In 1963, Betty Friedan gave Women's Lib a kickstart with her book The Feminine Mystique.
Now, at 72, she has a new crusade: to take the dread out of growing old. KATE JENNINGS
meets the woman she used to think of as, a white-bread feminist and finds a force of nature
By KATE JENNINGS
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark
AT FIRST, THE IDEA OF INTERVIEWING Betty Friedan about her new book The Fountain of Age did not get my mojo working. From its title, the book threatened to be no different from It's Better To Be Over the Hill Than Under It, Old Age is Not for Sissies, and a number of other peppy tracts aimed at inducing seniors to be brave little soldiers about old age. One thinks immediately of retired Americans in summer plaids reading the stock exchange prices under the palmettos in Florida. I had preconceived notions about Betty Friedan, too, formed back in 1970, when I first encountered her catalytic feminist work The Feminine Mystique. I thought of her, condescendingly, as a white-bread feminist: The Feminine Mystique was for middle-class housewives, not for women such as me who had fire in their bellies. Simone de Beauvoir was more my speed, along with radical feminists such as Grace Atkinson and Kate Millett.
As it turns out, The Fountain of Age is an astonishing book: 600 pages of studies and interviews that fly, at hurricane strength, in the face of all our conventional wisdom on ageing. I was also up-ended by Friedan herself. Small, with a resonant voice, she is by turns gruff, emphatic, funny, sweet. She does nothing to get you to like her, which is always surprising in a woman; your opinion of her is of no consequence. I was so mesmerised by her personality that I found myself having trouble later remembering details of her surroundings. At 72, Betty Friedan doesn't seem old or even particularly female; rather, she is a force of nature.
The interview took place in her summer house at Sag Harbor, Long Island, a cosy collection of clapboard houses that was once a whaling settlement and now attracts writers and artists. The house, built in 1810 by a ship's carpenter, backs onto a postcard-pretty pond. To take advantage of the view, Friedan has added a glassed-in room and installed a dining table that seats 16, which is put to frequent use because she is sociable - people say of Friedan that she knows everyone.
One detail I am able to remember: a sampler that reads, "A woman's place is in the world". It is displayed prominently in the front parlour, where Friedan plonks down on a sofa, puts her feet up on a coffee table and launches into a description of the book's genesis: "I had gone as far as I could with feminism, I had said what I had to say. I needed a new project. It began with interviews I did of women who had moved beyond the feminine mystique. I had noticed a phenomenon, an ageing process entirely different from what I had expected.
"But I had such a dread of doing this book. I was in as much denial about age as anyone else. I found all sorts of reasons to postpone starting it. Then I got a fellowship at Harvard and decided to immerse myself in the subject. There was nothing - nothing! - except for research on Alzheimer's and the ethics of when to turn off the life-support machine. I found myself at meetings where gerontologists - Young Turks in white coats - were referring to older people as 'them', and I was reminded of 25 years earlier when I would go to conferences on the socalled woman problem, with male experts talking about women as 'them' in the most contemptuous terms.
"I realised that there is a miasma, an image, a mystique of age, if you will, more pernicious, more pervasive than the feminine mystique, that makes age a fate worse than death, to be denied at all costs. If age is faced, it is seen as a problem, as a deterioration from youth, not as a period of human life. We have to break through the self-fulfilling prophecy of age as only impairment and decline. At the beginning I thought women and men who continue to develop with age would be rare. But they are commonplace! Only five per cent end up in nursing homes. The percentage of people with Alzheimer's is even lower."
I am puzzled. On the evening news at least once a week, or so it seems, there is an item about Alzheimer's disease. The viewing public is treated to footage of a nursing home, its gaga inhabitants and distraught relatives, along with the statistic that one in three will develop the disease. The statistic alone, much less the accompanying images, is enough to put the wind up anyone.
Friedan proclaims a national women's strike in New York in 1970. Its slogan: "Don't iron while the strike is hot".
'Where, I ask Friedan, do these misleading figures come from? "God knows," she snorts. "There is an investment in keeping things the way they are. Not only the medical profession and gerontologists, who profit from the image of age as deterioration and decline - the middle-aged are particularly threatened by the idea of personhood in age in all its variety. People like themselves, only in a different period of their lives. They want to hold on to the idea of impairment and senility; to distance themselves."
It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone with a grasp of society's biases to read in The Fountain of Age that those Young Turks in white coats have based their assumptions about old age on studies done on a tiny subgroup of the ageing population: white men in nursing homes. Not only did these "experts" ignore women, who live longer than men and are generally more resilient, but they chose to study age in an environment that is notorious for inducing senility. New studies on wider samplings done over longer periods of time are coming up with evidence that refutes the notion that ageing is a downhill process. Intelligence, for example, doesn't deteriorate with age (except in the months before death). If anything, it improves.
