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The Betty I Knew

by Germaine Greer

Was Betty Friedan really as pivotal as she thought she was, asks Germaine Greer. Feminist
academic, critic and self-acclaimed anarchist, Germaine Greer has written 36 books
including The Female Eunuch (1970).

June 2006

The following article appeared in The Guardian on Tuesday February 7, 2006 Guardian © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006.

Betty Friedan “changed the course of human history almost single-handedly”.
Her ex-husband, Carl Friedan, believes this; Betty believed it too. This belief was the
key to a good deal of Betty’s behavior; she would become breathless with outrage if she didn’t get
the deference she thought she deserved. Though her behavior was often tiresome, I figured that
she had a point. Women don’t get the respect they deserve unless they are wielding maleshaped
power; if they represent women they will be called “love” and expected to clear up after
themselves. Betty wanted to change that forever. She wanted women to be a force to be reckoned
with, and yet she let Carl Friedan have all the income from The Feminine Mystique. Or so she
told me, sotto voce, in 1971. Something to do with community property, I guess. She was not
yet divorced from him then.


In its time, The Feminine Mystique was a book that spoke to American women loud and
clear. It was based on a questionnaire Betty sent out to the women who were at college with her
in the 1950s, all “happily” married and bringing up kids in the suburbs. Betty, who was in the
same boat, was feeling restless and dissatisfied. To her immense relief and considerable surprise,
she found that just about all the women in the same situation who replied to her questionnaire
were feeling the same. Betty was not one to realize that she was being lifted on an existing
wave; she thought she was the wave, that she had actually created the Zeitgeist that was ready
and hungry for her book. And so, as you see, did her husband, and, though he claims that her
descriptions of their married life in her last book Life So Far are wildly skewed, he still does.


My difficulties with Betty begin with the fact that, as I see it, it’s the three million readers
of The Feminine Mystique that made the book great. Moreover, I disagreed with its basic
premise. Betty’s Zeitgeist was not mine. She had seen the alternative roles that women had
fulfilled perfectly adequately during the war years closed to them, so they were forced to
return to Kinder, Küche, Kirche. She contributed three children to the baby boom. That was the
era of the New Look when hemlines dropped and waists were cinched and breasts were
pushed out. According to Betty, what happened was that women’s sexuality was emphasized
at the expense of all their other talents and attributes. What Betty saw as sexuality, I saw
as the denial and repression of female sexuality. The Female Eunuch was conceived in reaction to
The Feminine Mystique.


The National Organization for Women (NOW) was Betty’s idea; she certainly founded
it but it harvested a huge amount of energy that had been building up for years. The bringing
of the important class action suits that would improve the lot of working women is something
that American feminists should always be proud of. Betty was important to all of that, but not as
important as she thought she was.


When the American edition of The Female Eunuch was published in 1970, I was invited to
a NOW benefit. Betty grabbed me by the hand and dragged me round, introducing me to the
company as if I had been one of her disciples. I kept trying to explain that I wasn’t an equality
feminist but everything I said sounded callow and ungracious. Betty kept beaming and holding
my arm, completely unfazed by anything I said, until I had practically to rip myself from her
grasp and explain that I was there under false pretences, and didn’t share their belief that you
could be a loyal member of the Republican Party and a feminist. We now know that Betty didn’t
think you could either, but she could have fooled me and she certainly fooled everybody else.


In 1972, Betty and I, and Helvi Sipila of the United Nations, were together in Iran as guests
of the Women’s Organization of Iran, and once again I had difficulty in dissociating myself from
Betty, who would usually take over my allotted speaking time as well as her own and inveigh
against younger feminists who burned bras and talked dirty. Her line was that American
feminists had taken power, that everything was on the move and the Iranian women should
follow suit. “There’s more to life than a chicken in every path!” Betty would howl. She would
pour scorn on a life spent reheating TV dinners to women with a houseful of servants. When we
were in the air-conditioned Cadillac, she never spoke to me, but rested with her head against the
leather and closed her eyes. When I was talking to one of our minders about the particular way
Iranian women wore the veil, she yelled “Don’t you know the veil has been abahlished in Iran?”
If she had opened her eyes she would have seen that the women in the streets were all veiled.


Betty’s imperiousness had the shah’s courtiers completely flummoxed. She ordered a respirator
for her hotel room and one was brought over from the children’s hospital. Three days later
the courtiers asked me if it would be possible to remove it, as the hospital only had two and she
wasn’t using hers. I told them to go ahead and grab it, and that I would deal with Betty myself,
but she didn’t seem to notice that it was gone.


Again and again our escorts, aristocratic ladies with bleached hair and eyebrows, dressed from
head to toe by Guy Laroche, would ask me to explain Betty’s behavior. “Please, Mrs Greer, she
behaves so strangely, we think she may be drinking. She shouts at us, and when we try to explain she
walks away. Sometimes her speech is strange.”


I got so sick of being made to admire the Shahbanou’s restoration work and eat cake at
girls’ schools while Betty held the floor, that I arranged to be taken on a side trip to Shiraz
University. The night before, Betty swept into my room, fetchingly clad for bed in a cascade of
frills and flounces. “Whuttzes extra trip they’ve laid on for tomorrow?” she shouted, trotting
back and forth in a continual frou-frou. “I’ve told them to cancel it! I’ve done enough!” By that
time I knew her well enough to know that there would be no point in telling her that the trip
had been arranged for me. I let her think it had been cancelled, went to Shiraz and met Islamic
Marxist women, dressed head to foot in heavy woolen chadors, who told me that no truth
could come from the mouth of a western doll. Four years later those same women surrounded
the American embassy in Tehran, and the world really was never the same again.


As we were leaving our farewell party to go back to the hotel, Betty propped herself in front
of our Cadillac and refused to get in. “Dammit!” she shouted, “I wunt, I deserve my own car! I will
nutt travel cooped up in this thing with two other women. Don’t you clowns know who I am?”

“Mrs Greer,” pleaded the courtiers, who were shaking with fright. “What shall we do?
Please make her quiet! She is very drunk.”

Betty wasn’t drunk. She was furious that the various dignitaries and ministers of state all
had their own cars, while the female guests of honour were piled into a single car like a harem.
Helvi and I looked on from our Cadillac at Betty standing there in her spangled black crepe-dechine
and yelling fit to bust, “I will nutt be quiet and gedinna car! Absolutely nutt!”


Eventually one of the ministers’ cars was sent back for Betty. As it pulled out of the gateway I
caught sight of her, small, alone in the back, her great head pillowed on the leather, eyes closed,
resting after this important victory.


Betty and I met a few times after that, in circumstances where she didn’t get to use my
time as well as her own. I always let her speak first because it was easier to explain my position
by stepping off from hers. Everything Betty said was up-beat, triumphalist, even as state
after state was failing to ratify the equal rights amendment. Betty believed that freeing women
would not be the end of civilization as we know it; I hope that freeing women will be the end of
civilization as we know it.


Betty was disconcerted by lesbianism, leery of abortion and ultimately concerned for the
men whose ancient privileges she feared were being eroded. Betty was actually very feminine,
very keen on pretty clothes and very responsive to male attention, of which she got rather more
than you might think. The world will be a tamer place without her.

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