Did fem­i­nism need ‘The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique’?

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Book re­view by Elaine Showal­ter

A STRANGE STIR­RING The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique and Amer­i­can Women at the Dawn of the 1960s By Stephanie Coontz Ba­sic. 222 pp. $25.95

When our daugh­ter was born in 1965, my hus­band sat by the hos­pi­tal bed, du­ti­fully read­ing Betty Friedan’s “ The

Fem­i­nine Mys­tique,” which had been pub­lished two years ear­lier. In her first para­graph, Friedan fa­mously de­scribes “a strange stir­ring, a sense of dis­sat­is­fac­tion, a yearn­ing” in the minds of mid­dle-class Amer­i­can housewives. “ The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique” was the right book at the right time; it jolted fe­male read­ers, in­clud­ing my­self, into an aware­ness of their need “ to grow and ful­fill their po­ten­tial­i­ties as hu­man be­ings.” While Friedan didn’t an­tic­i­pate all the strate­gies of the women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment— she would help in­vent them a few years later — and didn’t try to ad­dress all of women’s prob­lems, her mes­sage of self-devel­op­ment was very in­spir­ing to me when I was in my 20s.

Al­though she is only a few years younger than I am, the em­i­nent so­cial his­to­rian Stephanie Coontz, whose books in­clude 2005’s “ Mar­riage, a His­tory,” had not read “ The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique” and grew up with the be­lief that Friedan was a great fem­i­nist pi­o­neer for her mother’s gen­er­a­tion, not her own. When her edi­tor sug­gested that she write about Friedan, Coontz was star­tled to dis­cover that she found the book “repet­i­tive and overblown,” “ bor­ing and dated.” She didn’t like Friedan’s ego­tism and sim­pli­fi­ca­tions of women’s his­tory in the 20th cen­tury, ei­ther. No won­der, as she ad­mits, “I wasn’t sure of my ul­ti­mate fo­cus.”

This is not a very stir­ring dec­la­ra­tion, and ini­tially it seems that Coontz comes to bury Friedan rather than praise her. The first half of “ A Strange Stir­ring,” in­cor­po­rat­ing statis­tics, in­fem­i­nism

ter­views and de­tails about Amer­i­can women in the mid-20th cen­tury, reads like a du­ti­ful book re­port rather than a la­bor of love.

Coontz de­cided to fo­cus on the women who read “ The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique” when it came out, the wives and daugh­ters of the World War II vet­er­ans im­mor­tal­ized as the “Great­est Gen­er­a­tion” — or per­haps the “Gallup gen­er­a­tion,” be­cause ev­ery as­pect of their lives seemed to have been mea­sured and ranked by Gallup polls. She stud­ied the emo­tional and in­ti­mate letters to Friedan at the Sch­lesinger Li­brary at Har­vard and in­ter­viewed nearly 200 peo­ple who had read Friedan’s book soon af­ter its pub­li­ca­tion and vividly re­called it. She also im­mersed her­self in the ma­jor women’s mag­a­zines of the time, get­ting a sense of the ex­pec­ta­tions and ad­vice di­rected to read­ers.

Dis­cov­er­ing the lives of Friedan’s first read­ers gave her in­sight into the im­pact of the book, and, she says, “grad­u­ally my ap­pre­ci­a­tion ... grew.” Coontz’s nar­ra­tive catches fire when she tells the story of Anne Par­sons, who wrote an eight-page let­ter to Friedan in 1963. The daugh­ter of the fa­mous Har­vard so­ci­ol­o­gist Tal­cott Par­sons, who had as­serted the im­por­tance of tra­di­tional gen­der roles in the fam­ily, Anne re­sisted this parental and so­cial mes­sage and be­came an an­thro­pol­o­gist. Yet she felt marginal­ized by col­leagues who re­garded her as “ag­gres­sive, com­pet­i­tive, re­ject­ing of fem­i­nin­ity.” In despair, later that year she com­mit­ted her­self to a mental in­sti­tu­tion, and in 1964 she com­mit­ted sui­cide.

Coontz is also im­pressed by Con­stance Ahrons, one of her aca­demic hero­ines, who re­veals in her in­ter­view that “ The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique” res­cued her from the limbo of de­pres­sion and bore­dom and en­cour­aged her to pur­sue a PhD. Coontz un­der­stands the plight of these tal­ented aca­demic women but sees them as fig­ures of the dis­tant past.

Coontz’s penul­ti­mate chap­ter, “De­mys­ti­fy­ing the Fem­i­nine Mys­tique,” protests that Friedan did not sin­gle­hand­edly awaken Amer­i­can women — that the women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment had many ori­gins and “cer­tainly would have taken off with­out Friedan’s book.” She ar­gues that Friedan built on the work of many un­ac­knowl­edged pre­cur­sors, in­clud­ing Mirra Ko­marovsky, Eve Mer­riam and Si­mone de Beau­voir. But Coontz con­cludes with a qual­i­fied de­fense: “It in noway dis­par­ages Friedan’s ac­com­plish­ments to point out that The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique was not ahead of its time,” she writes. “Books don’t be­came best sell­ers be­cause they are ahead of their time. They be­come best sell­ers be­cause they tap into con­cerns that peo­ple are al­ready mulling over, pull to­gether ideas and data that have not yet spread be­yond spe­cial­ists and ex­perts, and bring these all to­gether in a way that is easy to un­der­stand and ex­plain to oth­ers.”

Coontz con­cedes that “ The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique” was “pow­er­ful and mov­ing” for its time, but she does not see it as rel­e­vant to the emerg­ing young gen­er­a­tion of the 1960s, to which both she and I be­long. Her faint praise, I sus­pect, shows how rapidly and deeply Friedan’s ideas changed the world our gen­er­a­tion came to in­habit.


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