There are mavericks that go even further and claim that gerontologists have been asking the wrong questions; their testing methods don't begin to address the complexity of ageing. For example, as people age, their intelligence becomes more "mindful" and flexible, and thus able to integrate knowledge, whereas the young excel in "pure logic", or thinking stripped of meaning. As one researcher has ventured, the kind of logic that intelligence tests are currently structured to measure may be "a merely budding, but not yet mature mode of thinking". In other words, the experts fail to test for wisdom.
Friedan has included in The Fountain of Age a wealth of information that will do much to dispel our "dread" of age. Indeed, the implications are revolutionary. As she writes: "It is necessary to keep reminding ourselves that of all the millennia of life on earth, only the women and men now alive can expect a vital third to half of life after they have reproduced ... Why are we not looking at age as a new, evolving stage of human life, as an open-ended development in its own terms, which, in fact, may be uniquely ours to define?"
As exhilarating as this is, I wonder if Friedan isn't being Pollyanna-ish. She began writing her book when she was 60 - a spring chicken, as these things go - and finished it 12 years later, well and truly embarked on what the French call the Third Age. This last year, in particular, hasn't been easy for her, with two major operations to replace a heart valve. The final sentence of The Fountain of Age reads, "I have never felt so free." As the reality of old age closes in, does she feel as sanguine?
Friedan puts the best face on it, telling me that her sickness had caused her to shed some of her excess poundage. Also, she no longer suffers asthma, which had plagued her all her life. Then she turns thoughtful: "The valve replacement operations were no joke. The fact is, I wrote myself into old age. My original model was simplistic. I thought that if you broke through the denial, everyone would live longer and be healthy. This is true, but it doesn't mean there will be no impairment. I have found people that exemplified the fountain of age, and they were living with arthritis and triple by-passes."
I continue to play naysayer and tell Friedan of a 75-year-old senior editor at a financial magazine. She would like to continue working until she can no longer sit upright at her desk. However, younger colleagues who covet her job are agitating for her dismissal. The reality - that word again! - is that our society has no compunction about throwing people onto the garbage heap at an ever-younger age. The marketplace isn't geared to people working into their 80s; the imperatives we live by, such as "make way for the new", are heartless, short-sighted and driven by economics.
"I can't give you an easy answer to that one," is her honest reply. "I can only tell you from experience that I can remember when a woman had to sign a paper saying she would quit her job if she married or became pregnant. All that has changed. Once we said that women are people entitled to equality of opportunity, then we could take on the social questions. So it is with age. We will figure the social action and social changes that are necessary as we go along. When I wrote The Feminine Mystique; I could not have predicted the women's movement."
"successful" ageing are mostly white and wellheeled. She bridles a little, then defends herself by saying that the middle-class, because of the very fact that it has money, is on the cutting edge of change. What it discovers about its potential helps everyone else. Similarly, she shrugs off the penury I see looming for women of my generation, who earn less than men in the kinds of jobs that don't have pensions attached. Our situation is exacerbated, because we haven't been as prudent with money as our parents. We are healthier than preceding generations, but our bank balances aren't. Friedan is impatient with my reasoning. Many women of her generation, she reminds me, have no marketable skills and are dependent on the benevolence of husbands. Whatever the situation, it's clear that some women from both generations will spend the first half of their adult lives fighting for equity for women, and the last half fighting for equity for the aged. I can only admire Friedan's can-do attitude. If she hasn't provided solutions, she has named the problem.
My interest in ageing does not stem entirely from what might be around the corner for me. My husband turned 70 this year, so you might say I have a front-row seat on ageing.
And I haven't liked what I've seen. Until I read Betty Friedan's book and gained perspective, I had begun to think that ageing couldn't be anything but a "dark defile", to quote the writer Edmund Wilson.
Neither of us thought he would grow old. Somehow we imagined him whipping along and then one day, with the minimum of fuss, handing in his spurs. But it is not like that. First, a pill for a heart condition was prescribed, followed by another, and before we knew it, the consultations and monitoring were constant. The medication has made a remarkable memory less so, which, in turn, has lead to more testing, more worries. We were ill-prepared.
To add to my husband's woes, his field of graphic arts has been transformed by computers. These days, half-formed 20-year-olds who can use a Macintosh will be hired over my husband, because they can do the job (sort of) and they cost less. Needless to say, quality in that field has taken a nosedive, but, then, the days when design was seen as informing an intelligent vision of the world have long gone.
He never saw himself quitting work. When people say, "Now that you are 70, what will you do?", he is dumbfounded. As he sees it, he is more creative than ever; a lifetime of thinking about typefaces and images is coming together with the force of thunderclaps. Unhappily, he finds himself living in an era that not only treats older people as if they were lepers, but that also - the two are connected - has no time for creative nuance.
