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A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique…

A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn… (2011)

by Stephanie Coontz

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1664110,408 (3.76)3
Challenging both conservative and liberal myths about Betty Friedan's bestselling book,The Feminine Mystique, historian Stephanie Coontz re-examines the dawn of the 1960s (when the sexual revolution had barely begun) and brilliantly illuminates how a generation of women came to realize that their dissatisfaction with domestic life didn't reflect their personal weakness but rather a social and political injustice.… (more)

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I've described A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique & American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s by Stephanie Coontz to others as a historical look at the women who read The Feminine Mystique, the impact of the book on their lives and a look at the myth of Betty Friedan. For a women's history nerd like me, this book was awesome. Admittedly, the semester took it's toll on how quickly, or rather how slowly, I read this book as this review was supposed to be included in Girl w/Pen's salon back in February.

I also have to admit that I've never read The Feminine Mystique. I know, I know...but Coontz also talked to women who didn't read the book either! The mythology surrounding TFM is so strong that it has touched most of our lives whether we have read it or not. I believe the mythology of TFM is simply put that Betty Friedan, a 1950s housewife, wrote a book about how she discovered that her boredom of caring for the kids and cleaning the house lead her to single-handedly revive the feminist movement in the USA. This includes founding the National Organization for Women. The critiques focus on how the book and the mainstream feminist movement (NOW) were too focused on middle-class white women. Coontz painstakingly proves and disproves these myths.

She also puts all the realities into historical perspective. Coontz is a historian and while some may think she is making excuses for how Friedan frames the issues in the book as well as tweaks Friedan made to her own backstory. Coontz outlines the often ignored/hidden feminist movement of the post-WW II era before the second wave officially begins with facts such as:

...by 1955, a higher percentage of women worked for ages than ever had during the war. In fact, women's employment rate grew four times faster than men's during the 1950s.The employment of wives tripled and the employment of mothers increased fourfold. (page 59)

The emotion that Friedan tapped into with TFM, according to Coontz, wasn't that being married and a mom was a terrible thing, but that by having marriage & motherhood as THE goal in life, for most women in the 1950s, their life goals were achieved by 25. "..a few years after having children [they] found that they had no compelling goal left to pursue. As Cam Stivers said, it felt as if her life was already over (page 86)."

The myth that Friedan was anti-marriage was explored and Coontz finds evidence that yes, some of the women who read TFM eventually divorced. But she also found that many of those women remarried and loved their second marriages. Coontz also talked with men who had read the book. Those men recounted how it helped them reframe how they saw marriage as more of a partnership.

As for the whiteness of TFM, Coontz acknowledges this fact. She spends one chapter to answer this critique directly while educating readers on the often unacknowledged history of African-American women in the civil rights movement as well as their leadership in "balancing" work and family. Coontz interviewed African-American women who wrote to Friedan who were upset that Friedan thought working would solve housewives problems as well as those who said it steeled them against the "prejudices in graduate school or medical school (126)."

I loved the chapter where Coontz lets Ruth Rosen's working class critique take center stage. So many white working class women wrote to Friedan with essentially a "wah..wah..wah..." message. Women who were working their butts off at the office and at home and did not feel liberated. And the even-handedness of Coontz also shows us working-class women who used TFM as their only ally in their quest to attend college and postpone the marriage & baby carriage.

Coontz ends the book with a look at how women are faring today. Did feminism kill marriage? Nope. The more education a woman gets, the more likely they are to marry. Did feminism kill sexiness? Nope. The more men contribute to housework, the happier they are in the bedroom! It's not all fun and roses, but it's not the gloom and doom that anti-feminists want us to believe.

And lastly, does feminism hate mothers? Hell no! Coontz wrote an excellent op-ed in the NYTimes for Mother's Day outlining how feminism has helped mothers by pushing for women to make their own choice about staying home with the kids, working outside the home or both depending on the family's need. Most pressure on women to be a certain kind of mother usually comes from non-feminist talking heads.

