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A Feminist in the Late '80s : Betty Friedan Helped Launch the Modern Women's Movement. Twenty-Four Years Later, She Finds the Revolution Still Needs Her. : A Place in History

May 17, 1987|BETTYANN KEVLES | Bettyann Kevles is a frequent contributor to The Los Angeles Times.

THE PHONE HASN'T STOPPED ringing since 9 a.m. and Betty Friedan has risen three times from her bath to answer it. It's past 11 and she's still not ready to leave her Sea Colony apartment in Santa Monica for a noon lecture at USC. "Who is it?" she calls from the bedroom.

"USA Today," I answer.

Twenty-four years ago, Friedan wrote a book called "The Feminine Mystique." A classic of feminist literature, it expressed the latent discontent many American women felt with their position in society, and helped trigger the women's movement worldwide. Three years later, in 1966, she helped found the National Organization for Women and was its first president. She still has an uncanny ability for articulating the needs of women of all ages.

Her historical role in advancing women's rights has been likened to Thomas Paine's in the 18th Century, when his pamphlet "Common Sense" energized Yankee discontent on the eve of the American Revolution. It is not uncommon to hear her compared to earlier feminist leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Friedan's concern these days is for the future of the movement that she helped launch. "The suffragettes disbanded after winning the vote in 1919," she points out--and two generations later, American women were back in the kitchen, living within the confines of a new mystique: An ideology that insisted that a woman belonged at home, enjoying the greater world only vicariously, through the accomplishments of her husband and children. The advances of the last two decades have been substantial, but feminists today have more to do than maintain a holding pattern. To remain viable, Friedan believes, the women's movement must have a forward momentum. Its next goal should be a reshaping of both society and the workplace, which she believes are geared toward a "male model." In this new world--no longer just a man's world--women would not be forced to choose between family and career.

"There are powerful forces in America today, right-wingers and evangelists who threaten to re-impose earlier roles on women," she tells a packed auditorium of mothers and daughters at the Westlake School for Girls in Bel-Air one day. These daughters are the people she wants to reach now, members of the "I'm not a feminist, but I'm going to be an astronaut" generation who listen incredulously to Friedan's descriptions of life with girdles and curfews. She is not asking for their gratitude. She is cautioning vigilance.

On this April morning, while she prepares for the day, I find myself running interference with the phone. Friedan emerges draped in a light blue terry-cloth caftan and grabs the receiver on the counter between the kitchen and the living room. "They want to know," I explain, "if you have an opinion about the new short skirts."

Her demeanor changes like quicksilver. The comfortable matron is transformed, her toga no longer an after-swim cover-up but a cloak of authority. Standing as tall as her 5 feet, 2 inches allow, Friedan becomes a spokeswoman for the movement. "I am opposed to short narrow skirts," she pronounces. "They are undignified and denigrating to anyone over 20. I shall continue wearing my skirts long and flowing and unhobbling and pretty."

THE ENERGY OF L.A.

IT IS HARD TO IMAGINE Betty Friedan's mental map of Los Angeles. Having allotted just half an hour to get to USC from Santa Monica, she urges me to drive faster. She hates to be late and, in fact, seldom is. She has no patience with SigAlerts, freeway construction or lane changes. When things don't go her way her temper flares without warning, only to be followed by apologies.

She claims to drive on Long Island, where she summers, but she won't tackle the freeways in Los Angeles and for a few days I'm replacing her regular driver. ("Do you have a car?" she asked in a deep, raspy voice when I first befriended her in Massachusetts in 1981. "I need a lift. I don't drive in Cambridge.") She likes to compare herself to author and non-driver Ray Bradbury. "It's perfectly easy to be a pedestrian in this city," she says, "as long as you have friends who will pick up and deliver."

She is usually driven to work in a red truck by a young woman she met at a local NOW meeting. It seems she is short-tempered with her, too, but the young feminist ignores the outbursts. "She is so busy. She does so much, and she doesn't even have a secretary," the woman says. Friedan juggles teaching, lecturing, writing and entertaining, aided only by an answering machine.

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