The indignities are many. My husband feels he has been frog-marched across a bridge into a netherworld; it is not just the professional side of things. He prides himself on being well-informed, even hip; for heaven's sake, the man still reads Rolling Stone magazine, which is more than I do. It is a bitter pill for someone like him to be consigned to Old Fartdom by twerps who think Bird is a reference to Superman.
It is Friedan's contention that what ails most older people is depression, the symptoms of which include memory loss. When I gave her a rundown of my husband's predicament, she boomed, "He must be furious! Of course he is depressed! Who wouldn't be!" He is angry; living with him is like taking up residence on the lip of a volcano. However, diagnosing depression in an older person is one thing, treating it another.
Pills are to be avoided, given the dangers of overmedication, and psychiatrists are unwilling to take on older patients. And even if they were, the usual method of rooting around in childhood for causes isn't going to be all that effective with a septuagenarian whose depression has been triggered by his reduced status. Astoundingly, according to Friedan, there is "little psychological theory based on the actual experience of older people". She quotes in her book a damning statement by the geropsychologist David Gutmann: "The conventional psychology of ageing is almost completely devoted to the study of its discontents: ageing as depletion, ageing as catastrophe, ageing as mortality: At best, the aged are deemed barely capable of staving off disaster, but they are certainly not deemed capable of new capacities or of seeking out new challenges by their own choice (and even for the sheer hell of it)."
The exception was Carl Jung, who actually preferred working with older people because they brought more to the analysis. Jung believed that "the greatest potential for growth and selfrealisation exist in the second half of life", but only if the ego is left behind. He thought that "the very frequent neurotic disturbances of adult years all have one thing in common: they want to carry the youthful phase over the threshold ... Whoever carries over into the afternoon the law of morning must pay for it with damage to his soul." However, it should be noted that many present-day Jungians have fallen in line with the rest of society and hold the brutal view that seeing older people is "a waste of time".
My husband is a resourceful person; it will be interesting to see what he does once he comes to grips with his situation. As for Betty Friedan, she seems to be on top of things. In fact, she is giving herself two post-book presents: a Jungian analysis (if she can find an enlightened practitioner close to home) and a promise to edit out of her life anything she doesn't enjoy. As homework for the interview, I read Friedan's earlier books, all on feminism. Friedan was predicting as early as 1970 that the women's movement would founder if it emphasised the exotica of sexual politics over the more mundane concerns of mainstream women. It has taken some of us 20 years to catch up with her.
Particularly eyeopening is a 1975 interview from the collection It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women's Movement, in which Simone de Beauvoir gives the men-are-the-enemy separatist line and Friedan argues for a kinder, gentler feminism that would attract women with ordinary ambitions: work, marry, raise children. The fork in the road is clear. I went where de Beauvoir pointed, as did many others. We were mostly young and childless; it was more exciting to cast ourselves as feminist guerillas than to effect change within the system, or to talk about orgasms and phallocentricity rather than who changes the nappies. This is forgivable; most people have trouble getting worked up about things that don't impinge on them. (You could say failure of the imagination is Friedan's real subject.) However, how we failed to notice that de Beauvoir could, on occasion, be a horse's ass is beyond me: de Beauvoir: Many [feminists] ... don't think that the aim is to acquire a name or place in this society, but to fight and destroy it. For example, there is a general refusal of what is called the "star system". These feminists don't sign their articles in the feminist newspapers; it's a collective system, and no-one signs. They refuse the idea of competition, masculine glory, ambition and fame. Friedan: Are you no longer going to write books under your own byline? de Beauvoir: No, of course not, because I was formed differently. I began under a different system, and what I have achieved I am going to use. What Friedan foretold came to pass. The rights of lesbians, for example, took priority over issues such as child-care, and feminism was marginalised. Indeed, most people react as if stung when they hear the word "feminism". Time and again, I have witnessed women going to great lengths to dissociate themselves from feminism, all the while holding feminist views. ("I'm not feminist, but...") None of this is to say that the women's movement has been for nought, only that the route was made more difficult by the refusal to tap its potential membership. Nor was Friedan denying that lesbians suffered injustices; she was merely pointing out that if you wanted a broad-based movement, you had to weigh priorities. However, when she expanded on her arguments in a book called The Second Stage, feminists went out of their way to sink it. Friedan is bitter about the book's fate, although age has brought with it not only equanimity, but women like me turning up on her doorstep and saying, "You were right."
Of all the tidbits of information in The Fountain of Age, the one I found the most amusing was that irascible women live longer than amiable women. "That means that my women friends and I are going to be Methusalinas," I say to Friedan as I am leaving, and I get a hearty laugh out of her.The Fountain of Age, by Betty Friedan, is published by Jonathan Cape, rrp $35. Kate Jennings's latest book Bad Manners is published by Minerva, rrp, $16.95.