(WOMENSENEWS)–Marlene Sanders, founding chair of Women’s eNews, was a close friend of Betty Friedan for 40 years and one of four non-family members who spoke Monday at the New York City funeral about the woman called the “mother of the modern women’s movement.” Women’s eNews writer Lorraine Dusky was one of the millions of women worldwide who responded to the wake-up call Friedan sent out to women in her 1963 book, “The Feminine Mystique.” Today, Women’s eNews presents the recollections of a close friend and one who saw Friedan as a mentor.
As one of Betty Friedan’s longtime friends and colleagues, I have the distinction, I think, of being one of the only people she never yelled at!
Friedan was famous for being short with people, snappish and often undiplomatic. She was never like that with me. We met under unusual circumstances.
At the time, in 1965, I was a correspondent for ABC News and one of the handful of women visible on television.
That was the year after President Lyndon B. Johnson was elected and I had begun covering the elements of his Great Society program; from Head Start to the Job Corps to food stamps. In that connection I was invited to a reception given by Lady Bird Johnson to celebrate the inauguration of the Head Start program.
I joined a reception line and found myself standing next to Friedan, whose book, “The Feminine Mystique” had been published a couple of years earlier. I did not read it when it first came out. The reason: I had a full-time job in a male-dominated profession and had a husband and young son. In other words, I was too busy living the life she was describing as possible for women in her book. But coincidentally, on the day I met Friedan, I had belatedly begun the famous book.
I was thrilled to meet her and when we found ourselves at the airport later waiting for the same shuttle back to New York, we began a conversation that lasted nearly 40 years.
Because of that connection, I had the inside story of the formation of NOW, the National Organization for Women, in 1967.
Occupying the Ladies Home Journal
Others involved in the women’s rights movement tipped me off to events such as the occupation of the Ladies Home Journal office on March 18, 1970. It was quite a scene that day. Women marched into the office of the editor and demanded that an issue controlled by women be published. They did get their issue and they also demanded that more women join the masthead. At the time, women’s magazines were edited almost exclusively by men. That has changed.
That August, there was also the “Women of the World Unite” banner that protesters hung on the Statue of Liberty to help promote The Women’s Strike for Freedom, a nationwide march for women’s rights on Aug. 26. Organizers for the New York march didn’t get the permit to take over the street, but that didn’t stop them. They spilled out from the sidewalks and took over all of Fifth Avenue.
I was able to give those events, and others, exposure on national television. There were few women in broadcasting in the 1960s in jobs of any consequence; a token producer or writer, that’s all.
By creating the movement for change, Friedan gave us the courage to deal with our managements. We formed groups at all the networks, as did the women at the news magazines and newspapers. She often referred to me as part of the underground feminist movement in the media, but we were more above ground than below.
Her Courage Was Contagious
Her courage was contagious, and we forged on, presenting our demands to management at the risk of our jobs. We largely succeeded, and in TV, there became what was later called the Class of ’72, which brought into the business Leslie Stahl, Jane Pauley and other women. Over the years the numbers have climbed.
Friedan was more than a spokesperson for change. She cared deeply about her three children, and later her grandchildren, and in later years preferred talking about them more than about feminism.
She peppered me with questions about my family and after I became a widow wanted all the details about my dates. She was a great friend, and fun to be with. She also was an inveterate shopper. She loved clothes and family and men and enjoyed entertaining and a busy social life. It was hard to keep up with her.
Today’s young women–and I teach some of them at New York University–cannot imagine how things used to be. They are out there trying to figure out how to have it all and they can have it all if they work hard. They think that opportunity has always been there. They don’t know that only token women were admitted to professional schools and that want-ads in The New York Times were sex-segregated. It’s hard for them to imagine that generations of women were never permitted professional aspirations, that they were conditioned to be housewives, period.
In 1976 Friedan published her book “It Changed my Life,” about the political campaigns for equal pay and job opportunities, for outlawing sex discrimination, for legalized abortion and many other efforts.
Friedan did change all of our lives and in a remarkably short time.
The movement she spawned compelled medical and law and business and engineering schools to admit women, to desegregate the want ads, to present a future of unlimited vistas.
There is more work to be done. New generations of women–and like-minded men–will have to figure out how to move forward. Some of the old tactics that she espoused no longer work in a changed society. We will have to find a new way, without her. That will not be easy. The world has lost a great leader, and I have lost a dear friend.
Marlene Sanders is founding chair of the board of directors of Women’s eNews and an Emmy-winning television correspondent for ABC and CBS News.
