Betty Friedan on Doing Something New in Your Life


by Cathleen Rountree

Author’s Perspective

What better way to celebrate my fiftieth birthday than to spend it interviewing Betty Friedan? On my way out to her home in Sag Harbor on Long Island, New York, I imagined a pleasant, stimulating tête-à-tête with a catalyst of the second wave of feminism. An earlier telephone call had made me anxious about what to expect, when she was unfamiliar with me, my work, and the purpose of my upcoming visit. I had often heard from those who had previous experience with her that Betty was “difficult,” but just what that meant, I hadn’t known, exactly. So I had attributed her uninformed state to an overly hectic schedule.

            “Are you George?” Betty asked me when she opened the door. “Not the last time I looked,” I answered, somewhat puzzled. It wasn’t until we sat down in her living room that I understood: “George” was George, the magazine of politics and popular culture, which was also interviewing Betty that same week.

            My immediate impression of her was how small in stature she is. A larger-than-life icon also has human proportions, physically as well as psychologically, but that’s often easy to forget.

            Betty had recovered from the heart valve surgery she had had the previous September, and she was trim after having lost nearly twenty pounds. (Actually, that very day after our visit, she would be meeting a personal trainer at the local health club.) The heart valve, Betty wisecracked, would outlive her. “I’m fine,” she said when I asked about her health. When I told her that it was my birthday, she began to recall vivid images of her own birthday, twenty-seven years ago.

            “Well, for God’s sake . . . on my fiftieth birthday, the women’s movement was just exploding. Nineteen seventy-one. In my early years, I never buckled down to be a serious academic. My academic career began after my fiftieth birthday, so questions like tenure never bothered me. I just went in at the top at my own inclination or disinclination. You can’t judge anything by my life. Whenever I had time to think about it, I thought I never really had a career.” She mimicked whining. “Well, I won this big fellowship to go for my Ph.D. in psychology. I didn’t take it, so I didn’t become a Ph.D. in psychology, although by now I have received seven honorary doctorates. I got fired from a newspaper job and was pregnant with my second child. I loved working on a newspaper. I would have been very happy to have been the women’s page editor of the New York Times and see it evolve into something else, and so on. But I entered academic life at the full professor level after publishing my book [The Feminine Mystique], and I could write what I want to write, so what’s the question?” she said, remembering her irritation.

            “What do I have to look forward to in the next twenty-seven years?” I asked again.

            “What you can look forward to is liberation from the limitations. You don’t have to prove anything to anybody, do you? And you’ve fulfilled whatever roles were prescribed for you. If you’ve gotten married, if you’ve had kids, raised the kids, that’s finished now. So the rest of your life is just where you want to take it. I had this discussion with myself lately. I’m all for new adventures, but I get my life so filled up with things that I’m asked to do, expected to do ... They’re not bad, but they don’t leave me any room,” she said, echoing a sentiment that I had heard over and over from women in their seventies. Women who thought their lives would calm down and hoped they would be able to relax more but who instead found even more responsibilities and interesting activities that they wanted to do and that were expected of them.

            The American feminist revolution of the 1960s, or the “second wave” of the women’s movement, began among white, middle-class, educated women who became aware of the many inequalities that all women in American society suffered. Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique articulated the discontent of women frustrated with their plight. In 1966, Betty Friedan founded the National Organization for Women (NOW). The National Women’s Political Caucus was founded in 1971 by Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem, and Betty Friedan.

            In 1993, the publication of The Fountain of Age, her fourth book, did nearly as much for the “age mystique” as Betty’s first book had done for the “feminine mystique.” She began writing The Fountain of Age at age sixty-eight. In the preface to the book, Betty admits that she “didn’t even want to think about age. I was locked in my own denial before I could truly take in and exult over the stories of the surprisingly many women, and also men, ... continuing to grow, and living with vitality at a different kind of age.” One of the great gifts of The Fountain of Age was its offering of role models of people “living with vitality” into what she calls “the third stage” of life.

