Not Oprah’s Book Club: A Strange Stirring

A book about a book. It’s a funny concept, but one that actually works quite powerfully in Stephanie Coontz’s new A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. Coontz, the much-celebrated author of Marriage: A History, looks at the effect that Betty Friedan’s notorious tome had on a generation of women.

Coontz isn’t an evangelist for Friedan, which makes her a very trustworthy guide back in time to look at the indispensible ways in which The Feminine Mystique really did change so many women’s lives and so much of our cultural expectations about marriage, work, and fulfillment, and the ways in which its effect has sometimes been overstated. Did Betty Friedan literally save some women’s lives? Yes, according to the vast letters stores in her archives, her book was a life preserver to so many women who were blaming themselves for their unhappiness rather than recognizing that the culture they were mired in was making them feel worthwhile. Did Betty Friedan create the second wave of feminism? No. All kinds of wonderful, diverse work was being done before The Feminine Mystique was ever published, and plenty came after. Her role in the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s was certainly massive and not be overlooked, but she is not single-handedly responsible for anything.

What I found most riveting was the comparative data between work-life balance and marital satisfaction in the 60s and 70s versus today. For example, the divorce rate dropped from a peak of 22.8 per 1,000 couples in 1979 to 16.7 per 1,000 couples by 2005. Today divorce rates tend to be lowest in states where more than 70 percent of married women work outside the home. Who knew?

I also appreciated Coontz’s exploration of some of the more current mystiques, among them: the hottie mystique, the supermom mystique, and most powerful, according to Coontz, the career mystique. The latter is “the idea that a successful career requires people to commit all their time and energy throughout their prime years to their jobs, delegating all care giving responsibilities to someone else.” She goes on, “This too-much-or-nothing approach to hours and income is a peculiarly American phenomenon.”

There’s lots of food for thought here about how to re-imagine our work, our families, and our lives so they can finally, finally transcend mystiques altogether.

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