This is Groundhog Day, so I’m wishing a happy birthday to my daughter, who, like many born Feb. 2, has a special “groundhog birth certificate” and has learned to spell Punxsutawney correctly.
But today, I’m also thinking about Betty Friedan, who was born Feb. 4, 1921, and died 11 years ago — on her 85th birthday. Her stereotype-shaking The Feminist Mystique was published in February 1963, and has come to be considered one of America’s most influential books ever. Groundbreaking to some, insulting to others — these were immediate after-the-fact assessments. But I lived the book at that time, and here’s how it directly affected me:
After college and marriage (almost simultaneous, very common for upper-middle-class young women in the mid-1950s, who were supposed to earn husbands along with their degrees), I wrote for a weekly paper until my first child was born, when I did what was expected of me: retreated to full-time homemaking. Unusual: I had worked up until the day of my delivery, since I was earning that other woman’s degree of the time, a “PH.T,” for “Putting Hubby Through” his master’s.
He graduated; we moved to Chicago, where for several years — during which I had my second child —– I cooked, cleaned, did some sporadic freelance writing, pushed a stroller in the park, and attended Tuesday “Mothers’ Morning Out” at the local Jewish center. Then my husband took a new job that moved us, in the same year as Mystique’s publication, to the city’s farthest south suburban outpost — Park Forest, Illinois, the Organization Man town of William Whyte, whose own 1956 book was as groundbreaking in its own way as was Betty Friedan’s in hers.
There I scored a job with a large suburban newspaper chain that had an outlet office within walking distance of my home, so I could work part-time and be able to get back in the house before the kids came home from school. All the neighbor women were appalled except one: She’d gone to work full-time after consulting with her minister, who warned that her depression would escalate if she didn’t start doing something more fulfilling for herself.
I didn’t need my rabbi to tell me the same thing. But my husband made fun of my job and of my participation in a new-style women’s group, factors that heralded the end of our marriage.
Then I began full-time newspapering, writing on social issues including the burgeoning women’s movement and working with a sociology professor at the nearby state university who was a pioneer in women’s studies. She had managed to secure Friedan for a local speaking appearance, and on that day I was in my office while she made the 45-minute drive into the city to pick up the feminist icon. But Friedan was not in the hotel lobby at the agreed-upon time, forcing her “chauffeur” to abandon the car and rush into the lobby to call the room. When she finally appeared, Friedan was visibly unhappy and began to vent about how she was tired of travel, commitments, even resented the accompanying adulation, etc., etc., etc. The professor was appalled, and angry.
Here’s what I heard when my desk phone rang: “Harriet,” she screamed, “I can’t believe what I did!” For after having had enough of the continuous bad-mouthing, she pulled her car over onto the busy highway’s shoulder, reached across Friedan to open the passenger door, and said “Either you stop complaining, or you can get out here and find your own way back to the hotel!” After which Friedan closed the door herself, put her head back, and promptly fell asleep — silent for the rest of the trip!
Neither of those two women said a word to each other afterward. But that evening, I was front and center when Betty Friedan wowed a packed house with what may well have been the best speech of her long and controversial life!