            Our interview had a rather rocky start, including a few accusations on Betty’s part that I felt were unwarranted: “You obviously suffer from ageism”; “You’re operating from an obsolete concept”; “I said what I said, not what I didn’t say.” We came to realize, however, that we shared more interests than she had previously thought. The conversation jumped from topic to topic, and I discovered a woman alive with concerns and curiosity. Later, we had lunch together at a dockside fish house, where our talk continued in a patternless form, touching on sailing, doctoral programs, literary gossip, Alicia Mugetti (a New York-based dress designer), the current state of feminism, food, travel to the Easter Islands. It eventually became the fiftieth birthday tête-à-tête I had hoped for.


Betty Friedan’s Voice

I don’t know that women suffer the brunt of ageism. All this seems so obsolete to me. Obsolete. Women that I know are not invisible in their seventies. They’re more vigorous. They have established themselves in whatever field they’re in. You’re operating from an obsolete concept! Women are not perceived as invisible in their seventies. Today it depends on what a woman is doing. Years and years ago, if women were only visible as nubile sex objects, then they’re invisible after they’re no longer nubile sex objects. But that, my darling, has not been true for a long, long time. Women are visible in the world in whatever field they’re operating in and however they operate. They may also be, at various times, daughters, mothers, wives, granddaughters, grandmothers—different roles in the family. But they’re not invisible even there, not when they’re grandmothers, and certainly not when they’re great-grandmothers, which more and more women who are living longer lives are becoming.

            Age has certain bonuses. They are a result of what you’ve been doing. All right?

You see things more holistically, if you continue to develop intellectually. It’s not programmed—decay and decline after forty, or develop and evolve. Depends on what you do or what you don’t do. But if you continue to be involved and continue to have purposes and projects and face challenges and you have built up a lifetime of experience, you develop a certain kind of wisdom, I think. And an ability to see more complexly than linear thinking, or either-or, win-lose thinking. More contextual.


Success previously has been defined in monetary terms or in terms of status or material advance. I say in my lectures lately—and this is not just in terms of women—QOL, which is quality of life, has to replace GDP, which is gross domestic product, as our priority and our basic measure. I think in terms of America generally, but it’s certainly true with people in what is considered the new third of life after midlife.

            Turn-of-the-century life expectancy was forty-five years. Now it is seventy-two for men and eighty for women. So there is a new one-third to one-half of life that people didn’t even have before. And in this third to half of life, the conventional measures have been fulfilled, for better or for worse. You either had a success or have it in your career, or it doesn’t matter to you any longer, or you’re burnt out, or you’ve fulfilled your role: wife, mother, husband, father—whatever. You’ve finished your parenting years, so the territory is open. What do you want to do?

            I’ve been thinking lately. A friend of mine was head of Small Business Administration and he’s generally been concerned with financial deals and things like. He’s a big burly Irishman, but the kind that reads James Joyce. Big reader, insatiable intellectual curiosity, which I love about him. So he decided he was going to write a play. Got fascinated by the Holocaust. Was going to write a play about the Holocaust. I said, “First of all, it’s not your material, so take a course in playwriting.” He did; that was really very good advice. So he’s written a play, first about the picking of the Pope, which is his material. Then he said, “Now can I write a play about the Holocaust?” I said, “Yes, all right, OK.” He’s having a reading of the play in Washington, and I won’t be back there for it this month, but I’m so proud of him and envious of him for doing something new like that, something new seriously. Taking the course in playwriting, writing the play.

            I’m thinking, “What can I do that’s new?” The trouble is I have so many demands, requests, opportunities, just to keep on doing what I’m doing. You do it in new directions or with new questions, but I’d love to do something really new. There are some intensive art courses offered on a barge or something that I could sign up for. It would be fun to do something that I’m no good at, that I’ve never done before, to do something different.

            That’s it. Doing what interests you, but also trying new things. Maggie Kuhn had a motto: “Do something outrageous every week.” And then she changed it to “every day” at the end of her life. I’ve got to do that, something outrageous every week, and I’ve got to do something new, you see. That’s got to be my motto—to do something new.

