I was assigned to 8A, by the window. On the aisle, in 8B, sat a long-legged, roving-eyed businessman. I assume that’s what he was, because when he wasn’t flirting with the stewardess he kept fussing with graphs and charts he pulled from a fancy briefcase. Somewhere over Ohio the stewardess wheeled us our lunch, a predictably dreary one, and offered us daffodils to brighten our trays. The daffodils, to my wonder, were real. 8B, to my further wonder, didn’t want his. He turned it down so vehemently that I couldn’t help asking what he had against flowers.
“People might get the wrong idea,” he said. “They might think I was some kind of faggot.”
“Oh come on,” I said. “You can’t be serious.” But he was. So help me.
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” 8B said. “I saw what book you were reading.”
I had in fact been reading the new Tenth Anniversary Edition of that celebrated polemic The Feminine Mystique, whose original version sold 57,000 hardcover and 1,700,000 paperback copies, gave Betty Friedan’s name the status of a surefire household word, and, more than any of the torrent of feminist documents that followed, set the women’s movement in motion. The new edition has an introduction and an epilogue drawn from the piece Friedan did a year ago for The New York Times Magazine, in which she assessed the movement’s effect on womankind in general and her own life in particular. The Times called her article “Up From The Kitchen Floor.”
8B could not have known it, and probably wouldn’t have wanted to, but his attitude illustrated one of Friedan’s most recurrent points. Men, she keeps saying in her book and wherever else she crusades to “lead other women out of the wilderness,” are not the enemy; they’re fellow victims. They are as much entrapped by false notions of what’s manly as women are by the compulsion to be, as the song has it, as soft and as sweet as a nursery.
In her hair Friedan wore not a gardenia but a smart ecumenical headband the day she went to the Vatican to trade medallions with, and try to raise the consciousness of, the Pope himself. That encounter, alas, happened too late for her epilogue, in which she explains why she’s been too busy to write a sequel to The Feminine Mystique. It’s quite some decade she’s had for herself, since her first diagnosis of “the problem that has no name”—the epidemic discontent of middle-class American women whom she found, by the droves, “in the state of sexual larvae [prevented] from achieving the maturity of which they are capable.”
She has picketed the White House, been subpoenaed, helped to “liberate” the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel for women at lunchtime, talked herself hoarse from 1000 lecterns and before innumerable television cameras, and overcome her fear of flying. Not all her adventures have been upbeat. “A lot of people treated me like a leper,” Friedan said when she came back from the 25th reunion of her high school class in Peoria, Illinois. “The other guy in my class who’d made good, a state senator, refused to be photographed with me. All of a sudden it wasn’t convenient for my kids’ cousins to play with them, either.”
What had she written that so threatened Peoria? That sex and motherhood and domesticity were nice, but not everything; that shopping for things was no fit raison d’etre for a grown-up intelligent woman; that it was nasty for an industry to scheme to give future customers “positive fur experiences”; that Sigmund Freud’s equation of anatomy with destiny had been taken too seriously; that Margaret Mead was a hypocrite to preach a subservience to men she never practiced herself. Most of all, Friedan declared, women urgently needed not merely to be educated, but to make lifelong use of what they had learned.
She said all this at undue length, and with more passion than style, but her effect was and still is persuasive. “American women lately have been living much longer than men,” she observed, “walking through their leftover lives like living dead women. Perhaps men may live longer in America when women carry more of the burden of the battle of the world, instead of being a burden themselves.” She might also have quoted from a letter Jung wrote to Freud in 1909, remarking that “in America the mother is decidedly the dominant member of the family. American culture really is a bottomless abyss; the men have become a flock of sheep and the women play the ravening wolves—within the family circle, of course.” Give women some access to a few other circles, the Friedan message goes, and maybe there wouldn’t be so many dangerous matriarchs around, or so much wasted energy.
You might think her colleagues in sisterhood would rally to Friedan’s support, in gratitude for the harsh and early light she shed on such matters, but not all of them have. The movement’s momentum has been so dizzying that some feminists see Friedan as “hopelessly bourgeois,” practically a Helen Hokinson caricature. She is no heroine among lesbians, nor does their cause much interest her. She hints that some among them, along with radicals who see the movement as a class struggle, may be plotting to take over the whole operation, perhaps in collusion with the CIA. They hint right back that she is a reactionary who could have carried the movement much farther than she has chosen to do. She was hissed at a conference of OWL (Older Women’s Liberation), for urging her sisters to “stay reality-oriented, instead of debating clitoral versus vaginal orgasms.”
Nobody’s perfect. “Betty is impossible sometimes,” writes the author of the autobiographical Bella!, “because she tends to regard herself as ‘the’ leader of the women’s movement.” It might have been a nice gesture, readers of her Times piece last year wrote to say, if she had shared a little of the credit with Simone de Beauvoir, and with the other cofounders of NOW (the National Organization for Women) and the strike and march on August 26. Jill Johnston’s letter mentioned something about “sexual McCarthyism.”
And all along there have been men, like my companion in seat 8B, who squirm at the very sight of Friedan’s name. A frailer spirit, amid such eclectic crossfire, might have crumpled in defeat, but Friedan’s has not. Far from it. A suburban housewife when The Feminine Mystique came out, she is now a Manhattan divorcee, ensconced, as she tells us in her epilogue, “high in an airy, magic tower with open sky and river and bridges to the future all around.” The future she envisions, both personally and politically, will most assuredly not exclude men. However middle-class and shrill she may seem, and whatever her excesses and shortcomings, I think she’s on the right track. Her book is worth rereading.