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Demystifying the Mystique

Betty Friedan in the 21st century

Marrying the skills of the sociologist and the historian, Stephanie Coontz gives us a “biography of a book” in A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (Basic Books, $25.95). Enriched by her own data and interviews, Coontz cuts through the fog that has surrounded The Feminine Mystique since its publication in 1963 and places Betty Friedan’s analytical breakthrough in its historical context.

When Friedan asked, “Are Women People?” this was not a rhetorical question. “Freudian understanding of sexual difference permeated popular culture,” Coontz observes. One best-selling pundit warned that boys and girls could not grow into psychologically healthy adults if they were raised “not primarily as male and female, but as people.” In the white middle- class world in which Friedan lived, it was a truism that female independence was bad for husbands and children and that when a wife worked for wages it was a public confession of her husband’s failure to provide.

The destructive double-bind in which white middle-class women found themselves was harnessed by advertisers; Friedan names this — in a chapter that has not lost its force — “The Sexual Sell.” “What matters,” her own literary agent told Coontz, “is that women were asked to deny what they were feeling.”

Coontz is shrewd in noting Friedan’s limitations. Friedan did not acknowledge her intellectual debts. She gave short shrift to domestic work and domestic workers. She did not call for a grassroots movement or for legal change, even though she herself had worked for the left-wing electrical workers union. Even at the time, writer Gerda Lerner — who would become a leading feminist historian — criticized Friedan for her failure to address the economic discrimination faced by “working women, especially Negro women,” who lacked access to college, child care and maternity benefits. This failure is ironic, for, as Coontz writes, “It was black activists, not white feminists, who first referred to women and men as ‘co-breadwinners’.” Upper middle-class black women, though not immune to the pressures of the Feminine Mystique, did not give up their jobs and professions; roughly twice as many of them held outside jobs as their white counterparts. “Black middle-class wives, not white feminists, were the true pioneers of modern family patterns.”

Coontz would have strengthened our understanding of feminism even more if she had also recognized the strong Jewish tradition for women to work “beyond the gates of her household.” For all the ambivalence that many upwardly mobile Jewish families felt about this tradition in the 1950s, it was there to be drawn upon by the many Jewish women who played leading roles in the movement, not least Friedan herself.

In the end, Coontz seeks to name the mystique of our own time. Now that women are solidly in the work force, the barriers they face come not at the point of entry but at the point of motherhood. She calls for our energies to be spent on the reconfiguration of fatherhood, quite properly sneering at the language of “juggling” work and family. Middle-class women still need what working women have always needed: decent pay, reliable health care, maternity benefits, child care and financial security. We must reconfigure our social order to be more humane, and that takes political action. 

Linda K. Kerber is professor of history at the University of Iowa.