Monday, February 06, 2006

Mom and Betty Friedan--Perfect Together

My mother never met Betty Friedan, but I'm sure they'd have been friends if they'd ever had the chance to meet. (Friedan's many accomplishments are well known; this is a purely personal reminiscence.)

As Mom has told me for decades, it was Friedan's book, The Feminine Mystique, that finally put into words the not-so-vague sense of unease and unfulfillment that she felt as a stay-at-home mother of two kids. A college-educated women in the early 1960s--hell, she'd finished a four-year degree in three; my mom is no slouch--she took care of the house, catered to my dad, raised me and my brother, and slowly went a little nuts. Not that we ever knew--my mom is still the best mother I know. She kept the inner turmoil to herself.

Then, in 1963, she read The Feminist Mystique and decided to change her life. She applied to graduate school at age 30. Because she had few childcare options, she planned to take five years to finish a two-year master's degree. Many people said to her, "You don't want to do that, do you? In five years you'll be 35!" To which she replied, "Well, in five years I'll be 35 anyway--and I'd like to have something to show for it."

At first, my dad wasn't sure if it was such a great idea, but he eventually went along with it. Mom graduated with her two-year-degree-in-five-years master's in 1968, and we couldn't have been prouder. (I remember bugging my dad, asking him why Mom wasn't the first on the graduation list; I didn't yet understand the concept of alphabetical order.)

She began teaching at a local community college, and except for a break to work on her as-yet-unfinished Ph.D., stayed at the same job for about 35 years, ultimately becoming perhaps the most beloved teacher in the school's history. (Though retired now, she still gets invited back frequently for teacher orientation and coaching sessions, which she does gratis.) By the time she'd been teaching for a few years, my dad admitted that he was grateful not to be the sole breadwinner of the family. And a few years later, he died at age 43, leaving Mom a widow--but with a means of support at a job she loved.

My mom is a natural teacher--maybe without Betty Friedan she'd have broken out of her shell and her neighbors' expectations and achieved what she did. But Mom would say that without Betty, it wouldn't have come as early, and it wouldn't have felt as much like the right thing to do. Putting a name to that not-so-vague feeling of unease and unfulfillment meant the world to my mother, as I'm sure it did to millions of women.

Betty died on Saturday at the age of 85. I'm grateful for what she gave my mom. I'm grateful for what she gave to me. Rest in peace, Betty--you earned it.


Blogger Adam Luebke said...

God bless Betty Friedan. She truly was a maverick and cultural pioneer. Facing thousands of years of patriarchy and an entire cultural paradigm is daunting, to say the least.

9:39 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home