She claims to have launched the women's movement singlehandedly. Now the indomitable Betty Friedan has a new message: “Old age is okay. "She climbed onto her soapbox to Hector Carol Sarler
October 24, 1993
Hector Carol Sarler


Betty Friedan, you must understand, does not actually give interviews. Oh, she will see you all right; on this occasion the allocation is two hours in a Chicago hotel bedroom. But the conventions of the traditional interview impinge not at all--nor, come to that, do the manners. She has a script to deliver, so well worn that its edges are frayed, and your job is to write it down like the dozens before you. The only interruptions to the flow of the script are brief pauses as she eats and drinks through the afternoon (no, you are not offered so much as a glass of water), and longer pauses when there are knocks for deliveries at the door (an inflection of the head tells you it is your job to answer them).

The interruptions she will not tolerate are questions. These are either ignored completely, dismissed with abuse ("You are out of your mind..?' "If you were taking notes properly you'd know I told you that") or--if the question might contain the merest hint of challenge to the script--she threatens to terminate the interview. This happened three times; the first after only 15 minutes, just so we both knew the lie of the land. Never mind that there had been a round trip of 6000 miles to get the interview, she was prepared to call it all off for the sake of good flounce.

Or was she? Or was this just an extraordinary, blatant exercise of one woman's absolute power over another? Either way, if this is sisterhood you can keep it. The irony is that 30 years ago, with the publication of her book The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan made a mint out of a version of feminism. She even boasts with alarming frequency in her script that she started the women's movement--a feat achieved apparently single-handedly, which puts women like Mary Wollstonecraft, the Pankhursts mère et filles, Annie Besant, Marie Stopes and Simone De Beauvoir nicely in their places.

Now she has a new book out, The Fountain Of Age, which will probably make her another mint. Probably for all the wrong reasons...

She is quite pleased to be in Chicago, as it happens, for Illinois is her home state. She grew up in Peoria, the small city widely used as the epitome of middle America; be it a political campaign or a theatre production, if you want to know if it will catch on, the phrase is "Will it play in Peoria?" And upstate a little: "Chicago was my first city. It was a big treat to come here on my 16th birthday.

"Growing up Jewish in the Middle West wasn't the greatest thing. My father was a businessman and my mother had also been born and grew up there. Her father was a doctor and she'd gone to the local college and then been editor of the women's pages of the local paper. She loved it--and I always loved working on newspapers, too--but when she married she quit her job because it wasn't done for the wife of a businessman to work. After her marriage she was always running this club or starting that or taking some sort of writing course... it was her frustration, I think, that gave me the energy to start the women's movement.

"She couldn't wait for me to get to junior high so I could try out for the school paper and I loved it. Later I went to Smith and I was the editor of the college paper there. Smith was the best women's college before women were allowed to go to Ivy League places--but I was very bright, so I had no trouble getting in.

She graduated, in psychology, in 1942. At the end of the war she met a returning soldier, Carl Friedan, on a blind date, married him, was sacked from her reporter's job for getting pregnant and went to live in the suburbs of Rockford County. "I had trained in psychology when Freudian thought was hitting these shores, so I felt guilty about working anyway. The message was out: GIs have come home for the jobs, and business and industry needs us at home to buy things. Suddenly a woman's place was in the home again.

"So I fixed up the house, went to auctions. I liked doing those things, too--stripping paint off the banisters, chauffeuring the kids, all that stuff. I liked entertaining--still do, I give a good party--and I got involved in the local politics of the school board and all that. But I couldn't quite suppress the itch to do something else.

"I always felt guilty having graduated summa cum laude from Smith and not having gone on with it. Then by serendipity, in 1957, they asked me to do a questionnaire on my college classmates 15 years after leaving.' Why ask her rather than one of the others? "Because I was considered one of the most brilliant women that ever graduated from Smith, so it was not surprising."

