Today on The Cycle: The Feminine Mystique

Updated
Coontz-A Strange pb
Coontz-A Strange pb

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s controversial bestseller, The Feminine Mystique.  The bestseller ignited an international uproar with its claim that millions of housewives were unhappy and its call for them to get out of the kitchen and into the workplace.  But after 50 years where exactly do we stand.

Few can deny that there has been a revolution in gender roles. In 1962 the President’s Commission on the Status of Women documented the gender inequalities that then pervaded American society and the Equal Pay Act for woman became a law ensuring women got paid for the work that they did. But, there is still considerable debate about if men and women are treated fairly in the workplace.

Joining today’s show is historian Stephanie Coontz author of A Strange Stirring: the Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960’s. In her book she draws on research into popular culture of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and interviews with nearly 200 women who read The Feminine Mystique shortly after it was published.

Be sure to tune in for the full conversation at 3:40 p.m. and check out an excerpt from her book below.

Excerpted with permission from A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, by Stephanie Coontz.  Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2011Introduction

NEARLY HALF A CENTURY AFTER ITS PUBLICATION, BETTY FRIEDAN’S 1963

best seller, The Feminine Mystique, still generates extreme reactions, both

pro and con. In 2006, it was ranked thirty-seventh on a list of the twentieth

century’s best works of journalism, compiled by a panel of experts

assembled by New York University’s journalism department. But when

the editors of the right-wing magazine Human Events compiled their own

list of “the ten most harmful books of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries”

in 2007, they put The Feminine Mystique at number seven—not

far below Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

The Feminine Mystique has been credited—or blamed—for destroying,

single-handedly and almost overnight, the 1950s consensus that women’s

place was in the home. Friedan’s book “pulled the trigger on history,” in

the words of Future Shock author Alvin Toffler. Her writing “awakened

women to their oppression,” according to a fellow leader of the National

Organization for Women, which Friedan helped establish a few years

after The Feminine Mystique hit the best-seller list. Following Friedan’s

death at age eighty-five in February 2006, dozens of news accounts reported

that The Feminine Mystique ignited the women’s movement,

launched a social revolution, and “transformed the social fabric” of the

United States and countries around the world.

Opponents of the feminist movement are equally convinced that The

Feminine Mystique revolutionized America, but they believe the book

changed things for the worse. Prior to Betty Friedan, wrote one author,

middle-class women “were living in peace in what they considered to be

a normal, traditional, worthwhile lifestyle.” Since The Feminine Mystique,

“life has never been the same.” In her 2006 book, Women Who Made the

World Worse, National Review’s Kate O’Beirne complained that Friedan

persuaded women that “selfless devotion was a recipe for misery.” Laura

Schlessinger, of the Dr. Laura radio show, has charged that The Feminine

Mystique’s disparagement “of so-called ‘women’s work’ … turned family

life upside down and wrenched women from their homes.” And Christina

Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute wrote in September

2008 that although The Feminine Mystique was correct in pointing out

that postwar America took the ideal of femininity “to absurd extremes,”

the book was also the source of “modern feminism’s Original Sin”—an

attack on stay-at-home motherhood. Friedan’s book “did indeed pull the

trigger on history,” Sommers concludes, but in doing so, she “took aim at

the lives of millions of American women.”

Even people who have never read the book often react strongly to its

title. In addition to interviewing people who had read The Feminine Mystique

when it first came out, I asked others who had never read it to tell

me what they knew about it. Their responses were surprisingly specific

and vehement. The book was “full of drivel about how women had been

mystified and tricked into being homemakers,” opined one woman. Another

reported that the book explained how women’s sexuality had been

controlled through the ages and assured me that Friedan had called for

an end to marital rape and sexual harassment—ideas that do not appear

anywhere in the book’s 350-plus pages. The grandmother of a student of

mine insisted that this was the book that “told women to burn their bras.”

Another student’s mother told her that The Feminine Mystique documented

how women in the 1950s were excluded from many legal rights

and paid much less than men—although in fact the book spends very

little time discussing legal and economic discrimination against women.

Interestingly, many women I talked with were initially sure they had

read The Feminine Mystique, only to discover in the course of our discussions

or correspondence that they actually had not. When they tried to

explain the gap between what they “remembered” and what I told them

the book actually said, they usually decided that the title had conjured

up such a vivid image in their minds that over time they had come to believe

they had read it.

As a matter of fact, I was one such person. I first heard of The Feminine

Mystique when I was an undergraduate at the University of California

at Berkeley in 1964. But I didn’t hear about it from “Berkeley

radicals.” Instead, it was my mother, a homemaker in Salt Lake City,

Utah, who told me about it. She had attended the University of Washington

at the end of the 1930s and married my father in the early 1940s.

While Dad was away during World War II, she had done her part for the

war effort, working in a shipyard. After the war ended, she quit work to

follow my dad around the country as he went to college on the GI Bill,

attended graduate school, and established himself in his career.

