Betty Friedan understands. She understands that women have gotten to be such first class citizens that they can do everything: they get to raise the children, keep house, cook, chauffeur, garden, go back to school, do good deeds and now they also get to work full-time. She understands that a lot of women have gotten to be more equal than men that there are a lot of tired women around these days, and that this can't go on forever.
"The women's movement is the first stage of a profound sexual revolution," she told a recent gathering of reporters interested in the women's movement. The next stage is "to make equality livable and workable." Women will more and more strike alliances with established interest groups such as organized labor to change the way Americans live and work, she predicted.
"The women's movement came out of its isolation" during the congressional fight for the extension of the equal rights amendment said Friedan. "It became clear that it didn't speak for an alienated minority but for a large majority - for women who would not willingly go back to second-class citizenship."
Friedan has been at the stormy center of the women's movement ever since she wrote "The Feminine Mystique" 15 years ago. She has been at the center of the storm and she has stayed at the center despite a general public perception of her as being a radical. When her followers overtook her when a radical edge preached sapphism instead of sense, when putting men down was a way of putting women ahead. Betty Friedan stood her ground. She denounced the femal chauvinists, denounced sexual politics, and denounced ideology that "has its root in breaking our ties with men
And now, she feels vindicated. "The rhetoric and with children" of sexual politics became politically stupid when it became clear that the second biggest booster of the equal rights amendment were men. We could never have won the extension without the lobbying help of organized labor," she said.
Friedan used to seem gray, doctrinnaire, humorless and loud. When Gloria Steinem came along. She was welcomed as a beautiful contrast to Friedan. Well, Friedan is looking pretty good these days. More relaxed. More colorful. She doesn't smile much and still has a rather loud, raspy voice that talks in rapid, disjointed sentences, as if she's still in thire gear. But you get the idea she's having more fun in her life, and she's saying other women should have fun again, and she's predicting a future in which they will.
In the future, says Friedan, who has seen right in the past women "will work closely with labor employment and health. Women in a certain sense and civil rights groups on the burning issues of will be the key to a new political alliance to a human rights alliance."
She said the choices and conflicts between being a wife and mother and working will recede and more and more women will combine motherhood and working and this will force changes. "We have to move to the more complex issues of restructing work and the home." There will be more part-time work and more flexitime work-places - not just for women, but also for men - and men will be sharing "the responsibilities of parenthood equally," said Friedan.
"You see now a kind of envy from men towards the women's movement. They envy that women have taken their lives in their hands, they have decided how they want to define life, define what they want to do. Men have had their careers and their rat race and that's about all. What about a new life and new possibilities for men? There will be new developments in human liberation that focus on men. They will move more and more toward mid-life changes redefining what they want out of life, in part to accomodate themselves to the changing women in their lives."
Women are emerging from a period of reaction, a period in which they squelched powerful femal impulses and rejected traditional roles said Friedan. The birthrate fell and not just because of the pill. "But then you saw a flicker last year of an upturn in the 25-to 34-year-old age group. Women are choosing to be mothers.
"Women have a powerful impulse to be mothers. We cannot deny that aspect of women's personality. The real battle is to have women be able to have equal opportunity without eschewing motherhood."
And she said women once again feel that they can be exuberant and frivolous when they want to be. "What's wrong with being a sex object, if that's not all you are?"
There was a time some years ago when people were saving the leaders of the women's government were strident and they meant Betty Friedan. She seems softer these days, still energetic but less frenzied, provocative but less threatening. Once Friedan was in the vanguard. People dismissed her. When she spoke about equality in the home and the workplace people didn't take her seriously. Everyone knew there were simply certain jobs women couldn't do certain places they couldn't go.
At times, Friedan still uses the language of radical politics and she talks about the "profound sexual revolution" and how "the seriousness of it all will become more and more apparent" and she talks about the "forces of the right" being threatened when women move toward independence. She predicted an overhaul of marriage and divorce laws, some form of severage pay for housewives, and a new system of dissolving marriages that will take divorce "out of the hands of lawyers."
This is the future, according to Betty Friedan, and it doesn't sound very radical at all anymore. When she talks of flexitime and sharing parenthood and severance pay for housewives and overhauling divorce laws she doesn't sound like strident radical Betty Friedan. She's making sense. She knows women still have problems and she's predicting how they will resolved. She sounds like she's changed into a moderate. But then you realize Betty Friedan hasn't changed much at all these past 15 years.