Betty Friedan

Betty Freidan … From the Feminine Mystique to the Fountain of Age

VTR Date: September 15, 1993

Betty Friedan discusses the image of age in America.


GUEST: Betty Friedan
VTR: 9/15/93

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And this is another of our Golden Oldies marking the series’ golden anniversary. I actually first met today’s guest more than four decades ago when she was still researching what became her now classic challenge to women’s lot at mid-20th century: “The Feminine Mystique”. Betty Friedan had not only contributed much to the birth of feminism in America, she had nurtured it intellectually, helping bring it to what she later wrote of as its “second stage”. When we did today’s program a dozen years ago, Time magazine had written that her new book, “The Fountain of Age”, would, “Do for the image of older people what she did to dispel the feminine mystique”. And I asked her why she had written that, “The mystique of aging is much more deadly than the feminine mystique, more terrifying to confront, harder to break through”.

Friedan: Well, you see, we absolutely have no image of age in America, except deterioration and decline from youth. Age as a problem, terrible problem and burden for society. Age to be denied, you know, age to be denied as long as possible, surrounded by a miasma of dread. And the image of age only as nursing home, only as Alzheimer’s, senility. So people, I mean, they want to deny it. They want to deny it. And there is no image at all that fits the reality of the new years of human life that people now have beyond 50, beyond 60, beyond 70, even beyond 80, that lifespan in America in the course of this century has given us these new years, the average life expectancy of Americans is now over 75. For women it’s nearly 80. And if you are already 60 or 65, as we are, then your life expectancy is even longer. And these, for the great majority of people will be healthy years. And they will be years that we can live vitally in the community, love, be productive. But there’s no image of that. There is no image of that. You have just senility. So we deny age. We try to give the illusion of youth as long as possible, have our face lifted five times, look like a mummy…not young, but like a mummy…and not even, if we really buy that obsession with youth, that denial of age, that dreary dread mystique of age, then we don’t’ even let ourselves know the new possibilities that are evolving in us as we grow older. We don’t let ourselves live out age as fully as we might, freed, liberated from the strictures of our youth.

Heffner: But isn’t there something self-defeating, as self-defeating as the search for the fountain of youth, in the search for the fountain of age? Isn’t there some quest for something that can never really be?

Friedan: I don’t’ agree with you. I mean, The Fountain of Age is a very deliberate title because the fountain of youth denies the possibility of age. You cannot be young again. You cannot be young again. And why should you want to be? Does life peak at 25? You know, I mean, is there nothing good that develops in people as they go along in life with experience? I mean, I wouldn’t want to feel the way I felt at 25 again. If I could be 25 and know what I know now, and feel what I know now, that would be a different matter. But I can’t. But what I can…

Heffner: A continuing faith in our generation?

Friedan: What?

Heffner: That’s a continuing faith in our generation.

Friedan: What?

Heffner: Just exactly what you said. You would want to be 25 again.

Friedan: No.

Heffner: Now, unless you were as wise and as experienced then as now.

Friedan: But it’s futile. But the fountain of age is not futile. In other words, you’d have to break through just as women had to break through the feminine mystique, to see the new possibilities of life for women and for themselves and to define themselves as a people that they are. Take off that girdle, you see. So, too, the blinders of this dreary dread age mystique. It’s so. If we get rid of that, then we march into the uncharted territory. There’s no road map, there are no rules, there are no role models. And that’s as no other time in our life, it’s up to us. But you have to be able to not get stuck by the sort of that false syllogism and no-win proposition. You have to love the way you loved when you were 30 or you don’t love at all. You have to work the way you worked when you were 30, or you don’t work at all. You have to have the power you thought you needed when you were 30 or 40 or you’re utterly powerless and passive. You have to break out of all that, and then see where you really are. What I’m trying to do, and it’s not unrealistic, is to say…let us look at this period of life, these new 25 years that people have that they didn’t have before, as a unique period of human life. The things that are important to human life continue to be important, but you don’t have to love the way you loved when you were 30. There may be new possibilities of intimacy and love that don’t fit those youthful models. Your sexuality doesn’t have to fit the measures that Kinsey took that peaked for your sex, that peaked before you were 30. You can be freed of that, you know, macho mandate. Your memory even, I mean the research that I cited shows that if you give 17-year olds and 70 year olds memory testes, that if it’s sort of an unrelated words, number, you list, school stuff…

Heffner: Right.

