Reprinted with permission from the JTA.
She was, like most ordinary mortals, a mass of contradictions.
Betty Friedan (1921-2006) was loud and sometimes imperious, yet she could be charming, funny, gentle, kind and winsome. A public persona, at times her ego needed massaging, but she remained surprisingly unassuming and unpretentious.
Though she exuded self-confidence, her vulnerabilities were right out there for all to see. She could fix her eyes and set her jaw in a “take no prisoners” position, but she could also listen to opposite views, change her mind, and soften at the distress of others.
Universal Woman, Particular Jew
She was universal woman and particular Jew. The word Jewish does not appear at all in The Feminine Mystique, her seminal work, yet every heartbeat was a Jewish one. Once, in her 50s, after fame, fortune and independence had filled her life, she asked one favor of friends–to find her a nice Jewish husband.
She wrote about drudgery and mindlessness of family work, yet her family was the sustained love of her life. She was totally invested in her children and longed for grandchildren well before they came.
Yet this complicated, complex woman changed all of our lives, even those who never read The Feminine Mystique or never heard of NOW, the National Organization for Women.
She spawned the most profound social revolution of the last few centuries without a drop of blood being shed. She will go down in history as one of the great change agents of modern history; and for us, she will be a continuing source of Jewish pride, characterized in our own history books as one of the contributions we made to the world.
How and why was her impact so great? How was it that she changed my own life–for I came from a very different place in the 1960s, from a community that offered women great satisfaction and sense of value in their roles as wives and mothers?
Her book seemed to be anti-family, anti-men. Though her chapter “Housewifery Expands to Fill the Time Available” carried some truths, mostly she managed to put down so many of the great women I knew, full-time homemakers and mothers. Moreover, as the women’s movement got off the ground in the 60s, building on her book’s steam, it quickly became more radicalized. The rhetoric of family as locus of abuse and man as exploiter grew more shrill. I’d have none of that!
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