Betty Friedan, Mapmaker

Betty Friedan died Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006. It was her 85th birthday. Now, after almost three decades of friendship, I find it surreal: writing this remembrance and not a birthday greeting. The symmetry of the dates would not escape her notice.

She was born in Peoria, Ill., in 1921 -- her young mind an engine driving her into territories unknown for most girls of her time. Eventually, she would map those territories in a book that intensified a call for women's rights.

She graduated from Smith and studied at University of California, Berkeley. She married and had two sons and a daughter. It wasn't that she didn't value her children or the experience of motherhood -- it was that it wasn't enough for her. She observed her peers and found similar frustration. She talked to scholars and academics, then she sat down at her kitchen table and wrote and wrote.

Betty started with the world she knew -- white suburbia -- and drew it with what tools she had, however imperfect. She was duly criticized for her lack of comprehension about class and race. In later years, she tried to understand more about race, class and sexuality. She did not expect her exasperation with household duties would transform her into a household word.

Although she relished her status as an international "celebrity," I think of her as a cartographer. Early maps are never perfect. They have errors, omit essential places, and warn of mythical dragons. And some continents depicted turn out not to exist at all. Yet, lacking such early chartings, we would drift without any direction at all.

I was 14 when "The Feminine Mystique" was published in 1963. I didn't read it then -- but my mother did. She then notified my father that his white-on-white, French-cuff, custom-made shirts would thereafter be sent to the commercial laundry; days of watching my mother stand in front of a tub dipping shirts in starch and ironing them were over. My mother landed a job with a decent salary and real responsibility. The book not only changed her life, it gave me the opportunity to detour into a life with many more choices.

In 1993 Friedan attacked ageism in "The Fountain of Age." Having become aware of how older people are stereotyped and treated, she took out her cartographer's tools again to try to chart a map for life past 60.

I saw Betty for the final time late last summer. I came into the side door of her Sag Harbor, Long Island house -- as I had hundreds of times before. She was staring into the distance. I worried that she wasn't having a good day, and I approached carefully. She brightened when she saw me and said in a strong voice: "Did you read the New York Times today? Look at the mess this awful man (Bush) is making of everything!"

She jabbed her finger at me, demanding, "And what exactly are you going to do about all this?"

I had denied that the edges of the maps in her head were fraying, but at that moment I knew I had been fooling myself. It was the first time she hadn't said: "What are we going to do …"

History will record her death as the passing of a founding mother of the contemporary women's movement, co-founder of many national women's organizations, a sometimes abrasive but also warm woman. I hope she might also be remembered as our Mapmaker, whose legacy should live in our continuation to dare think of undiscovered lands -- and then chart them, as best we can, with urgent deliberation.

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