I really hope that everyone who has any opinion of what TFM did to our culture will read this book. It won't convert those who fiercely opposes feminism, but those who hold moderate views or hesitate to call themselves feminists based on any of the myths this books debunks, will be moved to reexamine those beliefs. It will also allow for a re-examination of Friedan herself. For those of us who are fiercely feminist, this is a must read book. One who doesn't know her history is bound to repeat it. And we all know how that turns out in the feminist movement. *wink*

Disclaimers: I requested a copy from the author and am a big fan of her previous work.
  roniweb | May 30, 2019 |


When [women] did not feel fulfilled in [their] families, they blamed themselves for being ungrateful or inadequate.
It is not your fault, Friedan told them, that you feel trapped and discontented. The fault lies with the way society has denigrated and wasted your capacities. (xxi)

Chapter 1: The Unliberated 1960s

Chapter 2: Naming the Problem: Friedan's Message to American Housewives

"The feeling didn't have a name. It didn't have a reason. So you turned it inward and assumed you were the problem. And so did everyone around you." -Lillian Rubin (20)

There already was a name for the overt barriers women faced in American society: sex discrimination....But there was no name for the guilt, depression, and sense of hopelessness many housewives felt. (21)

Friedan assured her readers that their pain stemmed from a basic, unquenchable human drive to fully utilize one's own abilities and talents for something larger than darning socks... (23)

The final chapter [of The Feminine Mystique] advocated what social conservatives now suggest women should do as an alternative to working while their children are young....
Friedan proposed a "GI Bill for Women" to reintegrate housewives and mothers into public life in the same way the GI Bill had helped the mostly male veterans....If women's role in raising families was the valued public service that so many politicians claimed, she argued, why not develop a similar government program to subsidize tuition and books...for women who had taken time away from work or education to raise children...? (32)

Nowhere does the book advocate that most women pursue full-time careers or even suggest that women ask their husbands to help them with child care and housework if they went to school or took a job....Friedan simply urged women to pursue an education and develop a life plan that would give meaning to the years after the children left home. (33)

Chapter 3: After the First Feminist Wave: Women from the 1920s to the 1940s

Despite the patriotic approval of women who worked in the war industry, strong hostility was directed at wives who worked for any other reason. (47)

p. 50-51 marriage and divorce stats for 1940s and 1950s (spike in divorces immediately postwar, men and women marrying younger)

...more than in other eras, American housewives in the 1950s seemed especially likely to either forget they had ever had any other options or to believe they were no longer capable of exercising them. (55)

Chapter 4: The Contradictions of Womanhood in the 1950s

1951-1955: women FT workers earned 63.9% what male FT workers earned; by 1963, it was less than 59%, and women were in lower-prestige jobs than men. (62)

Alva Myrdal and Viola Klein...argued in their 1956 book, Women's Two Roles: Home and Work, that the "glorification" of homemaking and motherhood substituted flattery for respect. They noted that this exaltation of homemaking constituted "the cheapest method at society's disposal of keeping women quiet without seriously considering their grievances or improving their position." (66)

[U]ntil Friedan attributed women's unhappiness to the contradictions between women's needs and the precepts of the feminine mystique, there was no widely publicized alternative to the psychiatric explanation of female discontent as an individual problem of sexual or gender maladjustment. (72-73)

mixed messages --> paralysis

Prior to the 1940s and 1950s, a woman was condemned if she did not do what was expected of her. In the 1950s, she was pitied if she did not want what was expected of her. (75)

Chapter 5: "I Thought I Was Crazy"

[M]ost of the women I interviewed told me that the turning point in their lives came when they started seeing their anxiety as a legitimate social grievance rather than an individual problem. (85)

Chapter 6: The Price of Privilege: Middle-Class Women and the Feminine Mystique

Several political scientists have argued that the reason the women's movement of the 1960s appealed to white middle-class women, especially those with a college education, was that they experienced the most "relative deprivation" compared to the progress their male counterparts were making. (111)

Chapter 7: African-American Women, Working-Class Women, and the Feminine Mystique

African-American women had less need for outside reassurance to view themselves as strong and independent, and they felt less guilt about working outside the home. Their self-image as mothers coincided rather than conflicted with their identity as providers for the family. (126)

[M]any black women considered the struggle for racial equality more urgent than the struggle for male-female equality. (127)

Friedan did not recognize that many women found a sense of satisfaction and confidence even in jobs that she assumed her readers would look down on. (130)

Other surveys over the years have shown that women who earn an income also feel more entitled to a voice in family decisions...
...Whatever their degree of education, women who worked outside the home were more likely to be satisfied than comparable women who did not. (132)

