Betty Friedan, the matriarch of American feminism, is dead at 85.
Friedan was a complex figure; a thinker and social critic who was right about some things — both in her critique of traditional female roles and in her critique of radical feminism — and very wrong or shortsighted about others; a champion of humanitarian ideals who was often less than kind to the people around her. Ultimately, I think she was a far more positive than negative figure in American life. I’m writing about her for Reason Express, for tomorrow, but in the meantime here is an article I wrote for The Washington Post in 1999 reviewing two books about Friedan.
Its last paragraph, pretty much, sums up my thoughts about Friedan.
Friedan may have exaggerated the feminine mystique’s grip on American culture and women (including herself), and may have taken too much credit for shattering it. These correctives could be seen as diminishing her stature. However, they also confirm that her feminism was not foisted on women but came as a response to their aspirations and drew on already existing trends. Most of the social change that followed would have happened with or without Friedan. But she was able to crystallize the spirit of that change in a way that had unique popular appeal. She has had her share of excesses and dubious ideas. Yet one can only hope that after all the battles between gender-war feminists and anti-feminists still pining for the feminine mystique, her vision of feminism as an equal partnership between men and women is the one that endures.