Betty Friedan Is Back on the Barricades with a New Cause: Family

updated 11/16/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/16/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

Betty Friedan doesn't lack for laurels—or, at the moment, for people who wish she would just rest on them. But instead of quietly rusticating, the 60-year-old founder and first president of the National Organization for Women is questioning some of the tenets of the movement that she helped start with her 1963 manifesto, The Feminine Mystique. In The Second Stage (Summit Books, $14.95), Friedan vigorously argues that feminism's antipathy to the values of heart and hearth is causing a popular "backlash" and dooming the Equal Rights Amendment (unless three more states adopt it by next June). Eager to rejuvenate the ERA—"This book could have used another few months of refinement," she admits—Friedan is urging men and women to transcend "feminist rhetoric." But the bitter counterattacks were not long in coming. "Betty Friedan," charged radical feminist Ellen Willis, "would destroy feminism in order to save it." Friedan is unfazed by the clamor. Divorced from an ad man since 1970, she describes her relationship with her children, Daniel, 33, a physicist, Jonathan, 28, an engineer, and Emily, 25, a medical student, as "better than ever." When she's not on the road lecturing, Friedan divides her time between her house on Long Island and her book-filled 40th-floor apartment on Manhattan's West Side where she lives alone. There she spoke with Bonnie Johnson of PEOPLE about the current stage of women's—and men's—liberation.

What do you think is wrong with the women's movement today?

We're very much in danger of getting locked into a "feminist mystique" that will deny us a part of our personhood just as much as the feminine mystique did. Listening to my daughter and to her generation, I sensed something was not getting to them right. They're working so hard at their careers, trying not to be trapped like their mothers were. But underneath there's increasing bitterness, pain and an unspoken accusation: "You people have saddled us with these difficult goals. Now what are we supposed to do with our other needs?"

So jobs haven't brought fulfillment?

No. As things are structured, women find they can't "have it all." They're trying to run homes and families by standards that were set by women who had to find their whole status and power in their domestic roles. I call it female machismo. At the same time they're trying to perform outside jobs up to standards set by men who had wives to take care of all the details of life. But these females don't like the idea of being superwomen.

What has to change?

For one thing, we have to include men and work with them, not against them, to cast new roles that are less confining to both sexes. The women's movement has gone as far as it can with women alone.

But many women are still turned off by the movement. Why?

Women whose whole identity is bound up with the family have felt threatened. It seemed like we were condescending to them and disdained everything they stood for. The family is important to me and to every feminist. There is a false polarization between feminism and the family which the right wing and the Moral Majority are hypocritically manipulating. If we don't affirm equally our new personhood in society and the part of us that is just as basic—the love and the nurturing of children—then feminism will take another 50 years to succeed.

You've been accused of abandoning your cause. How do you respond?

I'm making no 180-degree turn. I never thought that men were the enemy. And I always knew there is no win for women when you pit marriage and motherhood against a career. It's an impossible choice.

What about the Betty Friedan who said being a housewife was like being in a "comfortable concentration camp"?

All right, I am not guiltless. But that focus was necessary in the beginning. Since women had been so completely defined in terms of the family, you almost had to ignore the family part. But whether it should have been carried to the point of a separatist ideology, shouting "Down with men!"—that's another matter. What The Feminine Mystique didn't express sufficiently were the satisfactions of home and motherhood.

Were those mistakes avoidable?

I believe what we did was essential. We had to fight for equality and this had implications that make it impossible to return to the old kind of family. It wasn't easy to write The Second Stage because I knew some of my own would attack me. There is the fear that if you question any part of the movement, you're suggesting throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I'm not.

What's your objection to feminist groups like Women Against Pornography?

It's a diversion of energy, a wallowing in the victim state, and doesn't change anything. I don't like pornography, but it's the least of our problems.

You say you're not so much "for abortion" as "for the choice to have children." Isn't that skirting the issue?

I'm not skirting anything. You can't be for abortion as a value; it's a needed last resort. People say, "The forces for abortion are debating the forces for life." I refuse to be put in that box. I refuse to surrender the family to the Moral Majority. I am for life—and not just in the womb. I am for women's right to control their own bodies. Motherhood, to be truly generative, must be a choice. But the hysteria being fanned over abortion—and pornography and even homosexuality—just diverts people's energies from the economic problems that are really threatening our ability to control our lives.

How should these economic issues be tackled?

First, we have to recognize that the family is not just a buzzword for reactionaries. In all its varied forms it may be critical for our survival. To strengthen the family and make child rearing a realistic choice, we need maternity and paternity leaves, flexible scheduling of work hours, shared jobs, good child-care programs and possibly tax rebates for people who assume primary responsibility for raising a child. We might consider taking some of those workers—male and female—who have been laid off by the major industries and retraining them for careers in child care.

What else can be done?

Instead of fighting just for equality in terms that have been set by men, we should affirm those values that have been traditionally female—like the work women have been doing in the home. I don't mean an unreal thing like wages for housework but, say, an entitlement equal to her husband's when it comes to Social Security or pensions. And that credit would not be lost in case of divorce.

Why do you say passage of the Equal Rights Amendment is vital?

The economic need for women to work is not going to go away, and you have a government that says it is not going to enforce the laws against sex discrimination in employment and education. We need the ERA for protection because, as time is proving, laws alone are too easily changed.

What will happen if it isn't ratified?

There will be enormous rage and outrage. I don't like to contemplate what it's going to be like to be at the mercy of each individual husband and boss. I don't like to see us fighting the same battles over and over again. Without the ERA you'll have to do it piece by piece.

Is there hope?

Yes. There is a lot of new energy that can be mobilized. It can come from men and women who have been alienated, or from the younger generation who take these rights for granted. But there is no question to me that the battle for the ERA was hurt by the diversion of energy into sexual politics and by the divisiveness created by that.

After nearly 20 years, aren't you tired of fighting these battles?

Of course. I wouldn't be satisfied with—nor would I prescribe for anyone else—a life lived solely on the barricades, even though it's been a marvelous part of my life. During the next decade I want more time for myself—for music, travel, fun and frivolity. I reserve my right to be frivolous.

Would you consider remarrying?

I wouldn't mind. That whole dependence/independence thing is scary. But if you try to live free of emotional dependence, you lose out on life. It's better if you can do that from a position of economic independence. I'm glad I can.

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