She was at the time doing freelance writing for women's magazines--"like secret drinking in the morning, because none of the other mothers worked"­- and thought the work on the questionnaire might make a magazine article when it was finished. "The Freudian idea was that too much education had made American women frustrated with their role in the home. I thought I would disprove that. But the questionnaire raised more questions than answers; when I studied the answers it wasn't the education that seemed wrong but the definition of the role of women. All over the country women were talking about this problem that had no name: 'I am Eugene's wife and the children's mother, but who am I?"

This was sufficient heresy that the women's magazines rejected the article--"I had never had anything turned down before"--and thus The Feminine Mystique was born as a book, eventually published in 1963. The magazines that had not wanted the article nevertheless did take extracts, which led to radio and television appearances and the word of mouth began. "One evening a woman called me from Pittsburgh and said she'd been driving around the city with her children in pyjamas in the back, just looking for this book." The success was extraordinary, as Friedan is happy to tell you: "I had put into words the feeling women had no words for and felt guilty about. Women still tell me where they were when they read The Feminine Mystique." (1963 was clearly a vintage year for remembering where you were when...)

In its time the book was indeed momentous. It was the first prominent articulation of the idea that although a woman might love her husband, her children and her home, they were not enough. It said that for an educated woman (Friedan appears unfamiliar with any other kind) 'Occupation: housewife' would not do--and it said it accessibly, less in the terms of her psychology education, more in the terms of her subsequent journalism: "The feminine mystique has succeeded in burying millions of American women alive ... there is no way for these women to break out of their comfortable concentration camps..." and so on; a paean to polemical rhetoric.

She tore into the anthropologists and the sociologists, knocking down Sigmund Freud on the way and, with a little more charity ("it was, perhaps, not her fault that she was taken so literally"), Margaret Mead. It stormed. The book sold by the millions and made Betty Friedan more than £100,000, a fortune at the time. There are those who say it was merely reflecting the mood of the day; that it was a book waiting to be written, rather than the vision of one woman setting out to change the world, but its author still prefers the past singular: "I realised that we needed a movement like the black civil rights movement that was happening then, so I started the women's movement... and the rest is history."

Re-reading The Feminine Mystique today it feels less than radical, more like a middle-class housewife's lament--not, by itself, any bad thing, for many a revolution has been led by the middle class. But the agedness of the work shows riot so much in the language (where "gay" means something else, conversations are "buzz sessions" and the big fear is the "hydrogen bomb") as in the lack of consideration given to women's position in terms of power, politics and economics. It is inconceivable that such a book today would not look at women's earnings or lack of them; women's ownership of wealth; their relationship to production and industry; the power in society that comes from that. In Friedan's book the point of seeking a job--and only if you want one--is for personal fulfillment . Women's relationship to money is confined to a chapter on their purchasing patterns... household items, bought with their husband's money.

This, surely, is worth risking a question. Why did she adhere to the psychology of the individual, without reference to the economic status of women? "Excuse me! There is a whole chapter on economics. The Sexual Sell!" Yes, but that is about spending a man's money. "I'm not interested in talking about this. And look: I can see you writing down that I said I'm not interested! Shall we stop this interview now? Hmmm?" A suitably humble apology allows us to continue, provided we move straight on to her new book and, basically, shut up.

I started the women’s movement, and the rest is history.

If The Feminine Mystique was a book waiting to be written, then easily as firmly positioned upon a relevant bandwagon is the 1993 publication of The Fountain Of Age. Just as Western societies are obsessed with youth and youth culture, correspondingly they are consumed with a dread of ageing--and at a time when all our populations are growing inexorably older. In the US the latest-growing group is the over-80s; in Britain last year there were 10.6m people of pensionable age--a rise of 16 per cent since 1971--and this figure is expected to rise to 14m in 40 years' time.