We all knew she was ailing and that her house on Glover Street in Sag Harbor was unlikely to ever again be the scene of the glamorous parties she gave in the 1970s and 1980s, corralling all the celebrated she could in her back yard.
But when the news came over the weekend that Betty Friedan had died on her 85th birthday, it was a blow to the heart: the great Joan of Arc of my generation was gone. She had changed America and I went along for the ride.
By the time I read my paperback version of “The Feminine Mystique” in 1964 it was my senior year of college and I was well on my way. Heated arguments with my Midwestern, middle-class parents over my career choice had given way to their grudging acceptance. They were not raising a teacher or a nurse, after all; I was a journalism major and managing editor of Wayne State University’s Daily Collegian, hell-bent on a career to rival Brenda Starr’s, with or without the Mystery Man.
The book pumped high-octane gas into my resolve. This woman was talking directly to me, even though I didn’t need to throw off the shackles of wifery. I needn’t take them on at all. And I wasn’t crazy and I wasn’t alone.
Getting a good first job, however, was something else again. I landed in a fusty women’s department on a small Michigan daily where I wrote up bridals and garden features. Not exactly riveting, not exactly what I had in mind. This was the summer of 1964, one year after Friedan’s groundbreaking book was published to reviews that ranged from infuriated to befuddled to laudatory.
But in the end, the reviews didn’t matter: Friedan had wakened a sleeping generation of women, and millions of them would educate themselves and enter the work force with all the energy of an eruption from Etna.
Proving Ourselves Again and Again
Not that it was easy. Men were resentful, bosses were dubious. We had to prove ourselves time and time again. When I landed a dream job the following year–general assignment reporter–I was the first woman to do so on the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle.
I wasn’t particularly brilliant; I was just aggressive enough and the right woman at the right time. Friedan had pushed open the door and I snuck in. Not so much that all my editors gave me decent assignments; more than the men, I had to make my own way or spend the day on idle.
Five years later, now living in Manhattan, I was a foot soldier among thousands of others on New York’s Fifth Avenue the day of the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970. After the march I listened with goose-bumps and glistening eyes in Bryant Park as Mss. Friedan, Steinem, Millet and Abzug delivered passionate oratory. We would overcome.
I would finally meet my heroine when I came to Sag Harbor. A reporter friend on The New York Times who had been invited to one of Betty’s summer soirees took me along. With all the august types present, I was shy and hung around at the edges of the party. I was a nobody in a nice dress.
But slowly, I came to know this great personage myself–which is how I always thought of her–and when I wrote “The Best Companies for Women” in 1984, which is a book about just that, I had the nerve to ask her for a quote to put in the press release, which she graciously gave me.
The publication party was attended by many of the women I had interviewed. Friedan, of course, was the star in the room. She came to me and said, they want me to sign your book, what should I do? Sign it, of course, I said. Give them your autograph. I hope I remembered to add: You’re the reason this book was even possible.
A Life of Contradictions
But for all she did for women in general, she could be rude to them in person. It was the contradiction of her life that all who knew her talked about. I was the butt of her temperament myself when I helped her produce a forum in Sag Harbor. My job was to do the scut work. The job paid an hourly salary and I needed the money.
She screamed instructions at me over the phone. I would tape record them and try to make sense later of what I was supposed to do. After a couple of months–maybe only weeks but it seemed much longer–of her high-decibel shouting, I quit and was replaced by another, and then another, and another, and another.
The great feminist could also be caught catering to men. Never a beauty, she used her star power to flirt with men. Unless you were really famous yourself, she was more likely to remember your husband’s name than yours. But then, she never said to throw out the husband with the housework.
Despite all this, the redeeming qualities seemed to more than even out the score.
Friedan might have been exasperating to some, rude to others, but she was still: Betty Friedan, the mother of the movement, the woman who wrote that book, the sparkplug of feminism’s second wave. No personal foible could diminish her achievement. She was unquestionably one of the most important figures of the 20th century. In the Women’s Hall of Fame, she ranks right up there with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Dear Betty, thank you for everything. We did overcome. You changed America and, in doing so, you made the life I wanted possible. Not all the work is done yet, in many ways we’re still fighting for true equality, but we’re much farther along the road than before you woke us up.
Lorraine Dusky’s most recent book is “Still Unequal: The Shameful Truth about Women and Justice in America,” published in 1996. It carries a blurb by Ms. Friedan on the back cover.
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