Friedan: …those 17-year olds do better. But when you give meaningful material, the 70-year olds do better. Because they get it whole and they slough off the irrelevant materials. In other words, your intelligence, your emotions continue to evolve. I don’t use the word “old”. I say “growing older”. You know. And there’s no denial in it. And there’s a sort of an openness and a readiness to experience this new period of life for what it is, full of surprises, not free of pain, but you can continue to be vitally living your life as the person that you more and more are, because all for the research in my own interview show, the only thing happens to people that continued to evolve and develop in their later years, you become more and more authentically yourself.

Heffner: What do you mean? I know you say that in the book…

Friedan: Yes.

Heffner: What do you mean, “authentically yourself”?

Friedan: Well you do.

Heffner: Weren’t you authentically yourself when you wrote “The Feminine Mystique”?

Friedan: I know I certainly was in the deepest part of me, you know. And a process that really began then of throwing off the false mask. But that continues. And we all, I mean, it’s such a liberation, just as it was a liberation for women, to say that all I am I will not deny. You that that began for us. But for men and women not to have to live up to the false or no-longer even true or possible mandates and masks that we carried with us from youth, free of the games, free of the pretenses, free of the illusions, free of these structures and restrictions, to sort of fully be ourselves. And then it comes together more. It comes to be all of a piece more. That, you know, not talking about a psychoanalysis that goes back to your age of four and all that, but you finally outgrow some of these things and the pieces of you come together, you know, come together. For instance, I have a very good friend, a man, and he says, he’s very vital…he just had his 80th birthday. He says to me…he’s divorced, second wife, and he says he can have sexual feelings, and he’s a very sexy guy…about women anymore unless he really likes her. Big news, you know. That’s the way women, you know, have been all along. But you become more that way. For instance, there’s a crossover that takes place, the research shows. Men develop the side of themselves that’s been suppressed because it’s supposedly feminine. Women develop some side of themselves that’s been suppressed because it was supposedly masculine. And so you become a more whole person. And you have…you know, when I was interviewing the frustrated suburban housewives all those years ago for The Feminine Mystique, I talked about the “problem that has no name”. Remember?

Heffner: Right.

Friedan: When I talk to the women coming into age and the new men that are not, that sort of surmount the terrors of forced retirement and all that and become more fully themselves and manage to make new paths for themselves, which is harder for men than for women, but when I find the ones that are doing it, I see strength that has no name.

Heffner: You know, it’s interesting, Betty, that you…when I got to the end of the book, right at the very, very end of the book, I thought to myself, “Something’s happened here”. This intellectual odyssey that Betty Friedan has experienced from “The Feminine Mystique” on through your more humanistic approach to feminism or your more humanistic approach to the relationship between the sexes, and now to this point, you say at the very end, “I recognize my own compelling need now to transcend the war between the sexes, the no-win battles of women as a whole sex, oppressed victims, against men as a whole sex, the oppressors”. And I find it extraordinarily ironic that the one battle…yet you haven’t given up on, hardly, you gave birth to it…yet the one battle you found more frustrating than you believe you will find this battle against what we’ve always accepted as the dread end of life. You seem to have concluded that it was harder to deal with the war between the sexes than the war against the end of our lives.

Friedan: Oh, I don’t know, you know, it’s apples and fish. You know you can’t compare it. I think writing the book was harder. I mean writing myself…in the course of the tens of years that it took me to write “The Fountain of Age”, I went through a kind of transformation, a metamorphosis. I now know how much more liberated I feel than I did ten years ago.

Heffner: After “The Feminine Mystique”?

Friedan: And that is why…no…because…in this new period of life I’m in. and that is why I feel that “The Fountain of Age” may be as liberating to men and women in its way as “The Feminine Mystique” was 30 years ago. That “The Fountain of Age” will change the way men and women feel about themselves growing older, think about themselves growing older. Take away that obsessive dread and denial of age, and lead to new surprising realizations. And the other business, in part of my own evolution, is an embrace of the women’s movement for all it has been, because it has been a marvelous liberating force for women. And I am very proud of the fact that I was able, in “The Feminine Mystique”, and in my early years as starting the organizations and leading some of them, that i was able to play this role in the women’s movement. And I was, you know, hurt by attacks when I wrote “The Second Stage”, which I had to write because I felt that there were certain no-win battles and very dangerous distractions and diversion here. And that was painful for me, you know. But I had to do it. But now I’m beyond it and I’m in another period. Maybe I’m experiencing some wisdom. Who knows?

