Betty White Isn’t a Feminist, But…

At 89, Betty White is going strong. She’s been “working steadily for the past 63 years,” and she continues to take on new challenges. At a time of life known as the twilight years–when people are supposed to relax and step away from the fray–she’s garnered a blurb for her new book from Twilight star Robert Pattinson. “Betty White,” says the teen heartthrob, “is one of the sexiest women in America.”

If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t) reads like a collection of journal entries, or a series of letters arranged under thematic headings. It’s the first installment of a two-book deal, with this volume focusing on what White has learned, so far, from a life in show business, and the next one featuring the animal rights activism that has been her life’s passion.

White makes a point of letting us know that she, quite literally, holds the pen (in other words, unlike most celebrity memoirs, she wants us to believe that this one isn’t ghostwritten). The foreword to the book is printed in her own handwriting and she concludes it by saying, “Writing is my favorite thing.”

White also wants us to know that she “likes guys best.”

My closest friends have always been boys or men. I wasn’t interested particularly in what the girls were talking about. I had to watch myself. I didn’t want to get a reputation that I don’t like women.

She adds, “That’s not politically correct these days. But it’s still fun.”

In her previous memoir, Here We Go Again from 1995, she explicitly took feminism to task for failing to understand the way things were for women coming up in show business. There, she brushed aside questions about whether it was hard for women to succeed in the male-dominated world of television, and she reported her anger when an interviewer said that the female stereotypes she portrayed in some of her early characters might have been harmful.

Without treading on any feminist toes, I tried to indicate that that was another time and place, and it is specious to overlay today’s values on where the world was over 40 years ago.

If White has been reluctant to discuss sexism in the entertainment world, she offers a particularly poignant example of how being a woman affected her choices in life. She recounts how she regularly gets asked whether she always wanted to be in show business.

My answer has never changed. As a kid, show business wasn’t even in the mix. As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be either a forest ranger or a zookeeper. The problem was, back then a girl wasn’t allowed to be either one.

Last November, the U.S. Forest Service made White’s girlhood dream come true when they named her an Honorary Forest Ranger.

It may sting when she says she likes men more than women, but the deeper truth is that she prefers “the company of animals to humans.” Some of the best pictures in this book are of White and her animal friends. She hangs out with Koko, the gorilla who can speak in sign language, and she recounts numerous stories about the rescue dogs who have shared her life. Her next book, The Zoo and I: Betty and Her Friends, due out next year, will offer more stories and pictures of the animals she has loved.

Whether she claims the title or not, Betty White is a feminist role model. Her current hit television show, Hot in Cleveland, like her previous one, The Golden Girls, features an ensemble cast of women. Her appearance on Saturday Night Live last year was historic, not only because it was White’s first time as a host but also because of the number of women-centered sketches and the sheer number of women who appeared alongside her. And her age-defying career is inspirational at a time when older women are so seldom seen or heard in the media.

So maybe Betty White doesn’t see herself as a feminist, but she plays one on TV.

Photo of Betty White graffiti portrait from Flickr user tgkohn, under license from Creative Commons 2.0





Audrey Bilger is the current president of Reed College, and previously served as vice president and dean of Pomona College. She is also a former professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College and faculty director of the Center for Writing and Public Discourse. She also teaches gender studies, and occasionally yoga. Her latest book, which she co-edited with Michele Kort, is Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage (Seal Press, 2012). She is also the author of Laughing Feminism, editor of an edition of Jane Collier’s 1753 satire "An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting," and a frequent contributor to Bitch magazine. Her work has been featured in The Paris Review, Rockrgrl, the Huffington Post and the Women's Media Center.