Boston Globe

Monday, May 8, 2000

Godmother of feminism

Betty Friedan survived political, private battles - now she reveals the scars

She still considers her divorce 31 years ago ''the hardest thing in my life.''

By Bella English, Globe Correspondent
Boston Globe

WASHINGTON - She's 79 now, has been through open-heart surgery, is a little hard of hearing. But nearly four decades after the bestseller that made her famous, women still stop Betty Friedan and say the same thing: ''You changed my life.''

Friedan's first book, ''The Feminine Mystique,'' is widely credited with starting the modern women's movement. Now, in a memoir, ''Life So Far,'' she takes readers inside a life filled with love, work, renown, and regret.

Perhaps the book's most sensational allegation is that, after ''The Feminine Mystique'' was published, her husband, Carl, then a struggling theater director, became jealous of her success and began to abuse her.

''In 1969,'' she writes, ''I finally summoned up the courage to get a divorce from Carl. The tension and the violence between us had not stopped during those early years when I was organizing the movement. ... How could I reconcile putting up with being knocked around by my husband while calling on women to rise up against their oppressors?''

For 20 years after their divorce, the couple remained estranged, but became friendly again as their three children married and produced grandchildren. Friedan says she visits her former husband in Sarasota, Fla., during the winter, and he has visited her home in Sag Harbor, N.Y., in the summer.

Reached in Sarasota, Carl Friedan, 80, vehemently denies abusing her. ''I'm pretty incensed by this,'' he says, adding that he has set up a Web site to rebut the charges. He alleges that she - not he - was the abusive one.

So he didn't hit her? ''I never gratuitously hit anyone,'' says Carl Friedan, who grew up in Boston and graduated from Boston Latin Academy. ''I am proud of what Betty did in the world, but she is slightly on the insane side.''

In an interview in her spacious apartment in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, Betty Friedan downplays the abuse. ''He was no wife-beater,'' she says, ''and I was no passive victim. I'm very hot-tempered and so is he. He's bigger than me. So I ended up with the black eyes.''

Her former husband isn't the only person Friedan will likely irritate with her memoir. Of Ms. magazine, started in 1971 by Gloria Steinem, she writes, ''The early issues were filled with all these anti-male dictums: women weren't supposed to shave their armpits or their legs, they weren't supposed to wear makeup, they weren't supposed to do anything that would make them attractive to men. It was so annoying to me that Gloria would preach this kind of doctrine in Ms., and at the same time be dating some very glamorous men and having her hair streaked at Kenneth, a very fancy New York salon.''

After she helped found the National Women's Political Caucus, Friedan writes of congresswoman Bella Abzug's response. ''`This is my turf!' she screamed at me over the phone.'' Today, she says, ''It was always good to fight alongside Bella. It was not so good fighting with her.''

And she details two love affairs - both with married men - after her divorce, naming names and giving details. (''David had great joie de vivre and was great in bed.'') Another lover fell out of bed and broke his toe, according to her book.

In an interview, she adds, with a chuckle: ''Sex is not, shall we say, a major part of my life now ... But don't knock it. It's a wonderful phenomenon!'' As for revealing her lovers' identities, she merely says: ''They're dead now.''

According to the book, Friedan's daughter Emily declared upon graduating from college that she wasn't a feminist. A year later, she had a change of heart. ''What happened?'' asked Friedan. ''One year of Harvard Medical School,'' replied Emily.

If Friedan has been good to feminism, then feminism has also been good to Friedan. She spends her summers in a Sag Harbor home she bought in the early 1980s and lives the rest of the year in Washington, in a sprawling apartment filled with antiques, Oriental carpets, paintings, and books she has collected over the years. (''See that red love seat?'' she asks. ''I got that years ago for $35. Its twin is in a museum. This couch must be worth $35,000 now.'')

But her fame and material comfort came at a price. Fellow feminists turned on her for being too mainstream. She still considers her divorce 31 years ago ''the hardest thing in my life.'' And though ''The Feminine Mystique'' brought her accolades, it also brought ostracism in the strait-laced New York City suburb where she was raising her children.

In her memoir, Friedan writes about a lonely childhood in Peoria, Ill., as one of the few Jews in town. The oldest child of a frustrated, cold mother and an older, demanding father, Friedan found intellectual and social refuge at Smith College, where she edited the newspaper and graduated with honors.

''The Feminine Mystique,'' published in 1963, grew out of a survey Friedan took of Smith alumnae 15 years after graduation. She found underachievement and frustration among these educated women, whose days were filled with child-rearing, shopping, and housekeeping. Friedan herself had been fired from a reporting job when she became pregnant with her second child.

The book exploded the myth of the happy '50s housewife. Originally conceived as an article, Friedan's work was rejected by several women's magazines as being ''too strong,'' so she turned it into a book.

Ten years ago, Friedan had surgery to replace heart valves. At first, doctors put in a pig's valve, which her body rejected. ''What good Jewish body wouldn't reject pork?'' she writes. She now has an artificial valve that, she says, tapping her chest, ''will outlive me.''

In 1998, she was awarded a grant of $1 million from the Ford Foundation to conduct research on men and women and work, which she does in connection with Cornell University. Friedan is passionate about the topic; she calls her philosophy the ''Get A Life'' movement. She feels the US workweek is ridiculously long and only getting longer. The quality of child care is a particular peeve. ''In fact,'' she fumes, ''I think I should go see President Clinton. There should be an executive order on child care programs.''

Personally, she delights in her eight grandchildren. One by one, she is taking them on trips: The oldest grandson accompanied her to Cuba, the next to France, a third she plans to take to the Galapagos Islands. ''I'm not about to sit in a rocking chair,'' she says.

From a straight-backed chair in her living room, Friedan offers the following opinions:

Today, Friedan kicks off a national book tour in Boston. (''God help us,'' comments her ex-husband.) ''I'm not really slowing down with age,'' she says, ''except that I don't want to work after midnight.''

Betty Friedan will speak tonight at 6 at Harvard University's Arthur M. Sackler Auditorium, Broadway and Quincy Street, Cambridge. Open to the public.

This story ran on page B7 of the Boston Globe on 5/8/2000.

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