It is not surprising that the collective dread is being dealt with in a surge of denial: age, we are now constantly told, is absolutely marvellous. We have a pin-up calendar with all the 'girls' in their 5Os and 60s (among them Joan Collins, Elizabeth Taylor, Diahann Carroll and Loni Anderson); we have the Australian novelist Jill Neville telling us that to use HRT is "like tinkering with your soul"; we have the American writer Gail Sheehy asserting that "older is happier" and quoting Judy Collins, 54, as saying: "I have a vision of myself now as being a fully composed person' Even the model Lauren Hutton, approaching 50, is in on the act, looking forward to being "a toothsome 80-year-old. It's like an old building. Finally, people start to appreciate it.”

So if what Betty Friedan has to say on the subject is not wholly original, it is timely. In essence she says that past studies have dealt with age "only as a problem for society, something to dread--senility, nursing homes. You can sell anybody anything to hide age or pretend youth. But if you have your face lifted five times you don't look young; you look like a mummy." She preaches not the calendar-girl approach, where people look "wonderful for their age' but rather an acceptance of age in a positive light. "You have to look at it as a period of life in its own terms. My hypothesis is that once you break through the dreary mystique of age as deterioration and look at it in its own terms, then the things that are important in life are there. There is this belief that if you don't love or work the way you did at 30, you don't love or work at all.'

She did not, she says, intend to write this book. "I didn't start out to do a book on age--not that I started out to do a revolutionary tract on women, either. But there was something I noticed years ago, when I had been going to write another book and started the women's movement instead; I had looked for women who had combined work and marriage and motherhood--most of them were older than me, and very vital. And when I asked them about the menopause, they said they didn't have the menopause. They weren't biological freaks; they had finished their cycles--but it was no big deal for them.

"At the time I put this on the back burner because I got involved in organising the women's movement... and while doing that I didn't have the menopause myself. Did I ever have a hot flash? I don't know. I remember being dripping wet and hot on a summer's day in New York, where I was organising bringing radicals from the youth group together with an older feminist group -was that a hot flash? Or just New York in 103 degrees?

"Then, about 12 years ago, I had a visit from Robert Butler [head of the National Institute on Aging] who wanted to interest me in the problems of age. He said that because the great majority of the old were women, the problems of age were really women's problems. At first I wasn't interested, but then I remembered those women not having the menopause..." And, she might say, she had time on her hands, for by then Betty Friedan had been ostracised by much of the active women's movement that she had "started"--a movement that had, in its spreading, become more radical than she. 'When I started the women's movement for equality I wanted to break through the feminine mystique so women would not define themselves solely in terms of their relationship to men. But there was something wrong in going to the extreme and denying that part of women's lives. And I was attacked by many feminists for saying it couldn't be a sexual war against men. I used to say: 'Let's face it, men are here to stay; let's learn to live with them and love them if we can.' I never did figure this as a war of women against men. I saw, in my own family, that the movement would liberate men--although I didn't use that word then--because if women weren't so frustrated they wouldn't take it out on their husbands and children."

This philosophy of "Keep the housewife happy--she'll be a better mate" was not, by the early 1980s, what many women had in mind at all. They turned their backs and Friedan was left, as she admits, "looking for a project so she took a fellowship at Harvard, where resources were made available to her in exchange for teaching the odd seminar, and began what would become a labour of 12 years to publication.

Like The Feminine Mystique, the book is another curate's egg. There is the catchy, journalistic style: "Just as darkness is sometimes defined as the absence of light, so age is defined as the absence of youth," and the same in-front-of-your-own-eyes examples to illustrate them: in The Feminine Mystique she used images of women as seen as women's magazines, then compared the images with what she saw as the reality. In The Fountain Of Age she also takes as a starting point newspaper and magazine images of old people--"I realised that I had been on this road before' she wrote of this research--as she contrasts the lack of any positive image with the men and women she interviewed, who were "continuing to grow and develop after 60, after 70".

