Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, November 10, 2000
Renowned feminist Betty Friedan takes aim at stereotypes about aging


About 58 years separate student Susan Finlayson, 21, and Betty Friedan, the renowned women's-rights activist.

But the Stanford senior was just one of hundreds of young people who on Nov. 8 attended the Deborah L. Rhode Annual Lecture at Kresge Auditorium to hear Friedan speak about growing old. This is the subject of her 1993 book titled The Fountain of Age, which is based on 10 years of research into the process of aging and changing sex roles.

The lecture was part of the "Difficult Dialogues" program held by Stanford's Institute for Research on Women and Gender.

Friedan is best known as the author of The Feminine Mystique, a 1963 book credited with propelling the modern feminist movement in America. Finlayson said her interest in feminist issues "that are still current, even though [Friedan] is older," is what drew her to the event.

Friedan was joined on stage by Laura Carstensen, a Stanford psychology professor and the Barbara D. Finberg Director of the institute; Deborah L. Rhode, the Ernest W. McFarland Professor at Stanford Law School and former institute director after whom the lecture series is named; Myra Strober, a professor at Stanford's School of Education; and Carroll Estes of the Institute for Health and Aging at the University of California-San Francisco.

Friedan, 79, said she first became interested in the subject of growing old about the time of her 60th birthday, when friends threw a surprise birthday party for her. "I thought they were taunting me,'' she said.

"I realized I had to start the book with my own denial [about aging]," she added.

She described the United States as a "youth-obsessed" country. Growing old is often viewed as the process of becoming "incompetent, incontinent and decrepit," she said.

Meanwhile, people are living longer, and the elderly population in America is increasing ­ a fact that, given society's negative views about aging, most people don't want to hear about, she said.

In doing research for the The Fountain of Age, Friedan said she found that people often hold negative perceptions about growing old to keep the reality of their own aging at a distance.

"The idea that there might not be just decline, but continued growth and development . . . well, come on, it's a revolutionary idea," she said.

Assumptions about elderly people's loss of mental acuity and sex drive appear to be based largely on dated research of men in nursing homes, where subjects likely would not have been leading vigorous lives, she said.

Strober asked Friedan whether elderly people should continue to work as a way of contributing to society, and suggested that the word "well-derly" be used as a way of reversing the stereotypes about the elderly.

But Friedan said she was "leery" of those kinds of labels ­ of how they possibly could polarize the "well-derly" from the "ill-derly," a term that drew laughter from the audience.

Rhode questioned the nation's current occupation with the issue of prescription drugs and asked whether we should be discussing other issues having to do with the elderly. Friedan said that a "baby bust" has followed the baby boom and that, eventually, a smaller, youthful work force may not be enough to sustain the economy.

Rhode also noted that there was an absence of women's issues during the recent election, even as women "are still pushing some of the same rocks up the same hills." She said the subjects of childcare and violence against women, for example, seemed absent from election campaigns.

Friedan said that women need to demand that these issues be addressed. She said that women voted overwhelmingly for Clinton but did not ask much in return once he was in office.