It all seems a long way from 1963, when her seminal book, The Feminine Mystique, appeared. When she addressed my freshman class the following year at a small New England college, I just couldn't get excited at her exhortation that women not let themselves be defined by men. But for millions of unemployed, unappreciated, overqualified women sitting at home waiting for the man in the gray flannel suit to return from work, Friedan memorably identified "the problem that had no name." Today she's the grande dame of the modern women's movement, arguably the most profound social revolution of the century. "Not arguably," she told TIME in an interview. "Absolutely, incontrovertibly and irreversibly."
With the publication of her sixth book, Life So Far: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster; 399 pages), Friedan gives us the fullest, most candid account of her experience in the vortex of that revolution, and the toll it took on her personal life. She writes with poignant honesty of her loneliness growing up Jewish in Peoria, Ill. ("Mostly, my mother made me feel bad about myself"); her fascination with communism after graduating from Smith College; and the strain of her 22-year marriage to Carl Friedan. After the success of The Feminine Mystique, her husband, who had originally encouraged her research, grew jealous of her success and, she alleges, became physically abusive. "It seems as if I never went on television shows in those days without a black eye I had to cover over with makeup," she writes. "I was a disgrace, really, to the women's movement by being such a worm. How could I reconcile putting up with being knocked around by my husband while calling on women to rise up against their oppressors?" Carl Friedan, whom she divorced in 1969, calls the allegations of abuse a "complete fabrication." He tells TIME, "I am the innocent victim of a drive-by shooting by a reckless driver savagely aiming at the whole male gender."
Friedan never exhibited the hostility toward men that some other feminist leaders wore as a badge of honor, and she insisted that it was not necessary to give up femininity to achieve equality. In her memoir, Friedan lashes out at some of those movement colleagues. She accuses Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem of hypocrisy for telling women they should not shave their legs or armpits or wear makeup. "It was so annoying to me that Gloria would preach this kind of doctrine," she writes, "and at the same time be dating some very glamorous men and having her hair streaked at Kenneth, a very fancy New York salon." Friedan recalls that New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug resisted Friedan's founding of the National Women's Political Caucus: "'This is my turf,' she screamed at me."
Friedan tells us more than we need to know about her sex life. In her marriage, she writes, "we had pet names for his c___ and my diaphragm ... when he put his tongue hard down my throat, I loved the whole melting feeling, not just the clitoral orgasm." After her divorce, she had numerous affairs, and she names names. (Asked about her indiscretion, she replies simply, "They're dead.") She tells of getting a telephone call from Steinem while in bed with a married father of five, and of fooling around with another old flame who fell out of bed and broke his toe. "Despite all this stuff about feminism and the ongoing complaint that men have all the power," she writes, "in some ways we are better off as women. We don't have to get it up."
Friedan, 79, who lives in Washington, says she's astounded that the transformations in women's lives have come "so rapidly and completely and that young women take it for granted." She's still working to improve those lives, with a $1 million grant from the Ford Foundation for a research project on the future of men and women in the workplace. "The next phase has to put quality of life before dollars and cents," she says. "I'd call it the 'Get a Life' movement."