            When you do these new things that suit you in this new third of your life, when you don’t have to worry about success, failure, what anybody else is going to think, how much money you’re going to make, and so on, status is not the important thing. Imagine a banker becoming an emergency room nurse, which is a case I write about in The Fountain of Age.

            The word success—what does it mean anymore? You’re a success if you stay alive. Success isn’t the operative word. It’s doing what you want to do, what you’re able to do, even something you’re not so good at but something that intrigues you, because failure doesn’t matter anymore. Success and failure are out of your vocabulary, I think—or they should be. You’re a mother, you’re a grandmother, you’re a friend, you’re a lover—whatever. You deepen the relationship. Maybe the relationship will evolve in surprising ways. But the idea of success—no.

            As far as my work goes, I wish I didn’t have this memoir that I have to do hanging over me, but if you interview me a week from now when I’ve really gotten back to it, I’ll be all right. When I’m actually writing, it’s OK, but the dread ... If I didn’t have this goddamn memoir on my back, I could fool around with something different, like a novel or a detective story.


Advice? I don’t offer advice. Not my business. Your life is what you make it. What do you want to do? Even if you’re not rich, if you have Social Security ... I interviewed women living on Social Security who were still adventurous, so they managed to plunk themselves down in something unusual but cheap. Like a ski lodge. There is the woman in California who is driving the bus in some little mountain town. She went there to ski and ended up staying there. I loved finding people like that. I know how many there are.


My impression today is that women I know have a lot more vitality than men. Most of my friends are younger, I must admit, at this stage of the game, because I’m so very involved in everything. A lot of women and men in their seventies are, but some aren’t. You need to make friends that are younger. I have to say that in the last couple of years, three of the men in my life have died, and the women are still going strong.


What do I see for the women’s movement now? I don’t know. I was thinking about this question recently when I was reading something. Women are now getting equal numbers of professional degrees as men, so that means that in another generation, two generations, the playing field will be level. There’s equity now at beginning levels and even at mid-levels. I think the glass ceiling will disappear as the pool changes—if 40 percent or more of the law school class and the medical school class are women. There are going to be so many bright, well-trained  women  in every field, every profession. And according to demographics, because of baby busts, there’s going to be a shortage of skilled, trained professionals. You can already see it, except at the very top.

            So I was thinking, women could declare victory and move on. For me, the main questions now are not, “Women alone, or women versus men?” We could declare victory and move on, except for one thing—we will not have achieved equality until children are considered equally the man’s responsibility. The change now has to happen with men. If children begin to be seen as man’s responsibility as much as women’s, and as more and more men have the experience of hands-on parenting, as they are, as my son’s generation is—hands-on parenting from the diapers to the teenage angst—and men are doing this as well as women, not only will equality be more real but it will be very good for the men. In fact, I think new research shows that men that do hands-on parenting live longer. They used to die eight years younger than women. So they’ll live longer. That’s good. There are skills, qualities that are not measurable according to male yardsticks of success that come from sensitivity to life and dealing with kids.


I wish I had gone to law school. It would have been fun for me, but I don’t think I can do it at seventy-seven. I don’t think anybody’s going to let me in. On the other hand, my mother lived to ninety. But I could have done it ten years ago. I got to do some of these things. In June, I did so much traveling. In Paris, I spoke at a conference on the longevity revolution. The ambassador to Switzerland asked me to keynote a conference for the women of Europe in Bern, Switzerland. I was there two, three weeks. Since they knew I was coming over, the embassies asked me to speak at Madrid, Barcelona, Amsterdam. Fine. Visited friends for five days in Italy. Stayed in Paris nearly a week, just to play and shop. I tootled around Europe for three weeks. On the other hand, traveling is a drag—too much packing and unpacking. What I’m now looking for is some really interesting expedition, like a cruise, where you stay on the boat but get off and explore places, but you don’t have to pack and unpack everywhere.


