A Evolving Feminist in Defense of Aging

Article excerpt

Summary: In the sixties, Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique and triggered modern feminism. Now 72, she has softened her feminist stridency and pours her vigor into a new crusade, on behalf of aging. Her new book on the subject touts old age as something to celebrate rather than dread, and the people she portrays are active, "evolving" like the author herself.

She grew up in Peoria, the symbol of Middle America, a fact that might surprise people who identify her with New York City. She became a celebrity in the sixties with the publication of The Feminine Mystique, one of the most influential books of this century. Now she's a 72-year-old grandmother, a topic of which she never seems to tire.

Betty Friedan, doyenne of modern American feminism, is still going strong - evolving, as she likes to say - as evidenced by the publication of her fourth book, The Fountain of Age, a prodigiously researched and passionately argued treatise on aging in America. Granted, the familiar persona of the crusading feminist can be found among the 671 pages of this, her most ambitious work. Friedan can't resist pointing out, for example, that in the 1930s more than half the states prohibited married women from entering the work force, a d almost half the nation's public utilities hired no women at all. But there's also a new feistiness to her thinking and a refusal to be categorized. "I recognize with relief and excitement," she writes, "my liberation from the power politics of the women's movement."

Friedan, though sometimes described in the press as severe, isn't at all: She's warm and sensual, if a bit hard of hearing, and vigorous in her defense of old age. She challenges what she regards as overreaction to the plight of the elderly, noting that only 5 percent of Americans over age 65 are in nursing homes and that fewer than 10 percent are likely ever to share that fate, despite the remarkable increase in longevity in the United States.

Longevity, in fact, is one of Friedan's major concerns. She notes that the turn of the century, white women lived 47 years on average; they now expect to reach the age of 78, a rather remarkable change in a relatively short time. Since men die eight to 10 years earlier, on average, Friedan expects that females will "dominate" the country by the year 2000, when, if predictions hold true, they will significantly outnumber males. And it's not just that women are living longer than men: They're healthier and far less prone to suicide.

"It's going to permanently alter the way things are," says Friedan, who recalls paging through magazines during the 1940s and 1950s and constantly finding photos of women waxing floors. Television was worse, portraying women as homebodies, always in the kitchen preparing meals for their families, she says.

This wasn't the kind of life that Friedan, born Betty Goldstein, thought she wanted. After graduating at the head of Smith College's class of '42, she went off to Greenwich Village, where she met and married World War II veteran Carl Friedan. She had her first child in 1949, and her second pregnancy a few years later caused her to be fired from her job at a left-wing labor newspaper, undoubtedly a formative event in her life. Friedan also mentions her return to Smith for her 15-year class reunion as a spark for her radicalism. She found the "passivity" of the students intolerable and wondered what could move them to become more involved with social issues rather than personal concerns.

Friedan's old radicalism has mellowed into an enlightened liberalism. She now lives a stone's throw from Lincoln Center and a moderate walk from Central Park in an apartment larger, by far, than most Manhattanites have. Amid the books that line the walls from ceiling to floor, she feels comfortable with the notions that issues can't be reduced to mere politics and that there's than an "agenda" a list of things to achieve. She says she hates programs that reduce solutions to ready-made formulas, although she still has knee-jerk reactions against anything conservative. …