The allure of The Feminine Mystique

This wonderful new book explains why, despite some of the weaknesses in Betty Friedan’s myth-busting classic of the 1950s, it stirred up women of all classes and helped to change the world.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Books

When it comes to American women’s status in the Fifties and Sixties, it’s the little things that shock the most: the thousands of petty laws, customs and assumptions of that time. Like the fact that women were required by law to take their husband’s name after marriage, or the insidious double standards surrounding divorce. It’s all these things we never knew about our mothers’ and grandmothers’ lives that make Stephanie Coontz’s new book, A Strange Stirring: ‘The Feminine Mystique’ and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, such a compelling read.

Of course most people know that the years before the women’s movement were the Bad Old Days. We watch the sexism on full display in Mad Men as entertainment because we have the benefit of hindsight. And we know how the story comes out: that women are, in fact, as capable as men, as worthy as men, as human as men. It seems obvious to us, but women who came of age in the 1950s and 60s had no such confidence. On the contrary, when their roles as wives and mothers left them feeling empty, it led them to question their own sanity. The publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) seemed to change everything.

Reading The Feminine Mystique today, it is hard to imagine why it had the impact it did. It was written for a relatively privileged group of educated, white, middle-class women. It didn’t suggest that women work full time or even ask husbands to help with the domestic work. It never touched on the struggles of working-class or minority women and it is shockingly anti-gay. And yet, its simple message – that women should be allowed to realise their human potential – rang true even for women whose lives were a million miles away from those of the middle-class housewives whom Friedan described in her book.

Why was the book, with all its weaknesses, seemingly able to pull the trigger on history? Was it simply in the right place at the right time? In attempting to answer these questions, Coontz tells the story of a living generation of women and the book that helped them make sense of the gap between their aspirations and the reality of their lives. Coontz also reminds us how some of the same forces that shaped the lives of women at that time are still around today.

The disconnect between women’s expectations and the reality of their day-to-day lives may never have been as wide as it was in the 1950s and 60s. The women’s movement of the early twentieth century helped to sweep away some important barriers to women’s participation in public life. Women gained the vote and access to education. Record numbers obtained college degrees. And after they had famously worked in heavy industries during the Second World War, there was no longer any doubt that women could do jobs traditionally reserved for men. Though they were certainly not on a par with men in the postwar period, women could work outside the home to a limited degree.

The fact that most women did not do this was presented and experienced as a matter of personal choice, and to a certain extent it was. In the years following the war both men and women longed for a return to normality. The labour movement that had been such an important influence on the first wave of feminists lost much of its political coherence, leaving individuals vulnerable to persecution by Red-bating politicians, most notoriously Joseph McCarthy. Setting up house was both prudent and deeply desirable for the men and women who put their lives on hold during the war.

And yet Coontz shows that the 1950s was a contradictory time. Though most women did give up their jobs after they married, it also became more socially acceptable for them to work before they married or after their children had grown up. Women’s employment increased at four times the rate of mens’ as service-sector jobs expanded with the postwar economy. Women had far more access to education than ever before, with more women completing high school and a higher percentage able to attend college. And yet for all this, in all aspects of culture, marriage became the aim and end of women’s existence. Any aspirations they had for social mobility or recognition were properly fulfilled through the fortunes of their husbands.

In fact, society was deeply ambivalent about women’s position. On the one hand, the principle of equality was deeply entrenched in American culture, and on the other, women’s position as wives and mothers fulfilled a crucial function in reproducing the next generation and encouraging social stability.

The women who came of age in the 1950s and 60s internalised this ambivalence. Coontz quotes from a Gallup poll published shortly before The Feminine Mystique came out. Here, women repeatedly expressed their satisfaction with their role as homemakers. And yet a full 90 per cent did not want their daughters to follow in their footsteps. They wanted them to get more education, and to marry later.

The strength of The Feminine Mystique and the reason why it struck a chord with so many women is that Friedan put the dissatisfaction and demoralisation of unrealised potential into a social context. ‘It’s not you’, she told women, ‘it’s the position you have been put in’.

It’s hard to overstate the power of taking these seemingly personal dilemmas out of the context of the individual and putting them into the perspective of society as a whole. It goes a long way in helping to explain why so many diverse women saw something of themselves in The Feminine Mystique. Interviewing people about the book, Coontz came across working-class and minority women and even a gay man who said The Feminine Mystique had changed their lives.

Coontz takes some time to look at the lives of the women Friedan seemingly forgot: African-American women struggling for civil rights, and the millions of women for whom working was a necessity, who would never go to college or even finish high school. Friedan was criticised for leaving them out, for focusing on the elite, but in the end it doesn’t make much sense to construct what Coontz calls ‘hierarchies of pain’. All women, regardless of their social class, lived with the consequences of the mystique even if took different forms in different situations.

The Feminine Mystique is by no means perfect, but in the course of writing her own book, Coontz came to appreciate it. Friedan got it right on certain key points and she managed to connect with people on an emotional level, allowing them to see their individual situations in a new light. It also seems clear that some of the aspects of the mystique are still at work today, namely that disorienting concept of free choice in our personal lives while the parameters of what’s acceptable behaviour is so narrow it leaves individuals feeling a bit lost.

Nearly 50 years after its publication there are some specific aspects of the mystique as Friedan explained it that have survived and evolved. Specifically, there is what Coontz calls the ‘Hottie Mystique’, that tendency for women of a certain age to elevate their sexuality above other aspects of their identity, and a ‘Parenting Mystique’ in which the emphasis on women’s role vis-à-vis the family takes the form of intensive parenting.

So is it worth revisiting The Feminine Mystique? Probably not. But to begin to understand how we got to where we are today, A Strange Stirring is a must-read.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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Topics Books


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