“Mrs. America” Depicts Betty Friedan’s Achilles’ Heel

Tracey Ullman’s brilliant portrait of Betty Friedan in the FX series, Mrs. America features a real-life debate between Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly. Watching it led me to re-assess an interview I did of Friedan for a 2005 conference when she was 84 years old.

In addition to her seminal bestseller, The Feminine Mystique (1963), which galvanized the Women’s Liberation Movement, Friedan wrote a book about aging, called The Fountain of Age (1993). In 2005, I organized a conference panel on the psychological impact of menopause and invited her to speak. I found her phone number and cold-called. She answered the phone herself and readily agreed to speak at the conference!

Before the conference, however, she became ill and canceled. I asked if I could tape and present an interview with her instead. She agreed and invited me to Washington DC where she lived.

I sent her these questions prior to the interview:

  • What is the psychological impact of menopause on women?
  • What is the difference between menopause and aging?
  • How does menopause affect sexuality?
  • How is the experience of mid-life different for men and women?

Friedan, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, was not in a good mood when I arrived on January 12, 2005. Her housekeeper warned me to expect the worst. When I asked my first question about menopause, her famous “abrasive personality” was on full display. I went onto another question about menopause and she became increasingly angry and combative, finally yelling, “Why the f**k are you asking me this?”

Thinking on my feet, I quickly changed the subject and asked how Viagra had changed sexual relations between older adults. She brightened at this question and the interview continued in a more positive vein.

At the time, I understood Friedan’s reactions to questions about menopause to stem from her life-long advocacy of equality for women and her objection to any notion that women were disadvantaged by biology. I was interested in the effect of hormones on psychology. I believed that she and other feminists went too far by insisting there are no significant differences between men and women’s bodies and that biology played no role in psychological functioning.

But I also understood the extent to which Friedan recognized that a focus on the female body, i.e. the menstrual cycle, childbirth, and menopause, had been used to stigmatize women and to deem them ill-equipped to hold positions of power.

The debate scene between Friedan and Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America, however, gave me a more interpersonal perspective. At the time of the debate, Friedan would have been 52. She was in the middle of her own menopausal phase, newly divorced from a husband who had left her for a younger woman, and overshadowed in the Women’s Movement by the younger and more appealing Gloria Steinem.

Schlafly, who was losing the debate, in a viciously comedic performance by Cate Blanchett, is shown deliberately baiting Friedan with a personal attack on her vulnerability as a menopausal woman, “middle-aged and unhappy.” Friedan, just as she did in my interview over 30 years later, lost her cool. For Friedan, as for many of us who reach mid-life, menopause is not merely a topic of academic interest.

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