This is written by Dr. Emily Friedan, Betty Friedan's daughter. I grew up with Emily and Betty, they were like family. My mother Natalie was Betty's best friend for over forty five years. Emily asked me to post this, to set the record straight, on what would have been Betty's 90th birthday.
February 4th would be our mother’s 90th birthday, and the 5th anniversary of her death. Her name, Betty Friedan, lives with millions of women around the world almost fifty years since she wrote the Feminine Mystique.
It is with interest---and some dismay-- that I read Stephanie Coontz’s new book, a Strange Stirring, which describes the phenomenal effect the Feminine Mystique had on a multitude of women of 1963, the Aha moment that named their situation and lifted them from their isolation. I appreciate Ms Coontz’ bringing to light grateful letters written to Betty.
The quotes she chose mirror my own memories of being greeted repeatedly by women of all ages and colors whenever we went out, women who approached us and invariably said, "It changed my life".
Oddly, Ms. Coontz states that she "purposely avoided people who had known Betty personally or had become leaders of the women’s movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s" but does not explain why. In so doing, she misses key truths about Betty and her impact.
It seems that Ms Coontz was a reluctant scholar as she admits to not having read the book either as a social historian nor as a graduate student in 1963 nor having experienced the Aha moment from it that she longingly describes others as having. She chose to rely entirely on one biographer with a unique, disputed and oversimplified perspective on Betty’s life and the evolution of her thought. She also proceeds to describe the beginnings of the women’s movement without ever speaking with the women (and men) who were there. In purposefully limiting her sources, she quite frankly got some of it wrong.
Of course the Feminine Mystique is dated as she states – the book was written almost 50 years ago expressly to describe the present with intense scrutiny. If the Feminine Mystique did not feel like it belonged to a different age, we would not still be thinking about it a half century later.
Ms. Coontz criticizes Betty for simplifying and exaggerating points and then offers her own hindsight examination of the same material. Yet, Betty’s uncanny ability to get to the meat of the problem, to identify, name and describe women’s actual experience of the time and make it accessible to thousands was the integral first step to political change. What remains relevant today is the clarity that comes from reading Betty’s sharp words that cut through so much. To analyze and rehash her analysis with the perspective of what came next and over the next 45 years is no less than Monday morning quarterbacking.
Betty told me when I was younger, write what you know. That’s exactly what she did. She wrote about the experience of educated white women. This was not a shortcoming. Imagine the hindsight criticism if Betty had presumed to address the experience of minority women as her critic suggests.
Ms. Coontz seems to have expected Betty to write with clairvoyance, as if she had a crystal ball to the phenomenal events that came after. No, she did not prescribe a woman’s movement in the book. The groundswell of response was unanticipated and it was that response that galvanized the women who were already trying to make change, but frustrated in their efforts.
Betty never claimed to single handedly start the women’s movement as charged. She was inspirational and was solicited by these pioneers as their spokesperson and leader. These same early feminists whom Ms. Coontz purposefully did not speak with have come forward with an outpouring of distress over Coontz’ rewriting of their history. There seems to be a disconnect between the realities of those who write history and those who make it.
In the minds of the people who were there, the women’s movement would not have happened at that time without Betty Friedan and the Feminine Mystique. Thankfully, that history belongs to all of us.
We who know Betty’s contribution honor her memory on the anniversary of her death and her birthday.
Emily Friedan, M.D.