The XX Factor

Happy Birthday, Betty

Betty Friedan would have been 90 today, and this is also the fifth anniversary of her death. My cousin Emily Friedan, who is a pediatrician in Buffalo, N.Y., has written a tribute to her mother that takes issue with Stephanie Coontz’s portrayal of Betty and her 1963 classic, The Feminine Mystique , in Coontz’s new book , A Strange Stirring . Emily writes:

Ms. Coontz criticizes Betty for simplifying and exaggerating points and then offers her own hindsight examination of the same material. Yet, Betty’s uncanny ability to get to the meat of the problem, to identify, name and describe women’s actual experience of the time and make it accessible to thousands was the integral first step to political change. What remains relevant today is the clarity that comes from reading Betty’s sharp words that cut through so much. To analyze and rehash her analysis with the perspective of what came next and over the next 45 years is no less than Monday morning quarterbacking.


Betty told me when I was younger, write what you know. That’s exactly what she did. She wrote about the experience of educated white women. This was not a shortcoming. Imagine the hindsight criticism if Betty had presumed to address the experience of minority women as her critic suggests.

Ms. Coontz seems to have expected Betty to write with clairvoyance, as if she had a crystal ball to the phenomenal events that came after. No, she did not prescribe a woman’s movement in the book. The groundswell of response was unanticipated and it was that response that galvanized the women who were already trying to make change, but frustrated in their efforts.

The rest of Emily’s post is here . I wrote about Betty here and here when she died. Emily has always been frank about the hard parts of growing up with a mother who was also the mother of feminism; at the same time, I understand why she’s defending her mother’s legacy. To me, the amazing part is this: Decades later, Betty is still relevant, still making us argue and think, still part of the conversation.