Chapter 8: Demystifying The Feminine Mystique

While Friedan's silence about her left-wing associations during the 1940s might be understandable in the repressive political atmosphere in which she was writing, her refusal to fully acknowledge her intellectual and personal debts is more difficult to justify. (142)

[In her 1959 article "The Myth of the Necessary Housewife," Eve Merriam argued] that no society in history had wasted the talents of half its adult population the way America was doing. (144)

1962-63 JFK created the President's Commission on the Status of Women, to "develop plans for fostering the full partnership of men and women in our national life." (151)

1963 Equal Pay Act passed in Congress (151)

"much talent and experience are being wasted by [the civil rights movement] when women are not given jobs commensurate with their ability." -Mary King and Casey Hayden, 1964 (159)

Chapter 9: Women, Men, Marriage, and Work Today: Is the Feminine Mystique Dead?

Conventional wisdom [around the time The Feminine Mystique was published] held that marital harmony would be threatened if a woman acquired educational and economic resources of her own...the "independence effect." (168)

Women no longer need to choose between completing their education and having a family. (169)

...men now find educated women and career women much more attractive as marriage partners than in the past, and are far less likely to feel threatened by a woman who earns as much or more than they. (169)

Comparative studies of Western nations find that the higher the proportion of women in a country's workforce, the more housework men do, even when their own spouse is not employed. (170)

A 2006 survey...found that the happier a woman was with the division of household chores, the happier her husband was with his sex life. (171)

[Two] new feminine mystiques stand in the way of the equality and harmony Friedan envisioned...the hottie mystique...the supermom mystique... (176)

[Contemporary] middle school girls...had rejected the old behavioral norms for femininity. They did not feel there was anything they must do or could not do because they were female. But they held strong beliefs about how they must or must not look. (176)

Once a woman becomes a mother...her options tend to narrow...Motherhood may in fact have replaced gender as the primary factor constraining women's choices. (177-178)

Americans greatly value the ideal of motherhood, and we also greatly value the work ethic. But we often find it difficult to value both at once. (179)

These problems all have a common source. Despite the rhetorical reverence our society accords motherhood and fatherhood, in reality the everyday work of parenting garners little social respect and even less practical support....Not much has changed since [the 1950s] in America's real, rather than rhetorical, social priorities. (183)

This too-much-or-nothing approach to hours and income is a peculiarly American phenomenon...[the U.S. has no laws limiting the length of the work week, does not subsidize mandatory parental leave, and Americans get less vacation time than Europeans] (185)

Men's growing discontent [with the "career mystique"] is a positive thing...people can begin to change their lives only after the identify their discontent and recognize its causes. So we must get beyond the notion that resolving work-family tensions is a women's issue... (186) ( )
  JennyArch | Nov 6, 2014 |
i got a review copy of this in the mail this week and have been reading it today...it's excellent....read johanna fateman's review here http://www.bookforum.com/review/6950...I am forcing myself to put it down until next month...if anyone would like to read this book and meet up to discuss it I would be totally into that, so let me know! it's a nuanced, social history of betty friedan's the feminine mystique, but it doesn't seem to be just for theory-nerds or womens studies majors; this book is for anyone interested in having a clear understanding of post-war 20th century American history.
coontz has a race and class analysis of the feminine mystique , but persuasively argues that it is worth a deeper look, not a quick dismissal. I read the feminine mystique when I was 18. I wasn't a 50's housewife or mom, I was a teenage girl in a band in a male-dominated punk scene struggling not to be defined as "someone's girlfriend", and it resonated with me at the time. I look forward to reconsidering it in its social context. ( )
  tvgrl | Jul 26, 2013 |
How did the Feminine Mystique really effect women in the early 60's. If you were white, middle class and had dropped out of school or college, it probably spoke right to you. If you were black, blue collar, or worked for a living, you might have laughed it off. Why did the book reach so many people? ( )
  Ellens_ESO | Jan 25, 2013 |
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In loving memory of my mother, Patricia Waddington
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Nearly half a century after its publication, Betty Freidan's 1963 best seller, The Feminine Mystique, still generates extreme reactions, both pro and con. (Introduction)
On December 22, 1962, one month before The Feminine Mystique hit the bookstores, the Saturday Evening Post published a cover article purporting to offer a portrait of the typical American woman.  (chapter 1)
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