Puncturing Betty Friedan, but Not the Mystique: An Interview with Stephanie Coontz


Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. Her latest book is "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s" (Basic Books, 2011).

In your introduction, you wrote that the book still draws visceral reactions fifty years after its publication. Why?

The book was such a giant bestseller in its day, and the title conjured up such vivid images, that people who have never read the book—feminists and anti-feminists alike—often attribute their own assumptions about the women’s movement to Friedan.  Anti-feminists claim that Friedan espoused self-interested careerism and hated men, neither of which is true.  Feminists sometimes believe the book was more influential and radical than it actually was.

Friedan was a skilled polemicist.  She sometimes used dramatic formulations—once describing the suburban home as a “comfortable concentration camp,” for example—that could be taken out of context to make it sound like the book was far more radical than it was.  That same flair for drama allowed Friedan to anticipate Oprah and Bill Clinton in her ability to “feel the pain” of her audience.  She reflected it back to them so perceptively that almost fifty years later, many of the women I interviewed still insist that her book saved their sanity, and maybe even their lives.  Historians have shown that many thinkers were already analyzing the dilemmas of homemakers in the 1950s, while feminism had never died out, and many activists were working in government and business to press for more equality.  But Friedan combined sociological research and good reporting skills with the confessional style of the women’s magazines to reach people who were isolated in their own homes, really hurting, and convince them their problems were social, not personal, in origin.  One woman I interviewed—now a well-known academic—described reading the book and sobbing with relief, then finally getting up and flushing her tranquilizers down the drain.

You also write in your introduction that when you reread the book at the beginning of the project that would become Strange Stirrings, you found it “boring and dated.” What about it was so off-putting, and why did you eventually begin to appreciate the book in spite of its failings?

Actually, I have to confess, I didn’t “re-read” the book.  I had heard so much about the book from my own mother and then later from the early “women’s liberation” groups that somehow I’d come to believe that I had read it myself, and I’d credited it with all sort of insights and arguments that I know now I must have heard from other activists.  So when I was approached to write a biography of the book I blithely agreed, but was then stunned to find out that I had never read it and did not like it.  The book was repetitive.  It exaggerated the gains of feminism in the 1920s and the hegemony of the anti-feminist homemaker mythology in the 1950s.  I was horrified by Friedan’s uncritical prejudices against homosexuality and her diatribes against permissive parenting.  I thought her focus on educated white women was elitist.  And I was surprised to hear how limited her proposals for change were.

I also knew from Dan Horowitz’s marvelous book that she had misrepresented her own political history; and the more I researched the publication history of The Feminine Mystique the more I became convinced she had misrepresented that as well, making herself out more of a lone and unappreciated “battler for her sex” than she actually was.

What turned me around was the response I got when I advertised for people who had read The Feminine Mystique at or near the time of publication.  Their stories were so moving, and the depth of despair they described feeling so striking, that it made me reexamine the ‘50s and early ‘60s.  I came to see that despite the existence of opposition to the feminine mystique that historians such as Joann Meyerowitz have documented, there really was something especially paralyzing about that period, especially for a certain group of women.  I began to think of Friedan’s main audience as the sidelined wives of the Greatest Generation.  Their daughters would probably have found feminism anyway, but many of these women might have been lost—to the movement, to the women’s centers and academic departments they often helped found, or even to themselves.

Which women responded most enthusiastically to The Feminine Mystique?

The people who got the most from Friedan’s book were women who had tried very hard to find complete fulfillment in being wives and mothers but felt there was something missing in their lives.  Many had married upwardly mobile men and were seemingly living the American Dream, so they felt guilty for not being more grateful.  They thought something must be wrong with them for not being completely satisfied with their lives.  Many of them had more education than the average women in those days, although they had often dropped out after getting their “Mrs.” Degree.  But unlike today, that very education was in some ways a disadvantage, because they were actually more exposed than working-class women to Freudian ideas that made them doubt their own “femininity” and wonder if their worries were “neurotic.”

A lot of people don’t remember that 1950s anti-feminism was directed as much against suburban homemakers as against career women, and many of these middle-class women had internalized the critique of “moms” that was so fashionable at that time and that has recently been described by Rebecca Jo Plant.  There is a lot of evidence that although working-class wives and mothers in that era had much tougher lives in terms of economic and physical insecurity, they were actually less likely than middle-class homemakers to second-guess their child-raising and doubt their own normality.  So to find a book that was excerpted in three of the most widely read middle-class women’s magazines of the time was a godsend to these women.  Many could still remember, half a century later, what a relief it was to be told that it was not neurotic to want more out of life than a modern kitchen and a husband who earned a decent living—that the problem they could not name was a result of the way society had constricted their options and identity, not a result of some sexual or gender pathology.

You say that you have a slightly different take than many previous writers on the omission of African-American women from Friedan’s book.

