Stephanie Coontz is a social historian who teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College, and the author of half a dozen books including Marriage: A History, The Way We Never Were and The Way We Really Are. Her new book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Woman at the Dawn of the 1960s, is a history of Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking 1963 book.
The Feminine Mystique is widely acknowledged to be the book that kicked off the women’s movement, a frustrated polemic that set fire to the illusion of domestic suburban bliss and compelled the Betty Drapers of America to demand more from life than marriage and motherhood. Coontz’s book is about how Friedan came to write the book and about how it was received by women at the time.
I have my mother’s copy of The Feminine Mystique; it’s on my bookshelf in a ziplock baggie because it’s been read and re-read so many times that it’s falling apart. When I found the book on our bookshelf at home and opened it up at fifteen, not much of what Friedan had written made sense to a born-and-raised feminist growing up in Sydney, Australia. But I did come to understand a little more about my mother – the woman who had read and underlined and circled and annotated what Friedan had written, and who clearly identified with the message that changed the course of American cultural history. My mom wasn’t the only one: Coontz told me that in the course of her research into the impact of the book, women showed her their first editions of the book, underlined and dog-eared, and clearly responsible for awakening the spirit of feminism in the women who read them. It’s this impact, as well as the larger political effect, that Coontz studied, and that she assesses in A Strange Stirring.
If you want to see Coontz talk about her book in person, check out her events schedule to see if she’s coming to a bookstore or a college campus near you.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Stephanie Coontz.
Chloe Angyal: What led you to write this book?
Stephanie Coontz: I was approached by my editor at the time, Joanne Miller at Basic Books, and she said that they were doing a series of biographies, not of great individuals but of great books, and asked if I would like to do The Feminine Mystique. I thought it was a great idea, and I re-read it and assigned it to my class, and to my intense embarrassment, when I started “re-reading” it, I discovered that I had never read it! I had heard so much about it from my own mother, when I was in college. At the time I was involved in the Civil Rights movement, and I was thinking, “Well, nobody needs the women’s movement. That’s over, we got the vote, time to move on.” But she would call me and tell me about The Feminine Mystique. And then as I began to realize from my own experience that women in fact were not equal, I got involved in the women’s movement, and a lot of people told me about The Feminine Mystique, and a lot of women used that wonderful phrase “the feminine mystique” to sum up all the things that were wrong with women’s position.
When I went back and read it, I was surprised at how un-radical an analysis it was, at how limited the inequalities she took on were. She didn’t talk about unequal pay for equal work, she didn’t talk about sexual issues and reproductive rights. She just focused on this mystique about how women should find all of their happiness in housework. She talked about the way advertisers tried to convince women to find themselves through buying things, and how Freudian psychiatrists desired women’s needs for meaning and for work in their lives. But I was kind of struck by how limited the book was, and I have to tell you that for the first year or so, I was disliking both the book and the author, the more I realized the limits of the audience she was addressing and the points she was raising. But then I started doing these interviews with women who had read her at the time, and I started researching more fully into what it was like to be a mother, a homemaker and a wife in the late fifties and the early sixties, and I turned a corner. I began to really appreciate what she did, why she was important, whatever the limits may be of who she reached. She saved a generation of women that were caught in between. Feminism would have happened without her. But these particular women might well have been lost, to feminism, to the women’s centers that they helped found, and on a more personal level, to themselves. Over and over again, these women said, “She saved my sanity; she saved my life. I thought I was going crazy. I did nothing but cry.”
Friedan was a polemicist; she exaggerated to make her point. She exaggerated the gains that women had made in the 1920s in order to make the point of how repressed they had become in the 1940s and 1950s, and she ignored the fact that there were other women writing about these problems. There were feminists working behind the scenes in government to try to improve the position of women. But Friedan really was the first to find a way of reaching the urban homemakers who were stuck in what they would have been told by society and by their own parents ought to be the best lives possible in America, and who were miserable about it, and who doubted their right to be miserable.
People sometimes think because Friedan neglected Black women and because she not only neglected lesbians but rejected homosexuality in this book, that she was only talking to this bored, privileged group of people. But for me, one of the big lessons as someone who has always been super concerned with race, gender, sexuality and other forms of inequality, is that you really don’t have to develop this moral hierarchy of pain. These women were hurting too, and not because they were bored, because they were really being expected to feel things that didn’t correspond with their experiences. And they knew they were privileged. Several of them said to me, “There were Black people being lynched down south, there were Black kids being beaten up for trying to go to school, there were people with bellies swollen from hunger; what right did I have to feel so miserable?” And of course, that only made them feel more miserable! I saw a lot of women’s individual copies, and you could see their pain in the passages that were underlined and the things they wrote in the margins. They were so relieved, just so relieved to have someone say, “You’re not crazy. There’s something wrong with society.”