Mom spent most of the 1950s raising my sister and me. But by the

early 1960s, with me away at college and my sister in junior high school,

Mom began to get involved in civic activities. Soon she took a paying

part-time job as executive secretary of a community group.

Once a week she would call me at college and we would fill each

other in on what we were doing and thinking. At one point she asked anxiously

whether I thought she could handle going back to school to get

her master’s degree. At other times she proudly detailed her most recent

accomplishments. Once she recounted how bored, lonely, and insecure

she had felt as a housewife. The cause, she had recently discovered, was

that she had succumbed to an insidious “feminine mystique,” which she

had recognized only when she read this new book by Betty Friedan.

“Do you know that sociologists misrepresent research to make women

feel guilty if they aren’t completely happy as full-time housewives?” she

asked. Wasn’t it scandalous that when a woman expressed aspirations for

anything else in her life, psychiatrists tried to make her think she was

sexually maladjusted? Was I aware that advertisers manipulated women

into thinking that doing household chores was a creative act, and had

housewives spending more time on it than they really needed to? “They

can make a cake mix that tastes perfectly fine if you just add water. But the

box tells us to add an egg so housewives will feel we’re actually baking!”

I remember listening to my mother’s grievances with a certain amount

of impatience, feeling that they were irrelevant to my own life. My friends

and I certainly weren’t going to be just housewives. Looking back, I am

ashamed to admit that at the time I believed it was largely a woman’s own

fault if she wasn’t strong enough to defy social expectations and follow

her dreams. But it is even sadder to realize, as I did while conducting interviews

for this book, that most of these women also believed their problems

were their own fault.

I was vaguely aware that women had once organized a long, hard fight

to win the right to vote, but that was in the distant past. Far from identifying

with other women, I—like many other independent women my

age—prided myself on being unlike the rest of my sex. In the memorable

words of feminist activist and author Jo Freeman, we grew up “believing

there were three sexes: men, women, and me.” We knew we didn’t want

to follow in our mothers’ footsteps, but it did not yet occur to us that it

might require more than an individual decision to chart our own course,

that we would need an organized movement to pry open new opportunities

and overturn old prejudices. The only movement that really meant something

to us in the early 1960s was the burgeoning civil rights movement.

It took a few years for female civil rights activists such as myself to

begin to see that we too were subject to many societal prejudices because

of our sex. Only gradually, quite a while after the book had inspired my

mother and many other housewives, did my friends and I begin to use

“the feminine mystique” as a useful label to describe the prejudices and

discrimination we encountered.

In fact, it was soon so useful that at some point, long ago, the phrase

“feminine mystique” became such a part of my consciousness that I was

absolutely sure I had read Friedan’s book. So when JoAnn Miller, an editor

at Basic Books, suggested that I write a biography not of Betty Friedan

the author, but of the book she wrote, I jumped at the chance. I was certain

that rereading this groundbreaking book would be an educational

and inspiring experience. I also decided that I would assign The Feminine

Mystique to my students to gauge how they would react to a book that

had been so influential to an earlier generation.

After only a few pages I realized that in fact I had never read The

Feminine Mystique, and after a few chapters I began to find much of it

boring and dated. As it turned out, so did my students. The book seemed

repetitive and overblown. It made claims about women’s history that I

knew were oversimplified, exaggerating both the feminist victories of the

1920s and the antifeminist backlash of the 1940s and 1950s.

I was interested by Friedan’s account of how she had “lived according

to the feminine mystique as a suburban housewife” and only gradually

come to see that something was wrong with the way she and other American

women were being told to organize their lives. But although the story

of her journey of discovery was engrossing, her generalizations about

women seemed so limited by her white middle-class experience that I

thought the book’s prescriptions for improving women’s lives were irrelevant

to working-class and African-American women.

And Friedan’s warnings about “the homosexuality that is spreading

like a murky smog over the American scene” sounded more like something

that would come out of the mouth of a right-wing televangelist than a contemporary

feminist. So too did her alarmist talk about permissive parenting,

narcissistic self-indulgence, juvenile delinquency, and female promiscuity.

My initial reaction became more negative when I went on to discover

that Friedan had misrepresented her own history and the origins of her

ideas. Checking her account of the publishing history and reception of

The Feminine Mystique against the actual historical record, I discovered

disturbing discrepancies. I was put off by her egotism, which even her most

ardent admirers have acknowledged was “towering,” and disliked her tendency

to pump up her own accomplishments by claiming that the media,

and even her own publisher, were almost uniformly hostile to her views.

I was also indignant that Friedan portrayed all women in that era as

passive and preoccupied with their homes. What about the African-

American women who had led civil rights demonstrations and organized

community actions throughout the 1950s and early ’60s, standing up to

racist mobs and police brutality—women such as Rosa Parks, Daisy Bates,

Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Dorothy Height, and so many more? What

about the female labor organizers of the 1950s or the thousands of mothers

who risked arrest in 1959 and 1960, pushing their children in strollers,

to protest the mandatory air raid drills that they believed taught Americans

to accept the possibility of nuclear war?

 

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Today on The Cycle: The Feminine Mystique

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