not clamoring for her attention. There was no choice of occupation for her; not only was she limited by her lack of a college education, but by the expectation that she would go to work in the family business. She helped the business to prosper, but had no paycheck of her own, to spend as she pleased. Even her musical talent was exercised mostly in the service of others. There was very little that she did that was of her own pure volition, or done only for her own joy. I think that it made her bitter, and turned her wit into nasty sarcasm. I think that my grandmother, had she been born in a later time, would have been a much different and perhaps happier person.

There is no fault in having a life as a wife and mother, if that is a person's own choice, and is what makes a meaningful life for her, but I don't think my grandmother was happy with her life. I think she was angry and sad, and was snippy and sarcastic because she knew that her intelligence and talents were being squandered. My grandmother, Betty, is a strong reminder to me of what life for women was like before the 1960s and the rise of the modern women's movement. To that other Betty, Betty Friedan, I cannot be too thankful.

Originally posted to Spandau on Tue Feb 07, 2006 at 08:29 AM PST.

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