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I Knew Her as Aunt Betty

The mother of women's rights was, improbably, a fairy-godmother in my life. As odd as that must sound to people who knew her, I think Betty Friedan liked being thought of in those terms.
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I knew her as Aunt Betty.

The mother of women's rights was, improbably, a fairy-godmother in my life. As odd as that must sound to people who knew her, I think Betty Friedan liked being thought of in those terms.

I met her first in Cambridge, Mass., 25 years ago, as a college freshman home on break.

I was working that summer at an all-night coffee shop. I unlocked the key to my parent's apartment sometime after midnight one night, and heard a noise rumbling from the couch. Under a heap of blankets, a small figure was snoring. There was a note: "Betty lost her keys. Keep it down!"

In my Flashdance-inspired ripped tee-shirt, I tiptoed past this icon of feminism and went off to brush my teeth.

Betty Friedan was the woman we%u2019d studied as freshmen in our very first Women's History classes. She was the reason that 19 year olds at my college had started referring to ourselves as "women." Indirectly she is one reason I could get an athletic scholarship, and my roommates
could earn degrees in medicine, and math.

Betty came into my life, not because of my feminist mother, but oddly, because of my dad. They were both fellows at Harvard that year, and despite her sometimes abrasive reputation ... they struck up an unusual friendship, one that endured and expanded to include our whole family.

She had been in and out of my life since then, 25 years now. 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 said that might that leave 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 on her 80th birthday, when the host of Morning Edition had announced her age that morning. I brought her the script, in a yellow carbon copy. "He would have to say my age," she groaned. Even feminists weren't above worrying about getting older.

I realize I'm the Next Generation - not the one that found themselves with a problem that had no name. I'm their daughter, their niece, their graduate student. So it's troubling to encounter a new generation of young women who think feminism is such a dirty word.

What's so hard about believing that women should have equal opportunities, and that you might actually have to fight for them? Change doesn't happen unless you make it happen. Why is that so un-feminine? Why does that mean some guy might not like you? What kind of guys are we raising, anyway?

The most powerful thing I learned from Aunt Betty was not that I could be a free agent and a strong woman. The best thing was her idea of family. I met her when she was well into becoming a grandmother. But as a single woman, and an older one at that, Betty was thinking about a new definition of family, family as friends. People who would be with you, as you aged, who would create new communities that didn't necessarily revolve around a two-parent, two-child household.

As the godmother of at least six kids, but still the "unmarried" aunt myself, that comforts me. My friends and I talk about where we want to live when we're old - and what great things we want to do. We are women defining our lives by who we think we are, not by who other people think we should be.

If that's not a great epitaph for a fabulous fairy god-mother, I don't know what is.

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