Although now 71, and widely acknowledged as a founder of the modern women's movement, Betty Friedan doesn't quite make it as an Elder Stateswomen revisiting past achievements. Among other things, she won't sit still. Commuting between academic posts at NYU and USC, where she is a professor attached to no fewer than three departments, she remains embattled against demons of male chauvinism and other manifestations of oppression.
Ever since the publication, in 1963, of her instantly successful "The Feminine Mystique," urging women to question their assigned social roles, Friedan has upped the ante. Beginning with the founding of the National Organization for Women, in 1966, she has been associated with every campaign of the women's movement. But she is also controversial within feminist ranks. A decade ago, her book "The Second Stage" raised eyebrows over what critics charged was an attempt to prematurely claim victory. Her defense, not untypically, was that she, like most women, was merely moving on.
Friedan is an ardent feminist who respects traditional family values--with the caution that they be non-exploitative. Her temporary apartment in a Marina del Rey high-rise is filled with pictures of her three children and seven grandchildren. "This one is a doctor married to a doctor," she can't resist saying. Divorced 20 years ago and never remarried, she says "The women's movement and my own conscience gave me this strength to leave what was a destructive situation." She adds that women's liberation gives rise to prospects for a healthier family life. "One of the things that should come out of the women's movement is a sense of liberating and enriching ways of working out career and family life, and diverse ways of rearing our children and figuring out how to have a home and haven."
In any case, for Friedan, there is always the future, always the next battle. "I'm working on this new book which is nearly done," she said. Her enthusiasm is infectious. "It's called "The Fountain of Age," and it excites me a lot. I think that is going to be the next big revolution--breaking through the mystique that sees old age only as the decline from youth. Instead, we'll have an older generation that sings new songs, celebrates wisdom and isn't seeking the fountain of youth." Go Betty.
Question: What do you make of the recent spate of articles suggesting that women are alienated from the women's movement?
Answer: It bemuses me. All year there have been these cover stories that the women's movement is dead and about the death of feminism and the post-feminist generation of young women who don't identify with feminism--and then we have the biggest march ever of women in Washington. More people than had ever marched for anything--not only more women, but more people.
Q: So why all the articles about a women's movement in disarray?
A: I think the problem is that the media and even, to some degree, leaders of women's organizations are thinking of the women's movement as it looked 15 years ago. They don't understand that the women's movement is an absolute part of society now. It is in the consciousness, it is taken for granted. It is part of the way women look at themselves, and women are looked at.
Q: That accepted?
A: There are some die-hard male chauvinist pigs and there are some Neanderthal women who are threatened by equality--but the great majority, polls say 65% to 75% of women of America, of all ages, absolutely identify with the complete agenda of the women's movement: equal opportunity for jobs, education, professional training, the right to control your own body--your own reproductive process, freedom of choice, child care--the whole agenda.
Q: And feminism?
A: You say they don't like to call themselves feminist or they have a question mark about their own feminism . . . that is a reflection of the backlash. That is a reflection of the dozen years of Reagan and Bush, that tried to make feminism a dirty word, liberalism a dirty word, women's rights, civil rights, welfare, social programs, the whole agenda of social change and progress . . . . Don't forget the whole original Reagan campaign was a backlash against women's rights--ERA (the Equal Rights Amendment), the issue of abortion raised over and over again. It created a stereotype forcing the women's movement and their organizations to march in place everywhere, to fight, over and over again, to save the most elementary right of a person--the right to control your own body, your own reproductive process. Bush now is preventing poor women from getting abortions, but the hysteria is both symbol and substance of women's independence and women's autonomy.
Q: Abortion is a hotter issue than ever.