That is a glaring omission, all the sadder because Friedan herself had led fights against segregated housing.  Some people have argued that black women would have loved to be homemakers, and that’s the weakness in Friedan’s defense of meaningful work for women.  This is not the case, however.  Yes, many black wives and mothers had to work, and at jobs that were truly horrible.  But the upper middle-class wives and mothers who were least likely to have to work for financial necessity were already—long before this was also true of white women—the most likely to work, suggesting that something more than dire necessity was involved.  And black leaders of both sexes had a long tradition of supporting women’s roles as co-providers for their families and as activist leaders of the community.  I argue that although Friedan’s discussion of work was indeed elitist, the biggest problem with her book’s neglect of black women is that she missed the chance to show her white middle-class audience that some women were able to combine their identities as wives, mothers, family co-providers, and activists with interests beyond the home.

You say that even though you lived through the 1960s, you were surprised to discover just how far-reaching the discrimination was in those days.

Yes, because as a single college woman not looking for a job, and not dependent on a husband, I didn’t feel the brunt of it.  In 1963, only eight states granted a homemaker any legal right to her husband’s earnings, even if she had made his career possible by doing all the childrearing or had put him through school.  In all but four states, a husband had the right to unilaterally determine a couple’s legal residence.  If he moved away and she refused to follow, perhaps staying behind to help out her aging parents, he could charge her with desertion and get a fault-based divorce decree in his favor.  The concept of marital rape did not exist.  Domestic violence was not taken seriously.  In fact, many experts claimed that if a wife was beaten, it was her own fault for being too “unfeminine,” and might even serve a good purpose by allowing the husband to “recover” his masculinity.

For younger women, it was often not until you graduated from college and start perusing the “help wanted: female” ads that you began to see how little you were valued.  A white female college graduate (and a black college graduate of either sex), working full-time, earned less, on average, than a white male high school graduate.  Sexual harassment was not illegal, and employers could fire women who got married or when they became pregnant.  It was hard for a single woman to get contraceptives in many states, and of course abortion was still illegal.

You mentioned that Friedan distorted her past and exaggerated her role in creating the second wave of feminism—what was her life like before the writing of Mystique and how did it change afterward?

Friedan deserves a lot of credit for a lot of things, but she tended to rewrite her own history in ways that downplayed her debts to others.  For instance, she long claimed that she herself was a homemaker who had also been a victim of “the feminine mystique.”  In fact, she had been a leftist who wrote articles for unions about working-women’s rights, civil rights, and the “struggles of oppressed workers.”  And she was much more indebted to leftist and feminist thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir, as well as to scholars like Mirra Komorovsky and journalists like Vance Packard, than she let on.  Similarly, many other women, like Pauli Murray, were equally important in getting the National Organization for Women off the ground.

2011 marks the forty-fifth anniversary of establishment of the National Organization for Women, which Friedan helped found after her book became an international bestseller.  How has life changed for women since then?

Women have educational and career opportunities that were unthinkable in the 1950s and early 1960s.  More women graduate from college than men, and women recently pulled ahead as recipients of PhDs as well.  In 1972, only three percent of licensed attorneys were female.  Today women represent one-third of all practicing attorneys and half of all law students.

The stay-at-home housewife has also benefited from feminist reforms that established gave her a legal claim to share the income her husband accumulates while she is raising the children, keeping the home, and otherwise supporting his career.

Single women have more options than in the past, but marriages have also become more equal.  As late as 1980, 30 percent of wives reported that their husbands did no housework. By the early twentieth century, this had shrunk to 16 percent.  34 percent of wives now say their husbands do half or more of the childcare.  Domestic violence has fallen dramatically over the past forty-five years, although it appears that the financial strain of the recession may have produced a recent uptick.

On the down side, women pay a higher price for having children than men do.  One study found that more than 25 percent of women who quit work for family reasons were unable to find jobs when they returned to the job market.  Others had to settle for part-time work even though they wanted full-time.  Even women who regained full-time jobs in their own field never caught up in their salary and promotion schedule.

Another study found that among women with identical resumes in all respects but one—membership in the PTA (a sign that these women had children)—the mothers were much less likely to be offered a job than the other women, were less likely to be recommended for promotion, and were held to higher performance and punctuality standards than non-mothers.

The flip side of discrimination against mothers is a different kind of bias against fathers.  Even when men have formal access to family-friendly policies, they are looked down upon if they use them.  Because of these pressures, men are now even more likely than women to report high levels of work-family conflict.

Another down side is that even as the marriages of college-educated couples have become more stable and more egalitarian, marriage has begun to seem less achievable—and more fragile—for working-class men and women.

Overall, gender is no longer such a powerful master category for assigning status and options as it once was.  Up until 1970, gender outweighed education and class background in the average distribution of wages.  Not any more.  Just as Michael Omi and Haward Winant talk about a newly “messy” hegemony when it comes to race, gender hierarchies are also messier, less clear-cut, than they used to be.  I think Friedan was right to talk about the importance of meaningful work in people’s lives, but I think we need to pay much more attention to differences in class options in discussing male-female relations today than she did back in 1963.

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