What Mystique Did Betty Friedan Wield? Very Powerful One

It was fitting that Betty Friedan, whose book The Feminine Mystique exploded through the suburbs when it was first published in 1963, was remembered at the Upper West Side’s Riverside Memorial Chapel, in the midst of elegant brownstones, where women who “opted out” of high-octane careers spend their days pushing $700 strollers toward Central Park.

The irony would not have been lost on Ms. Friedan, who died last Saturday, Feb. 4, on her 85th birthday.

The following Monday, Ms. Friedan’s colleagues from the early days of the women’s movement, her children and grandchildren, and extended family and friends gathered to eulogize a writer and activist who was often described as a mass of contradictions. She was an indulgent grandmother who referred to motherhood as her greatest accomplishment and a fearsome political organizer with strong opinions and a fiery disposition. She was a brilliant strategist prone to feuding with co-workers, and one who held grudges for years. She often provoked terror in those who knew her.

She was, in the words of her daughter Emily Friedan, who spoke at the service, “a force to be reckoned with and a force to bask in.”

Ms. Friedan’s offspring best illustrated the complicated nature of the woman credited with sparking the contemporary feminist movement.

Her grandson, Raphael Friedan, 23, said that he was mostly unaware of his grandmother’s notoriety during the time that he knew her. She had, he pointed out, long since faded from the limelight. But she did bring him along to fabulous dinners and on vacation to Cuba, and she let him throw parties in her beloved house in Sag Harbor during the summers he spent with her there.

“She was five feet tall and walked with a cane, but she could scare a 300-pound busboy so much that he’d hide and refuse to come out,” Raphael said, alluding to Ms. Friedan’s infamous temper. The audience rippled with knowing laughter. “She was always sweet to me, but she just didn’t take any shit. It didn’t really matter who they were—if she thought someone was giving her shit, she gave ’em hell. She just had this fire burning inside of her. It didn’t take much for that to explode.”

“Betty was not the perfect mother,” said one of her two sons, Jonathan. “Daniel, Emily and I ate TV dinners growing up—way beyond the recommended limit.” He made jokes about his mother’s crankiness toward her assistant—“who was fired repeatedly over the last 13 years”—and referred to “those crackpot women” his mom used to hang out with. He recalled a day in Washington, D.C., when he and his friend caught a glimpse of his mother dressed in “suffragette white,” chained to the White House fence in a protest.

“How do you make sense of Betty? You just don’t,” her daughter Emily said, adding that she’d spent her entire life being asked what it was like to be Betty Friedan’s daughter. “If she was the mother of the women’s movement, then I’m the women’s movement.”

At the time that The Feminine Mystique was published, suburbia was filled with educated ladies trapped in their houses, going completely insane with their vacuum cleaners. The book galvanized millions of women of the sort who filled the rows of wooden pews at the memorial: handsomely dressed and educated women who remember a time when want ads were organized by gender. Many of them credited Ms. Friedan for having liberated them from forced domesticity and making their lives as career women possible. One, sitting near the back, said that she hadn’t known Ms. Friedan personally, but that she’d recently retired from teaching law at N.Y.U. “It wouldn’t have been possible without Betty,” she said.

The service was a reunion of sorts for women who had labored together in the trenches of 1960’s and 70’s feminism—some of whom had been involved in battles with Ms. Friedan over the years about where the movement was going and who was getting credit for it. The psychologist Phyllis Chesler; Letty Cottin Pogrebin, one of the founders of Ms. Magazine; Kate Millet, the author of Sexual Politics, the women’s-health expert Barbara Seaman; and Alix Kates Shulman, author of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen—all greeted one another with recognition and hugs. Some of them had worked with Ms. Friedan in the founding of the National Organization for Women in 1966, while others were from the movement’s more radical wing.

“I truly believe that Betty Friedan was the most influential woman, not only of the 20th century, but of the second millennium,” said Ms. Friedan’s friend, Muriel Fox, one of the founders of N.O.W. and a former executive vice president of the public-relations firm Carl Byoir & Associates.

