Richard Reeves

The Girl From Peoria Who Changed the World

LOS ANGELES -- The lead headline of the Los Angeles Times on Thursday looked like a kind of high-level boilerplate: "Lawmakers Hear Details of Spy Program."

What else is new? This:

The members of Congress who forced the White House to release more details were both women: Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican who served in the Air Force, and Jane Harman, a California Democrat who was once one of the legion of bright young women who did the backroom work for male legislators.

The story appeared five days after the death of Betty Friedan. On the day after her obituary was published, the Times ran this letter from Eileen C. Moore, associate justice of the California Court of Appeal (cq):

"It is almost impossible to inflate the effect that Betty Friedan's 'The Feminine Mystique' had on my life. The women I saw were either nuns or homemakers who wore housedresses covered with aprons all day. I knew no one, man or woman, who had gone to college.

"Friedan's book set my mind on fire. Was it possible for a girl who was the daughter of a high school dropout to have a career? Friedan said it was. I believed her."

Betty Friedan affected many lives, female and male. Not bad for a "housewife" in the suburbs of New York. The people who count the most are the ones who change the way we see things, change the way we think. She did, as surely as any great scientist or painter does. She was living in Nyack, north of the city, with three children, writing for women's magazines when she wrote "The Feminine Mystique," published in 1963. Her writing earned her enough money to pay a housekeeper/baby sitter so she could keep writing.

Those were the days of "togetherness," recalled another writer, Susan Jacoby, when if a woman applied for a job at The Washington Post, she had to write an essay for the personnel department titled "How I Plan to Combine Motherhood With a Career." There were then, for the record, 14 women among the 435 members of the House of Representatives, and two women, both widows of senators, in the Senate. There are 70 women in the House now, including the leader of the Democrats, and 14 in the Senate.

She was some piece of work, the former Bettye (cq) Goldstein of Peoria, Ill. For 28 years my wife, Catherine O'Neill, and I lived five houses from Betty in Sag Harbor, N.Y., with family weddings, children and grandchildren spreading from one house to another year after year. Actually, I saw her in apron and housedress winter, spring, summer and fall. I also saw her in a spaghetti pot one rainy night after a family dinner. My son-in-law, Thomas Fyfe, offered to walk her home with an umbrella. "Nah," she growled, often her normal tone, "I have to take the pot back anyway" -- and she marched down Glover Street with the thing over her head.

Then there was the Pontiac. I think it was a Pontiac. Whatever it was, it was built about the same year as her book. She had cataracts or something by then and drove it at about 10 miles an hour, oblivious to everyone and everything in her path. Nelson Algren moved onto our street in the year before he died. They became friends, and drove into town together. One day, squinting over the steering wheel, she swung left onto Main Street with him in the passenger seat. The door swung open and Algren popped out into the middle of the roadway.

He was an old man, but he got up and started running after the Pontiac with its waving door, and somehow he got back in. He told her she had dumped him. "Algren," she said, not looking at him, "it's hard enough driving this thing without your goddamned jokes!"

Oh, and did I say she was not easy -- she usually began talking before you finished because she knew where you were going before you did -- and that she changed the world? We may not see her like again. But if we do, we will be the better for it.

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