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
SC: I’m going to reach way back into my past and say Pippi Longstocking. She was such a little terror. She never lived up to any of the things that girls were supposed to do. One of my most vivid memories from when I was ten or eleven was my male teacher pulling me aside and saying to me, “Stephanie, if you didn’t use such big words, the boys would like you more.” It was such a kick in the stomach. I didn’t even know the boys didn’t like me! And I think I read Pippi Longstocking in the same year. It was her independence and her willingness to be thought of as not-normal by other people that I found so comforting.
In real life, I think that because I’m a historian, I don’t have a lot of heroines. For me, what moves me the most when I look at things around me, is when people move together. Eugene Debs once said that when he hears people say, “I rose above the ranks,” he wants to know why they didn’t rise with the ranks. The things that stand out most for me, and that I treasure and put in that place in my mind that you visit when you want to be inspired and moved at the same time, are things like when you were at an anti-war march, and you couldn’t see anything but the people in front of you and the people behind you. And somehow, it’s not the mob that you were always told it was; it’s a wonderful cooperative group and the bigger it got, the more organized it got. Or like some of the demonstrations like the Women’s Strike for Equality in the 1970s, when you looked around and all you saw were these strong female faces. For me, those are the emotional highlights of life more than heroines.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
SC: The nightly news. Not only because of the limits for women, but because of all of the tremendous confusion about class and race that’s going on in American society. I stopped watching the news because it gets me apoplectic. I have to go read it the next day in small doses. One of the things that makes me want to pound my head against the wall is that conservatives are the only ones putting women forward and saying, “Look at this strong woman, look at what she can do.” They’re the only ones talking about class, and not just about the middle class. They put themselves forward, with the most astonishing lack of logic, as the defenders of the working class. My dad was a union organizer, so that particularly outrages me. But that’s one of the causes of my apoplexy: that progressives have ceded the talk about women and class to the people who are using it to accomplish exactly the wrong thing.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
SC: I think the greatest challenge is reworking out advocacy for women in ways that take account of the extent to which working class men have experienced real decline, and finding ways to ally with them, rather than letting them be divided against us. I think that’s the biggest challenge. One of the great achievements of feminism is that the problems we face nowadays are not faced equally by all women, and in some areas, are faced just as much, if not more, by some men. That’s a huge improvement over the time when gender was the master standard that placed you in the hierarchy of all sorts of things. Now it’s a messier hegemony. There are still areas in which women as a whole are especially vulnerable, and there are areas in which members of a certain class are especially vulnerable. But there are some ways in which the intersection of the masculine mystique and class dynamics disadvantage men in special ways. For example, the fact that fewer of them are succeeding in school. And I think that’s a huge challenge for feminism, and I do not have an answer for how to maintain our emphasis on the special vulnerabilities and continuing discrimination against women, but to link it up with the struggles that are in fact male and female, race and class, sexuality and so on.
Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about: we have a lot of evidence that mothers are discriminated against in the workplace. They’re looked down upon whether they’re stay at home moms or working moms. There are cultural prejudices against them. And yet, we’ve just learned that five percent of women, the ones in the very top income earnings, get a motherhood bonus. They no longer experience a motherhood penalty. They’re in good enough jobs and good enough positions that they get the family-friendly work policies, and being a mother doesn’t hurt, it helps, their long-term earning ability. So that fact that we’ve had to complicate these generalizations about gender with new realities of class, with someone women truly getting very close to the glass ceiling, and benefitting from the number of women down on the bottom floor, is a huge challenge for us. It makes like much more complex when what we had to do was battle the cultural prejudices against all women and any women. As late as 1970, your gender was a better predictor of your wages than your education. A woman with a college education in 1970, working full time, on average earned less than a white man with a high school education. Now education outweighs gender. That’s a victory for feminism, and a challenge, because it means that women’s issues are complicated by class and education and family background, and often in a way that is hard to sum up with one single slogan.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
SC: Mollydooker wine, tacos, and my closest friend Sherry Frumkin, who was a leader of the National Abortion Action Coalition.