• Isabel Farhi
  • "It Changed My Life": Betty Friedan, as Writer and Grandmother
"It Changed My Life": Betty Friedan, as Writer and Grandmother
Written by
Isabel Farhi
June 2011
Written by
Isabel Farhi
June 2011
My grandmother was a writer.


It’s rather odd that it needs to be stated, but I never thought of her that way. Betty Friedan was many things to many people—hero, activist, mentor, speaker, pain in the butt—but I only knew her as my grandmother. At her heart, though, and through the things I have learned since her death, I think she was a writer.


After all, the book began it all. And when I say ‘the book’, I mean The Book. The Feminine Mystique. The book about which so many people would say to Betty, “it changed my life.”


At a Veteran Feminists of America meeting honoring Betty and the 45th anniversary of the founding of NOW last weekend, many of the second wave feminists, the ones who marched on August 26th, 1970 for the Women’s Strike for Equality, shared their memories of Betty Friedan. They spoke of her as leader, and as a temperamental, driven woman. I knew that woman, though not well. But they also spoke of her as an inspiration, as someone who brought them out of unhappy marriages and lives and into the world. Her words changed people, they said, they made women think. As Stephanie Coontz, author of A Strange Stirring, related in her speech, giving an example of the many experiences of which contemporary women told, one woman picked up a copy of Good Housekeeping in the beauty salon with her hair under the dryer—the perfect picture of the perfect housewife. But in that moment, as she read the article that would become The Feminine Mystique, she began, for the first time, “seeing life in three dimensions, instead of just two.”  Betty’s words did that.  That magazine piece started a movement that would change America, and it did that because it reached inside women and drew them out of their isolation. Before she could lead the movement, Betty had to be a writer gifted enough to cause readers to experience a shock of recognition so powerful it could change their lives.


When a book sells as many copies as the Feminine Mystique did, said one speaker at the VFA event, publishers expect there to be another book. And Betty felt that pressure, though everyone in the movement knew that another book was coming soon. But Betty disavowed any intention to give in to that pressure. “The movement is my second book,” she announced.


It was that ‘second book’ that made her an activist. As a leader, as that woman speaking in front of thousands, her writing infused her actions. She never used notes for her speeches, never memorized someone else’s words. The words that inspired so many were her own, created nearly-spontaneously. My mother, Betty’s daughter, told me that Betty, while in the car on her way to a speech, would ask the driver about local politics and news, and then seamlessly incorporate those events into her talk. She was so much a writer, so naturally a story-teller, that she didn’t need to put the words on a page—the world was her paper. It permeated every action, every speech, her whole public life.


The Feminine Mystique had something that made it delve into the hearts of ordinary women. Betty did not simply state facts, she wove them with anecdotes and brilliant, rousing prose that made women not just realize their own discontent but want to do something about it. That skill, those wall-breaking and stirring words, lived not only in her book but in her life, in the speeches that brought the eyes of the world upon the movement and in the women who rose up at her inspiration. “[the feminine mystique] was not just abstract and conceptual,” Betty wrote in her Introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of The Feminine Mystique, “…all the things that kept [women] from being full people in our society would have to be changed.” Perhaps another woman could have expressed that truth, could have organized those masses—but it took a writer, someone who could translate dry facts and political ideas into something people felt and internalized, who could turn the bland statement that things needed to change into a call to arms, to make the movement as powerful and ubiquitous as it became.


So maybe it is funny that I never thought of her as a writer. Maybe it’s because I never saw her writing, was too young to recall it. But now that I’m taking my first steps into the world of writing, I can look at my grandmother’s legacy with different eyes. I can remember that it was her words, her book, that changed everyone’s lives. She was a hero, an activist, a lecturer—but it was Betty Friedan, writer, who made the world what it is today, for me and all women.

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  • JoAnna Zachman


    I'm a Major Betty Friedan Fan,  I remember reading her book while I was a an uptight job in my Twenties in New York CIty.  ( I'm now 52)  I recalled that I could'nt put it down and I showed it to some of the older women at my job.  And they told me to put that BOOK away... it would just cause trouble.  Leave well enough alone , etc, etc. 

    Anyway, I outgrew that job and went on to do creative things with the words of that book helpiing me to have the courage to step up to myself. 

           Thank You for sharing your story.

                     JoAnna Zachman

  • Deborah Batterman

    Thank you so much, Isabel, for this wonderful tribute to the woman behind the 'mystique'.  I imagine she would very much smile at the thought of being, first and foremost, a grandmother to you -- and seeing your writing career take root.

  • Love this post, Isabel!! I've been thinking about Betty a lot lately, as I'm currently writing about motherhood, gender, etc.  And everywhere my reading takes me seems to lead back to her.  The movement -- AND the literature -- owe so much to your grandmother.  I am deeply inspired by her -- and jeesh, on the writerly side of things, can you imagine having a bestseller like TFM?  It literally blows my mind.

  • Helen W. Mallon

    It's cool to hear about the woman behind the icon.  She literally changed the world.  I also love the notion that Betty Friedan was such a writer that she spontaneously 'interviewed' people, then incorporated their remarks into her talks.  One question...did she ever bake cookies?