“She was a great friend and a lot of fun to be with,” said Marlene Sanders, a close friend of Ms. Friedan’s since 1965 and one of the first women anchors on television, with ABC News. “She really enjoyed gossip …. She was also an inveterate shopper. Going shopping with her always cost me money. She loved clothes, family and men. She loved entertaining.” Ms. Sanders explained that Ms. Friedan had enthusiastically attended parties and liked to throw them herself. “Today’s young women don’t understand how it used to be. They assume they can have it all—and they can, thanks to her.”

Ms. Friedan was born in Peoria, Ill., and died in her home in Washington, D.C., but she spent many of her key agitator years in New York City. After she wrote The Feminine Mystique, she bought an apartment in the Dakota building, where she held some of her famous press conferences, including the one announcing the founding of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America. She bounced around other abodes in the city, and sometime in the 1970’s bought the house in Sag Harbor, after years of summer rentals.

“She had more energy for going to parties than I think anybody else in all of the Hamptons,” said Ms. Seaman, who started the women’s-health movement with her book The Doctors’ Case Against the Pill in 1969, and who was a protégée of Ms. Friedan’s. “When you were Betty’s houseguest, you had to be prepared to go to six or eight parties in any one night.”

In addition to her activism and heady social life, Ms. Friedan was known for being opinionated and quick to anger. There are numerous tales of her flying into a rage at her husband or incompetent restaurant wait staff.

Ms. Friedan also fought to keep the nascent feminist movement rooted strictly in the mainstream. She was the president of N.O.W. until 1970, and focused on lobbying Congress over issues such as job discrimination and equal pay—alienating some of the more radical women’s groups.

“I think many people were quite mad at Betty for having somewhat demonized lesbians in the movement. She called them the ‘lavender menace,’” said Ms. Shulman. “And I think that probably a lot of people continued to be angry about that through the years, even though she did, at one point, of take it back.”

The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd interviewed Ms. Friedan many times during her coverage of the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas hearings, and described her as “a tough broad and an original.”

“In a 1991 issue of Allure magazine, she said she did not think that women should have to give up beauty and sexuality to be feminists,” Ms. Dowd said by e-mail. “’Women could all stop wearing lipstick and blusher, eye shadow and moisturizing cream tomorrow, and I doubt it would help them break through the glass ceiling or get child care or parental leave within the structures of the workplace,’ she wrote, adding: ‘If feminism really meant a war against men—a repudiation of love and beauty and home and children—most women would not want it.’”

Ms. Friedan was famously jealous of the feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who came after her by some 10 or 12 years. According to friends, Ms. Friedan became consumed with resentment when Ms. Steinem was invited to be a graduation speaker at Smith College, both women’s alma mater, before Ms. Friedan ever was.

“I spent many years trying to be their go-between. That was sort of the dark side of working with Betty,” said Ms. Seaman.

Judith Hennessee, author of Betty Friedan: A Life, said she struggled to create a fair portrait of Ms. Friedan’s volatile personality.

“Betty was a kind woman in many ways,” said Ms. Hennessee. “She always supported her friends’ projects and books, and when someone got a bad review, she always managed to say the right thing to them. There was so much that was generous about her.”

Ms. Seaman spent a great deal of time with Ms. Friedan gallivanting around Sag Harbor, getting into “capers” together. She said that Ms. Friedan liked to tear around the North Fork in a decrepit old car, and that her eyesight wasn’t very good, which only added to the thrill. Ms. Seaman recalled one particular incident, which she thought had taken place around 1980, when Ms. Friedan was driving between parties with Nelson Algren—the former lover of Simone de Beauvoir and author of The Man with the Golden Arm—who had recently moved to Sag Harbor.

“She was a very short, elderly woman driving this car in the dark who could barely see, and every time they went over a bump, something would rattle and maybe a piece of the car would fall off,” said Ms. Seaman. “She was in some intense conversation with him, and they went over a bump, but she just kept talking. And then, after another two or three minutes, she realized that he hadn’t answered her, and he was gone! So she went back, and she found him on the roadside—he fell out of the car and she hadn’t noticed.

“It captures something about Betty’s spirit,” Ms. Seaman said. “Do or die, you know?”