Memories of 'Aunt Betty' Friedan

The world mourns Betty Friedan, who died Saturday at 85, as the author of The Feminine Mystique and a catalyst for the modern women's movement. Kitty Eisele first knew her as "Aunt Betty." She offers a remembrance of a family friend.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In New York City today people are holding services to remember a towering figure in women's rights. Betty Friedan died over the weekend at the age of 85. As the author of the book "The Feminine Mystique" Friedan wrote about what she called the problem that has no name, the dissatisfaction of middle class, mostly white, American women.

That 1963 book inspired a generation of women to demand changes. It also prompted some conservatives to blame Friedan for the disintegration of the family.

She had a very personal effect on NPR Producer Kitty Eisele, who has this appreciation.

KITTY EISELE reporting:

I knew her as Aunt Betty. This mother of women's rights was, improbably, a sort of fairy godmother in my life.

As strange as that must sound, I think she liked being thought of that way, as someone who occasionally dropped in with opportunities or encouragement.

I met her first in Cambridge, 24 years ago, as a college freshman home on break. I was working that summer at an all-night coffee shop. One night I unlocked the door to my parents' apartment sometime after midnight and heard a noise coming from the couch. Under a pile of blankets a small figure lay snoring. There was a note. Betty lost her keys. Keep it down. In my Flashdance- inspired outfit, I tiptoed past this icon of feminism and went off to brush my teeth.

Betty Friedan was the woman we'd studied in our very first women's history classes. She was the reason that my friends and I, all of 18 years old, had started referring to ourselves as women. Indirectly, she was one reason I could get an athletic scholarship and that my roommates could get degrees in medicine and math.

She came into my life not because of my feminist mother, but because of my dad. He and Betty were both Fellows at Harvard that year, and although she had a reputation as being rather abrasive, they struck up a surprising friendship, one that endured and expanded to include the rest of our family. She toasted me on an early job and scolded me for smoking. She stood up for me when I announced I was going to London to see a guy I kind of knew, and my parents wondered if that might give the wrong impression. So what, Betty said. Go and have a good time. You are what you think you are, not what someone else thinks.

I had dinner with her the day she turned 80, when the host of Morning Edition mentioned her birthday on the air. I brought her a copy of the script on yellow paper. He would have to say my age, she groaned. Even Betty Friedan wasn't above a little vanity.

The most powerful thing I learned from her was not that I could have it all by myself. It was that other people made my opportunities possible, and I was part of a much bigger circle. She brought me into her circle and showed me in her later years a broader vision of family, a family defined not only by a husband and children, but one created intentionally, through friendships of all ages and kinds.

My friends and I talk a lot about that, about how we expect to be each other's families as we age. We know we've had the great fortune to define our lives by who we think we are, not who other people think we should be. If that's not a fitting epitaph for a great fairy godmother, I don't know what is.

INSKEEP: Remembrance from Kitty Eisele, who's an NPR producer here in Washington.

Services for Betty Friedan are being held today in New York City.

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