NEW YORK — Nancy Friday, the author whose books about gender politics helped redefine American women’s sexuality and social identity in the late 20th century, died Sunday at her home in Manhattan. She was 84.
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, her friend Eric Krebs said.
In 1973, when author Caroline Seebohm reviewed Ms. Friday’s first book, “My Secret Garden: Women’s Sexual Fantasies,” for The New York Times, she joked about just what kind of “dirty book” it was and playfully reassured readers that despite the author’s findings, “men are still indispensable.”
The book’s shocking premise was that women had erotic thoughts. Ms. Friday, however, who based the book on hundreds of interviews, said those thoughts were accompanied by considerable guilt and secrecy.
The book was an immediate bestseller.
“For better or worse, Ms. Friday helped to create a confessional feminism,” Ginia Bellafante wrote in The Times, reviewing a 2007 stage version of “My Secret Garden.” (The play itself was pronounced “a tedious affair.”) It was a philosophy, she said, “reliant on the assemblage of personal anecdote” that “held women’s self-therapy as its overriding goal.”
But Ms. Friday was not considered a friend of the women’s movement. “What pitted her against her adversaries,” Bellafante wrote, “was her idea that women’s erotic freedom and the shedding of shame” — rather than other factors — “would establish the bedrock of equality between the sexes professionally, economically, politically.”
If critics tended to regard “My Secret Garden” and its sequel, “Forbidden Flowers: More Women’s Sexual Fantasies,” as little more than soft-core pornography, Ms. Friday’s third book vastly improved her reputation. “My Mother/My Self: The Daughter’s Search for Identity” (1977), which argued that women’s relationships were shaped by the dynamics of their connection with their mothers, may have been pop psychology, but it was considered a daring and original example.
“We learn our deepest ways of intimacy with mother,” she wrote. “Automatically we repeat the pattern” — taking the role of either mother or child — “with everyone else with whom we become close.”
Kirkus Reviews called the book “a stimulating convergence of personal and cultural inquiry.” It remained on The New York Times bestseller list for more than a year.
Ms. Friday dealt with other subjects, as the author of “Jealousy” (1985), “The Power of Beauty” (1996), and even a work of fiction, “Lulu: A Novella” (2012). But fantasy was her specialty, and the subject of four more of her books, including “Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women’s Sexual Fantasies” and “Men in Love: Men’s Sexual Fantasies: The Triumph of Love Over Rage”
Discussing “Men in Love” in 1980, she told People magazine: “The major theme in men’s sexual fantasies is the sexually aroused woman. It’s still hard for most men to believe that women enjoy sex.”
She became a frequent guest on talk shows, called on to discuss almost any issue that particularly affected women.
Appearing on Bill Maher’s Comedy Central talk show “Politically Incorrect” to discuss sexual harassment in the office, she minimized the phenomenon’s seriousness (“The workplace is the meeting and mating place”) and contended that men were equal victims of harassment and even of domestic violence. Maher pronounced her “out of your mind if you think that’s a problem” and challenged her to elaborate.
“Women are tough,” Ms. Friday replied. “Women are rough. And we’ve been angry for a long, long time.”
Nancy Colbert Friday was born in Pittsburgh to Walter Friday and former Jane Colbert. Some biographical references say that her father died when she was 2; others report that her parents divorced. In any case, Nancy, her older sister, and their mother soon moved to Charleston, S.C., where Nancy attended Ashley Hall, the prestigious girls’ prep school. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1955 and moved to Puerto Rico, where she worked as a travel reporter.
In the 1960s she moved to New York. A 1995 Esquire article looked back on her life at that time: She took a job in public relations, the article said, that allowed her to “dance at the hippest discos and sleep with drunken poets” before meeting her first husband, columnist Bill Manville.
Ms. Friday talked about preferring the company of men and seemed to take pride in a Ms. magazine review of one of her books, which included the observation “This woman is not a feminist.” In a 1996 interview with Salon, she said, “I would no more go to a consciousness-raising group and talk about my intimate life with my husband than fly to the moon.”
She and Manville, who were married in 1967, were living in London when she began working on “My Secret Garden.” They divorced in the mid-1980s. In 1988 she married Norman Pearlstine, then managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, in a boldface-names ceremony. The Pearlstines divorced in 2005.
She said in 1977 that she had made a deliberate decision not to have children. “It isn’t something that every woman automatically does well,” she observed. “Besides, I still have these anxieties and doubts, and I don’t want to pass that on to another generation.”