Shopping With Betty

Remembering Betty Friedan.

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Betty Friedan

On a spring day in 1982, my grandmother Mickey and I went shopping with Betty Friedan. Mickey and Betty are second cousins; they grew up 40 miles apart, in Springfield and Peoria, Ill., respectively, and often ate midday Sunday dinner together with their families. On the spring day I remember, we were in Jerusalem for an international conference to which Betty and my grandfather had been invited. We had a day off for sightseeing, and the three of us spent part of it at a small dress boutique.

My grandmother was (and at 91, still is) an elegant woman. She appreciates fine clothing—the texture of good silk or linen, the cut of a well-made suit. She is a shopper to be reckoned with, one who knows what she likes and how to say so. Betty was none of those things. In her later life, she had a flair for funky, outrageous clothes, and her family tells me she always loved to shop. But in that stylish boutique, as I remember it, she waited for Mickey and a saleswoman to bring her dresses to try on. She put them on one by one and rotated dutifully in front of my grandmother, waiting for her reaction before vouching one of her own. She let herself be taken in hand—she wanted to be taken in hand; that was the whole idea. This was, of course, an utter contrast with Betty’s usual public—and private—persona. At the conference—attended mostly by men—her raspy voice was always raised in assurance, as it has been in almost every conversation I’ve had with her since. Betty asked sharp, one-chess-move-ahead questions. She argued and she pronounced. In the Jerusalem boutique, only the rasp was the same. Mostly, she waited for marching orders.

The dress that looked best on Betty was black, with a square neck rimmed in brocade and a high empire waist. My grandmother chose it to flatter her cousin’s 61-year-old figure. Betty had no waist to speak of and a round, protruding belly. “She was wearing lots of togas,” my grandmother remembers. “She needed a real piece of clothing to wear.” There was some discussion of a girdle or control-top pantyhose, I think. The dress made Betty look taller and set off the white streaks in her hair. Mickey told her to buy it. She did.

From this shopping expedition I learned that you can have the confidence to take over any room in the world except a dressing room. You can start a revolution and still worry that you lack good taste. You can be a make-way-for-me feminist—the feminist, in fact, who was famously bitter about losing the spotlight to younger, more glamorous women like Gloria Steinem—and still, almost despite your ideals, want to find a dress that flatters you. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Betty was part of a wave of feminism that assiduously strove to free women from caring about what they looked like, thinking that preoccupation incompatible with the aims of equality. But Betty was never as radical as some of her peers. And though they attacked her for that, her views have proved more durable. In an introduction she wrote for the 20th-anniversary edition of her iconic book The Feminine Mystique, a year after our shopping expedition, Betty writes of going to see a portrait of herself in Paris (alongside Colette and Susan B. Anthony) in a “gallery of honor” in the building that housed the national ministry for women’s affairs. ” ‘That’s not me!’ ” she recounts telling her French escort. “The artist had painted us all to be pretty. Like taking the warts off Napoleon’s nose. Oh well …” Most of the time, that verbal shrug was Betty’s last word.

“Betty always wanted me to go shopping with her,” my grandmother says, reeling off different cities and stores. Of course Betty did; in this domain, she was a subject in need of a ruler, at least some of the time, and my grandmother was queen. I can relate. I’m not a good shopper myself. I have none of my grandmother’s confidence, though I’ve benefited from hers. And also like Betty, maybe, I wish I didn’t care. Perhaps I should wish that I learned from Betty Friedan that appearance is irrelevant, that mind always trumps over body, that girdle or control-top pantyhose are a tool of paternalistic oppression. But I don’t. I’d rather know that she was as unsure of herself as I am. And also this: Women don’t always go to war with themselves when they go on a beauty quest, even when they are not beautiful in any traditional sense. Sometimes, they make peace. As I remember it, Betty wore the dress she bought with us to meet the Israeli prime minister. Before we left the hotel, she asked my grandmother how she looked. Mickey gave her approval. Betty beamed.


Postscript: Betty died yesterday, after I wrote this piece. She was at home, with her three children and other family and friends. It was her 85th birthday. On her dresser was a huge arrangement of flowers in honor of the occasion. She was loved. She will be missed.