Heffner: Well, now…wait. You seem to be saying that the battle against ageism is much more likely to be won, much less likely to frustrate you, than the battle against sexism was.

Friedan: Well, it’s not just a battle against ageism. I mean, we do…we are…we know who are in our sixties, seventies, and more, we are the pioneers of a new kind of age. And right behind us are the baby boomers, who are now, you know, having…where they thought you can’t trust anyone over 30…and 40 was pretty traumatic, but now they’re facing 50. And they’re this huge, bulging market. And you know, the women have broken through the feminine mystique, and the men have helped take care of their children in ways that, you know, that they never did before. And they’re poised behind us with enormous power, and they’re, you know, I mean one of the news magazines a year ago showed a cover with a youngish-looking man with gray hair saying, “Oh my god, I can’t believe it. I’m going to be 50”. And I mean, the younger people that have been reading my book, and it’s amazing how, I mean young men and women…they come up to me and they say, “Oh, I’m going to send your book to my mother or my father”. And then they say…they start talking to me about what’ sin the book. And they say…I say…”Well, you’re so young yet. You really read it?” And they say, “Oh, yes. It’s gotten me over my own dread of age”. You know. Well, I would have thought this person was so young she or he wouldn’t have had the dread, a dread of age yet. But it’s interesting to have these Baby Boomers behind us who are not babies anymore. I mean I think they’re going to be moving into this new territory that will be the social revolution of the turn of the century. Just as the youth movement in the 60s, the songs, the Beatles, you know, the new music and then, you know everybody was, you know, so obsessed with the 18 to 39 market, you know, because they were the big bunch. Now at the turn of the century, our generation and those coming into age behind us, we will be, you know, the cutting edge. And the music and the songs and the values in society. But it’s not…it wouldn’t be just a…it’s not going to be, it seems to me, a movement of older people against young. It’s not a polarizing thing, you see, the battle against ageism like the battle against sexism. It’s larger than that.

Heffner: I know, but Betty, let me ask you about the question of resources. Later today, Dan Callahan will sit at this table. And we’ll talk about the aging population and the resources we have.

Friedan: But Dan wants to say that someone at a certain age can no longer get health care.

Heffner: But don’t put words into his mouth.

Friedan: I don’t agree with him on that.

Heffner: But wait a minute. Let me ask you about the resources that are needed to support the kind of generation you’re talking about.

Friedan: No, no. I mean you are buying the dreary, dread mystique of age in a way that tries to make older people the scapegoat for the crisis of health care that our whole society, or the economic crisis of our society. And that is wrong. Older people tend to be healthier than younger people. They need hospitalization less. And the idea that this is an enormous, costly burden on society comes solely from the prescribing by doctors of high-tech procedures. Keep people and give people a day or an hour or a month more of painful life when they are in a terminal state that can’t be cured, and when the thrust of healthcare should not be to just diagnose esoteric symptoms and cure what can’t be cured, but to keep you functioning in a human way in the community as long as possible. Not this costly nursing home they are sentenced to. Worse than death, you know. Not these unnecessary and profitable high-tech procedures that the insurance company, you know, will pay for and profit by…but the doctors will profit by and the hospitals will profit by, but our Medicare, our health insurance doesn’t even cover the non-medical measure that can keep people going in their community, so they don’t’ need nursing homes.

Heffner: Okay. Now, if I were my district attorney son, I could say, “Strike from the record my mention of Dan Callahan and what it has…

Friedan: Well, no. but there’s something that Dan does that’s dangerous and that I worry about. Kind of saying that certain, you know, that I have some chapters that I think are pretty important on the health care age. I don’t want to define people or define ourselves in age only as objects of healthcare…

Heffner: Sure.

