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BOOKS Alida Brill talks feminism, Friedan
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Jake Ekdahl
2016-06-07

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Alida Brill is a published author, outspoken feminist and longtime advocate of gender equality. She has also served on the board of the Feminist Press of the City University of New York.

As an early admirer and then a personal friend to Betty Friedan, the author of The Feminist Mystique, Brill has seen feminism go through multi-generational transformations. As a child, Brill wrote a letter to Grace Kelly, awed by her marriage to Prince Rainier III of Monaco, and was shocked when she received a reply. Brill shares her thoughts and personal experiences in her latest book: Dear Princess Grace, Dear Betty: The Memoir of A Romantic Feminist.

She took time to speak with the Windy City Times about her latest book, Betty Friedan, feminism, her mother and relationships.

Windy City Times: So, how was your understanding of feminism influenced by Grace Kelly and Betty Friedan?

Alida Brill: Friedan was a quoted literary presence in my life from the time I was a little girl. It was called "The Book" in my house, not The Feminine Mystique—it was like the bible.

WCT: The Feminine Mystique is something that clearly made its mark on your life, but how did it influence your writing?

AB: It's a terrific reference book and I have incredible respect for everything [Friedan] accomplished, but I have a very different style. It certainly influenced me, but it's not my writing style at all.

I think it's because I always wanted to be a novelist or something else. [Laughs] My mother would always say, "Tone down the metaphors, Alida!" Like my mother, Betty wasn't big on metaphors, either.

Although the book is based on her own experiences as a miserable housewife, it was also based on philosophy and sociology. She was rigorous and it took her a very long time to finish that book. Friedan put words and structure and logic to what millions of women were feeling.

WCT: Apparently, many new mothers are turning back to The Feminist Mystique. Why do you think that is?

AB: It was abandoned for decades. I think that young woman are coming back to it now because what Friedan said still makes sense. Both partners are working now, but they see in her conversation so much of their own reality—they also see that going to work wasn't the whole answer.

Mom is still it. We didn't understand that there had to be so much infrastructure. There still isn't enough infrastructure for woman that are working. In some way, Friedan is still a kind of feminist gospel. What she said still makes so much sense.

WCT: What advice would you have for young women and men looking for a balanced, fulfilling life and relationship?

AB: I've been married three times, but I have no children. I intended to but I just didn't. But I have goddaughters. One of them just graduated from Georgetown Law School. What I see in her and in her friends is that they are far more interested in a life/work balance than my generation was.

A lot of us were so career or achievement minded then that we were willing to postpone or forgo having children. What I think is great is that these young women know they shouldn't be deprived from being able to have both a life and work. They are looking in their choices of a partner for someone who understands the work/life balance—so that everything doesn't fall on one person, usually the woman.

WCT: You've said that men with radical left-wing political beliefs don't always have a progressive view of women. Do you think you could expand on that?

AB: I think one of the terrible mistakes women make is falling in love with left-wing men in political and personal life; Because they believe that these men are going to put women's rights as a top priority, and it doesn't always work out that way.

We won't have true equality, until we admit that jokes about woman aren't funny.

WCT: People say Betty Friedan had a public persona and a private persona. I imagine having known her so well, she would have let you see both. Was she different when she was just among friends?

AB: She was extremely generous, very warm, had a great sense of humor, cared about friendship, loved food, she loved giving parties [and] she put together wonderful dinner tables. Sometimes [she had] too much generosity—she spent freely when she couldn't necessarily afford it, but not always on herself.

I think in the horrible post-death criticisms of her—even among feminists—those criticisms have a very sexist basis. Yes, she hung up on people when angry; yes, stormed out of dinner parties. I find those things somewhat endearing, not a reason to erase her from history.

WCT: Is there something about Betty Friedan you think people would be surprised to hear?

AB: The depth of her feeling about friendship. And the sad thing, which is somewhat well known, is that love eluded her after the break up of her marriage. She always hoped to be loved again. She always had plenty of gentlemen around her, but not many that were interested, willing, or able to establish a long-term relationship. Which is what she wanted. I think that was because she was so famous.

She was a reformist, not a radical. If I had to put Betty Friedan in a modern context, I would say she was more like Hillary Clinton than Bernie Sanders.

WCT: What was it that spurred your decision to write this book? Was there a single moment or event? Or, was it more of a desire that Betty Friedan be remembered as she really was?

AB: My parents died in 2009. A girlfriend and I were cleaning out my parents' apartment and I came across this big binder, and it said on the front in my mother's handwriting "Very, very, very, important documents."

I opened it up and inside were all the drafts of my childhood letter to Princess Grace, the responses from Monaco and a newspaper article about me and Grace, and a copy of the The Feminine Mystique. It was the one that Betty had signed to my mother after they had met through me. All these things were in this pouch of important documents. I thought my mother was sending me a message: you need to write this book.

WCT: Your mother was greatly affected by Friedan's work. Did her inspiration offer a sort of model for you?

AB: Yes—never give up: always try to be economically independent if you can; never, ever judge another woman by her marital mistakes; and always try to see your way forward to helping women, not putting other women down. Also, she was extremely conscious of class differences and people trying to humiliate others—and she hated that.

My grandmother was also a suffragist and my mother remembered walking in parades in Detroit and holding banners that said Votes for Women; she remembered women not having the vote.

The fight is never over, and the instant you think it's over, you're in trouble.

WCT: You've talked about an inner struggle you felt between "the bookish girl, too serious for most boys," and "the girl who still wanted to be chosen." Is that something you think modern girls still struggle with?

AB: I'm afraid some of them do pretty badly, yeah. I met a group of woman at Georgetown Law that made me feel terrific, but generally, yeah, I think they do.

I was sitting in a diner the other week, across from a young mother with a little girl and a brand new baby. The girl was 4 or 5 and she had all the Barbie crap—the princess, the horses and, of course, the prince. I came over and said to the girl, "That's a nice Barbie princess, but don't you want to be president and not princess?" She said "No! I want to be a princess!" And her mother gave me this look that said, "What am I going to do?"

WCT: You've written books before. Would you say this new book is something entirely new for you, or rather the latest segment of your overall message?

AB: I think it's really a continuation of Dancing at the River's Edge, which is about a patient ( me ) and her doctor negotiating life with a chronic illness. This book is primarily about feminism, but also about how being ill at a young age enabled me to see inequality between the sexes. These two books are memoirs and my other books have been political. I don't know what I'm going to next.

Alida Brill's new book, Dear Princess Grace, Dear Betty: The Memoir of A Romantic Feminist, is available now. Brill's planned appearance at Women & Children First Bookstore June 15 has been CANCELLED due to illness; see WomenAndChildrenFirst.com .


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