October 10, 1988 12:00 PM

by Marcia Cohen

This is a fascinating, funny and, at times, sad cultural history of the women’s movement during the passionate years of the ’60s and ’70s. Writing in a vivid, you-are-there style, Cohen, a former editor and reporter for the New York Daily News, portrays the leaders of feminism—Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Germaine Greer, Kate Millett, Ti-Grace Atkinson—au naturel. She tells what they did and said, but she also peeks behind their rhetoric. Friedan, author of 1963’s The Feminine Mystique and first president of the National Organization for Women, marches through these pages like a general who wins the war but loses track of her army. Her tempestuous personality and rigid view of the goals of feminism—she discouraged the embrace of lesbians by NOW, for instance-alienated many of her colleagues. “Nearly everyone would remember the sudden thunder, the unpredictable roar that could spew from that turbulent center,” writes Cohen. “Betty would come into the middle of a meeting, and suddenly, bosom heaving, arms waving, jumping up and down on her impatient little legs, she would insist, over and over, at the top of her lungs, that you were doing it all wrong!” Not surprisingly, when a charismatic, beautiful woman, Gloria Steinem, glided onto the scene in the early ’70s, she eclipsed the more moderate, unattractive Friedan. (Unlike Steinem, Friedan, a mother of three, didn’t see men as the enemy but as part of the solution, and in retrospect seems the more far-sighted of the two.)’ Cohen portrays Friedan as a battered—and perhaps battering—wife. Her portrait of Steinem, as a unique blend of con woman and femme fatale, is unbalanced, ignoring the indefatigable energy and effectiveness Steinem brought to the movement. Atkinson’s bizarre affair with mobster Joe Colombo is recounted, along with her slide onto the welfare rolls. Cohen’s accomplishment is showing that the “sisters” were a diverse group whose volatile mix of brilliance, rowdiness, jealousy, vulgarity, naïveté and sophistication propelled a movement. In the process of changing America, many of them paid a severe price—Millett was brutalized by the media barrage about her lesbianism, and her family committed her briefly to a mental institution. Another kind of problem was noted by Greer, the intellectual, earthy Australian: “Instead of being political, it [the movement] became a religion.” Cohen’s irreverent account helps, at least, to put things in perspective. (Simon and Schuster, $19.95)

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