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Friedan Still Wows ’Em, Even Young Dissenters

September 2, 1995 GMT

HUAIROU, China (AP) _ A buzz ran through the crowded tent: ``She’s coming, she’s coming.″

Heads swiveled to watch a silver-haired woman navigating the narrow path with a slight limp _ Betty Friedan, godmother of the modern American women’s movement and heroine to thousands of the women gathered in this Beijing suburb.

Not able to get to the tent entrance, she climbed right over the 2-foot-high canvas wall, aided by willing hands. A group of Western women who had obviously rehearsed called out in unison, ``Ni hao Betty, xie xie″ _ Chinese for ``Hello Betty, thank you.″

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Friedan, 74, is one of the few household names among the 23,500 participants at the largest gathering of women in history _ the Non-Governmental Organization Forum on Women. The forum is being held on the sidelines of the U.N. conference on women that begins Monday.

Women of all ages and from all continents come up to shake her hand, seek her autograph and tell her the impact her 1963 book, ``The Feminine Mystique,″ had on their lives.

Her workshops have been among the conference’s best-attended. More than 120 people filled and spilled out of a tent set with about 30 chairs for the Saturday event billed as a ``conversation with Betty Friedan.″

``It moves me enormously,″ Friedan said in an Associated Press interview. ``This (movement) has taken on such a long life. I guess I’ll never stop feeling a responsibility to the evolution of it.″

Indeed, at this women’s conference she is investing her considerable energy into pushing the movement in a new direction, away from confronting men and toward promoting economic policies that benefit both sexes.

``The first stage of the women’s movement was a simple demand for equality. We haven’t achieved that completely but we’ve made enormous strides,″ she said.

But women around the world now face a backlash from angry men who have been hurt by shrinking job opportunities and are looking for scapegoats, she said.

``We have to move with a new vision of community,″ she said, suggesting shorter work weeks and higher minimum wages as means of sharing jobs and incomes more equitably among both men and women.

The broad range of topics being discussed at the conference is proof that women are moving away from a narrow focus on individual rights, Friedan said.

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``This is a world community of women concerned with the larger community _ whether we’re talking about environment, about sustainable fisheries, sustainable development, financing of entrepreneurship,″ she said. ``The meeting is the message.″

Friedan remembered the first U.N.-sponsored international women’s conference, held in Mexico City in 1975. Attendance was a fourth of that in Huairou, and many delegates were men.

``We marched in Mexico. We made the Mexican government nervous. I must say, I was followed by gunmen,″ she said laughing. ``But we did begin a worldwide network of women. Don’t kid yourself _ things do come out of these conferences.″

The women have made China nervous too. Fearful that the boisterous forum could infect Chinese with yearnings for democracy, authorities changed the meeting site from Beijing to Huairou, a rural town an hour’s drive away.

``It betrays a final, mistaken, vast underrating of the power of women,″ Friedan said. ``But ... we won’t be trivialized.″