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Betty Friedan, Open Heart Surgery, and Me

• February 22, 2013 • 6:29 PM

On the 50th anniversary of “The Feminine Mystique,” the founder of Pacific Standard recalls saving the life of the headstrong author of that groundbreaking book.

Sara Miller McCune

Sara Miller McCune, circa 1991.

In early 1991, I embarked with Betty Friedan on a five-day trip with a mutual friend, Jeremiah Kaplan. (Betty and I had met professionally once or twice before.) The three of us left LA in my car for a visit to my home in the south end of Yosemite National Park. Of course, I had read The Feminine Mystique not once but twice: first, as a young woman—when it was originally published in 1963—and later as a more mature woman. This second reading occurred after I started what turned out to be a successful career, a happy marriage, and building a business of my own.

Betty and Jerry (who was her publisher at the time) were seeing the park for the first time. I felt confident I was up to the task of being their hostess and guide. Betty was on spring break from a teaching position at USC. Jerry and I had just endured a very intense board meeting at my company. At that point the business I had founded some 25 years before had become three companies with a few hundred employees on three continents. The three of us had a lot to talk about during the trip. We were enjoying each other’s company, as well as the prospect of a welcome respite in a place of storied natural beauty.

Friedan, as is well-known, had strong opinions, and she shared them freely. She was forthright, strong-willed, often stubborn and very exacting. She wanted to do things when (and how) she wished. Argument or objection had a way—it seemed to me—of making her dig in and hold her ground through thick and thin. She taught me the value of speaking truth to power in a very visceral way. I have known other strong women, before and since. But few with her tenacity. And very few with her willingness to hammer a point home in public whether before a small group of influential people or a larger group (at a conference or in front of representatives of the mass media).

I don’t think being resistant to differences of opinion is either all good, or all bad. I think finding a balance tends to work better in both the corporate world and in academia. Having no experience in government—except through friends—I think willingness to occasionally compromise or attempt to meet opposition halfway (or a third of the way) can often have good results. In that sense, Betty and I were very different. But she taught me a lot. And she paved a way from one century to another for many women who wanted to broaden their horizons and achieve great things. My company, SAGE Publications, now has ten offices on four continents. Growth, change, and the passage of time are all great teachers—and I am fortunate to have learned much from them. Just as in my reading, and in my encounters with Betty, I learned a great deal. (My marriage, too, lasted until my husband’s death and left me with more than 23 years of great memories as well as bevy of step-children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.)

But back to the trip: Betty and Jerry were clearly enjoying their introduction to Yosemite. Except Betty had a serious asthma problem, and was using her prescription inhaler vigorously at altitudes above 4,000 feet while we were sight-seeing. Jerry and I had both read an article in the New York Times published just a few days before on the dangers of over-using the medication. We asked Betty to consult her doctor in New York by phone from my home the following morning.

The ensuing shouting match was not pretty! We could hear her doctor’s voice thundering from the phone during their argument. We thought he had made his point pretty effectively. But Betty had other ideas. She used the medication a bit less (but still more often than recommended by medical professionals). That afternoon, I wound up taking her by car to the nearest medical center—a hair-raising 35-minute drive from my home—because she did succumb to congestive heart failure. Only emergency treatment kept her alive. She left for Los Angeles the next day. Two days later she had her first open heart surgery, to replace a defective heart-valve. I am glad I helped save her life once in Yosemite. It was a life worth saving, and a life well lived.

SAGE Publications is a major benefactor of Pacific Standard.

Sara Miller McCune
Sara Miller McCune is the founder and executive chair of SAGE Publications, as well as the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, which published Pacific Standard. She also serves as president of the McCune Foundation, and is a member of the board of directors of both the American Academy of Political and Social Science (which was founded in 1889) and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

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