She writes well and convincingly about why women age better than men, about how activity and control over one's life preserve vitality, about the fear of menopause and about desperately needed reforms in the treatment of old people who do need residential care--while highlighting the mistake of using them as a stereotypical image.

The statistics she offers are illuminating. While most of the gerentologists' conferences that she attended seemed to be about Alzheimer's disease and senility, "it was surprising to me to learn that only 5% of Americans over 60 have or will have Alzheimer's and only 5% are in nursing homes". So, she asks: 'What about the other 95%?" She swipes at the assumption of the inevitability of decline--"For the great majority there is no serious deterioration until just before death"--and, on the subject of death, says: "If we are lucky enough we will die in the midst of life. The point of health and medical care in our older years is to keep us functioning in as human a way as possible. People are being sold nursing-home insurance or signed up into continuing care communities, built for nursing care, when they are 65 and still healthy and might not need it at all. Or only at the end of their life."

But, if she does an excellent job in pointing to the social scrap heap to which many old people are consigned, her problem is the continual overstatement that tests credibility. She insists absolutely that old people do not deteriorate or decline--they just do things differently, and should not be evaluated against the standards of youth. Take, for instance, sex.

Among her interviewees on the subject is an old lover of hers, whose heart medicine prevents him getting an erection. But, he says: "In terms of the sexual experience itself, I'd say it is better than ever... the whole body becomes sexual; there's a kind of losing yourself in the experience, not the old kind of orgasm, the ejaculation." The effect of reading this, on anyone under 60, has to be that we are pleased the old boy can still enjoy his nookie. But "better than ever"? Who is kidding who?

She writes in rhapsodic detail about the deaths of friends that she describes as "good deaths", which actually do not read like any fun at all, and enthuses wildly about old people frolicking on outward bound adventures. She is, predictably, against HRT and any perception of physical beauty that is to do with youth: "I say to women, if you have to have a facelift or dye your hair for survival reasons--for example, my friends in broadcasting--then OK. But don't do it in here! (She beats her chest with commitment) Don't buy the image!" Sadly, as long as men are attracted to younger women, it is going to take a whole lot more than a 650-page book to change the purchase of that or any other image.

Betty Friedan, now 73, thinks she has done again what she did with The Feminine Mystique. "It's interesting, the response to this book--and the even greater emotional reaction from men. I'm awed by it. It comes at a time in history when it had to be done; when there are so many of us living well past 60 or 70 or 80, with no road maps, no words to share our experience. There's a whole world of social structures that have to be changed or broken through and I can no more tell you what route that will take than I could have predicted the enormity of the women's movement in 1963. But I can tell you there will be a revolution at the turn of the century."

Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Once more Friedan refuses to relate the group about whom she writes to the economic structure; she interviews plenty of wealthy, articulate, middle-class subjects and refers to their "spending power” while writing passionately that "the movement that flows from the fountain of age cannot be a special interest group... all that energy and generativity can and must be put to work, alongside the young and middle generations:' Yes ma'am, but--we must try to get a question in here--surely this is only going to happen if the controlling young and middle generations let it happen? And why would or will they?

It is all very well to cite examples like John Huston still directing films at 80--but Huston had a market value; there was reason for the middle-generation moguls to invest in his continued active life. He had bargaining power; the slow, forgetful 80-year-old pensioner, eking out his state benefit, has none.

"What do you mean no bargaining power?" It is a squawk. "You're out of your mind! After all the skills that have come from women after 30 years of changing their life! I interview women facing age today--and men, too and I see strengths that have no name." That, as far as she is concerned, is answer enough.

It is doubtful that this book will lead any kind of revolution. But that is not to say that it will not sell: it is being hugely hyped to a hugely expanding market. And it is, essentially, a feel-good book for that market; for people (like Betty Friedan?) who are old... and who need to believe that they don't mind. The Fountain Of Age, by Betty Friedan, will be published by Jonathan Cape on November 4, £17.99.