What do I see for the twenty-first century? Exciting times. Change is happening so rapidly and so completely, and yet it’s imperceptible. You can’t extrapolate into the future beyond about five years, it seems to me. Unpredictable events can change things enormously. Like, take this question. There’s no dissent in this country right now. And there’s a growing income disparity. But who’s confronting it in any way whatsoever?

            We had a lovely party here in Sag Harbor on July 4; it’s given every year. We lowered the British flag, raised the American flag, read from the Declaration of Independence, and then anybody could give a little patriotic reading or say something. I always choose to say something. I was going to read the Declaration of Women’s Sentiments of Seneca Falls, written 150 years ago. I put it down somewhere and couldn’t find it, so I had to improvise. I gave a little speech about the power of America, about here we are at the new millennium: Oughtn’t we be having a national dialogue about national purpose? I think Clinton should call such a thing. When I get back to Washington, I might try to institute a national dialogue. Every community should have one as we head for the millennium. What will be the purposes and values of this nation and all its power?

            I go to different colleagues and say, “What could it take to get this country moving again in a progressive direction? We’re mired in the culture of greed, aren’t we? What would it take?” Nobody thinks it will happen without a depression or a war. Isn’t that something? Isn’t there any way that this country could be moved to some progressive politics again? Depression or war? Look around, and I must say, the Democratic Party tries to sound more and more like the Republican Party. And nobody even thinks at all about the poor. In fact, what did I just read that confirmed this? That HMOs were refusing to take Medicaid cases, or that they were trying to get rid of the elderly and the poor. Just cold-blooded. And there’s a lot of elderly and poor now, and there’s going to be more, because society’s aging.

            At the Fourth of July, I said a few mild things like this: “Just where is this nation with all its power and all its riches on the verge of the millennium?” Nobody’s dealing with the growing income disparity. Everybody came up to me afterward as if I’d said something really radical. “Oh, Betty, thank you. That was wonderful.”

            In that yard were a hundred people, plenty wealthy. When you say we have to deal with the growing income disparity, everybody was on the upper end of that. But they were also very influential people, and a lot of my friends here are from the media. Oughtn’t we be talking about these things? There hasn’t been a progressive political movement in a long time dealing with this.

            The last one began in the late sixties, and then it was the seventies and the eighties, but by the end of the eighties ... People now say the women’s movement is dead, and I say, “No, the women’s movement is a part of society.” As I said before, we could pick up our skirts, declare equality, and move on. Yes, women are only making seventy-four cents to the dollar, but I think that’s bound to change with women getting an equal number of professional degrees. Plus, the discrepancy begins with the child-rearing years, so the only real question that remains is that children should be considered the male responsibility as much as the woman’s and society’s. And we’re a backward nation—we don’t have a national child-care program. To me, that’s the main question.

            I gave a talk, maybe the end of last summer. I used the term culture of greed disparagingly. A couple of people were commenting afterward, and I heard, “But what’s wrong with that?


Women who are in their thirties have been raised with just taking for granted the equity that now exists. They don’t even know what it used to be like. That’s what I think. They really don’t know that women didn’t always have it this way. Unless they’ve studied it, of course. That’s my experience. Then they say, “I’m not a feminist, but I believe a woman’s going to be president someday.” So why do they say, “I’m not a feminist”? Because feminism to them means antimarriage, antimotherhood, antifashion, anti-beauty parlor.

            The Christian Right did this for a dead serious and dead evil political reason. The Christian Right is against feminism, and they want women to go back home again. They don’t dare say that aloud anymore, so they pick on abortion. “I’m not a feminist, but ...” is popular culture. Feminism means you’re anti-man, antifashion, antimotherhood—whatever. Feminism has been given a bad name. There are incredibly more women now in their seventies or in their sixties who are surely going into their seventies than there’ve ever been. Life expectancy of American women today is eighty years. That’s average. Not eighty senile years, but eighty effective years.


Excerpted with permission of the publisher Jossey-Bass, a Wiley company, from On Women Turning 70: Honoring the Voices of Wisdom. Copyright (c) 1999 by Cathleen Rountree. Available in local bookstores, online booksellers and from the Jossey-Bass web site at, or call 800-956-7739.