Friedan: …you know, only as objects of, you know, medical care and cure and all that, which is what the age mystique does. But you have to face the realities, that you do need health care. But a health care that is based on a sort of a youthful model of medicine isn’t going far for people now either. I mean, you don’t want…you people…if you’re still…if the doctors are locked in the age mystique, so the woman or the man comes in with a real problem, real complaint to say, “Well, that’s just age”, so they don’t do anything about it. Or they prescribe all these drugs, you know, to sedate you, and then the drugs themselves create the problem. But instead of looking at the whole person you are and seeing what’s happening to you, a lot of the, even some of the supposed symptoms of senility, a lot of it, even psychological complaints that some older people do have, come from depression. And there’s every reason, given the way society treats older people now, for people to be depressed in age. It takes a real strong person who is able to get angry and is a truth-teller and doesn’t buy a lot of you-know-what…you know, that to make it to the vital age, to really partake of the fountain of age the way our society is now. But don’t make older people the scapegoat, the scapegoat for the health crisis caused by the profiteering on drugs and the high-tech procedures. There’s got to be a revolution in medicine. There’s got to be a way of caring for older people in terms of the people they are, keeping them functioning in the community, and not, and not profiting by these high-tech, they’re terminal, I think when there is no possibility of health life. But that does not mean what Daniel Callahan says, you know, that anybody over 65 have whatever, you know, certain kind of necessary operation or whatever. It shouldn’t be rationed that way. It should be rationed in terms of possibility for human function in life.

Heffner: Well, you know, I was thinking early this morning, that you never got onto the environmental bandwagon. But…

Friedan: Well, I support it. How much energy does a person have?

Heffner: Oh no. I understand. But beyond that, you have incredibly helped create and then rode the crest, and now perhaps are riding the crest again. You’re a very timely person. Because when you wrote “The Feminine Mystique” you helped create and then led a movement. And it seems quite clear that “The Fountain of Age” here, today, comes at a time when so many people have felt a need…

Friedan: Yes.

Heffner: …to feel exactly, to do exactly what it is that you’re doing.

Friedan: Well, that’s mysterious, isn’t it. You know, like I…

Heffner: Now, now, now. “Mysterious, come on Betty…it’s not…”

Friedan: No. no. but what I mean is, but for me it is. How I was, I mean, I consider myself incredibly blessed that I was somehow able to put together the experiences of my life and the training that I had as a journalist and as a psychologist, for that was my original training, to break through the feminine mystique, and then somehow to take the serendipity and that I responded to the need and helped organize the women’s movement. And I think it’s mysterious in a way too that I was able to do that again and take what i learned in feminism and in breaking through the feminine mystique and apply it to this new place in life despite my own denial, which I had to break through in order to write “The Fountain of Age”.

Heffner: Now 30 years ago, you didn’t anticipate the kinds of problems that would surface with feminism.

Friedan: Well no. thirty years ago…if i…when I was, say, finishing “The Feminine Mystique”, or it had just come out, like when you and I first met, I would never have been able to predict, I wouldn’t have been grandiose enough to be able to even conceive of the enormity of the women’s movement and what it accomplished.

Heffner: Or the problems that accompanied it?

Friedan: Well, but those are not important. The important thing is the women’s movement, and the way we did break through the feminine mystique and the way women did move into society. And that’s not guaranteed yet, even. I worry that women…that there may be…I remember when I was a child during the Depression. Married women weren’t allowed to take jobs as teachers. The downsizing of jobs, if there is no innovative thinking on the part of industry, government, that sooner or later there’s going to be an attempt to try to make women go home again. It’s already happening in some ways…already in the elimination of 14 million jobs that people between, you know,…they’re holding….the people from their late thirties into their fifties, those jobs will never come back again. And the people that had those jobs have been replaced by younger people that they have to pay less to. And those people may never be able to get that kind of job again. And more of them are women than men.

Heffner: Okay. Thirty seconds. Do you anticipate that the search for the fountain of age is going to experience the same incredible surge that feminism did?

Friedan: It looks as I fit is putting into words what people needed to be able to name their new place. And that it may lead to some kind of movement. I could no more say now than I could 30 years ago…have predicted the scope of the women’s movement. I don’t think it will be older people against young. And I don’t think the women’s movement was that way either.


Heffner: I thanked Betty Friedan at that point…and the audience too, saying then as I always do, I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $4.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”