Betty Friedan, who died this weekend aged 85, was widely considered to be the founder of modern feminism. Was she really as pivotal as she thought she was, asks Germaine Greer
Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique spoke to American women loud and clear. Photo: Getty
Betty Friedan “changed the course of human history almost single-handedly”. Her ex-husband, Carl Friedan, believes this; Betty believed it too. This belief was the key to a good deal of Betty’s behaviour; she would become breathless with outrage if she didn’t get the deference she thought she deserved. Though her behaviour was often tiresome, I figured that she had a point. Women don’t get the respect they deserve unless they are wielding male-shaped power; if they represent women they will be called “love” and expected to clear up after themselves. Betty wanted to change that for ever. She wanted women to be a force to be reckoned with, and yet she let Carl Friedan have all the income from The Feminine Mystique. Or so she told me, sotto voce, in 1971. Something to do with community property, I guess. She was not yet divorced from him then.
In its time, The Feminine Mystique was a book that spoke to American women loud and clear. It was based on a questionnaire Betty sent out to the women who were at college with her in the 1950s, all “happily” married and bringing up kids in the suburbs. Betty, who was in the same boat, was feeling restless and dissatisfied. To her immense relief and considerable surprise, she found that just about all the women in the same situation who replied to her questionnaire were feeling the same. Betty was not one to realise that she was being lifted on an existing wave; she thought she was the wave, that she had actually created the Zeitgeist that was ready and hungry for her book. And so, as you see, did her husband, and, though he claims that her descriptions of their married life in her last book My Life So Far are wildly skewed, he still does.