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Declaration of Liberation: Book review of "A Strange Stirring" by Stephanie Coontz

Melanie Kirkpatrick

In the 1950s, a cartoon appeared in this newspaper’s “Pepper . . . and Salt” column that was intended to bring a smile to the lips of Wall Street Journal readers, then almost exclusively male. The drawing showed a middle-age woman—severe hairstyle, eyeglasses, hefty bosom—seated at a large desk in what appeared to be a private office. On the desk was a framed photograph of her husband and son. There was no typewriter in sight, so the woman couldn’t have been a secretary. Was she—could it be?—an executive? How hilarious.

This is the context in which The Feminine Mystique burst onto the scene in 1963. Betty Friedan wrote about what she saw as a lost generation of college-educated women who were locked out of the workplace and brainwashed into thinking that their only rightful place was in the home, taking care of their husbands and children. In the words of the book’s famous opening paragraph: “As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question’—Is this All?’”

The Feminine Mystique became both a best seller and one of the most controversial books of the 20th century. It was vilified by conservatives for what they saw as its denigration of marriage and motherhood and venerated by liberals for what they viewed as its message of women’s liberation. The extreme reactions at the time of the book’s publication put the lie to the notion popular today that our civic discourse used to be more civil.

Now the social historian Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage, a History (2005), takes a fresh look at The Feminine Mystique by examining its effect on the book’s original readers. Her own book is titled A Strange Stirring another quote from that famous first paragraphand her aim is to “tell the story of the generation of women who responded most fervently to what Friedan had to say.” These were educated women—mostly white, mostly middle class—who despite their privileges felt “anxious about their femininity” and “guilty about their aspirations.”

Ms. Coontz is clearly a fan of the book, and she quotes many early readers who said that The Feminine Mystique gave them the courage to pursue their dreams. The quotations she selects—drawn from her own interviews with now-elderly women and letters to Friedan at the time—are often poignant. One woman said that she felt “as though Betty Friedan had looked into my heart, mind, and psyche and . . . put the unexplainable distress I was suffering into words.” Reader after reader said that The Feminine Mystique helped her realize that her desire to use her education and pursue a career didn’t mean she loved her family any less or was a failure as a wife and mother.

At the same time, one of the most interesting chapters in A Strange Stirring is about a class that Friedan ignores: black, Hispanic and working-class white women. It includes the astonishing statistic that, in 1960, 64% of upper-middle-class black mothers held jobs outside the home, compared with just 27% of their white counterparts. Ms. Coontz argues that Friedan missed an opportunity to prove that women could indeed combine work with family responsibilities.

Many critics have faulted The Feminine Mystique for overselling the benefits of work. Ms. Coontz takes a different view. She argues that T__he Feminine Mystique__ overlooked the intangible rewards, such as a sense of confidence or independence, that women could gain from work that Friedan categorized as unskilled or menial. Ms. Coontz also notes, with disapproval and a bit of bewilderment, Friedan’s dismissal of housework as an occupation for the “feeble-minded” and her description of the suburban home as a “comfortable concentration camp.”

Ms. Coontz usefully debunks some of the myths that have grown up around The Feminine Mystique and Friedan, who went on to co-found the National Organization for Women and to fight for abortion rights. She spends little time on Friedan’s later career as a radical feminist—except to note in passing, in a delicious analogy, that the abrasive Friedan was a kind of liberal Ann Coulter, with “less leg and more brain.” Friedan once threatened to shout “orgasm, orgasm, orgasm!” on the air if the TV host didn’t give her the extra minutes she wanted.

Ms. Coontz rejects the conservative caricature of The Feminist Mystique as anti-marriage. Friedan never recommended that women leave their families or pursue full-time careers, she says, and the recommendations found in the book’s final chapter, “A New Life Plan for Women,” sound remarkably like those heard today from social conservatives. Friedan assumed that mothers would want to stay home or work part time when their children were young. She urged them to pursue volunteer work or take classes that would prepare them for a career when their children left home.

Nor does The Feminine Mystique bash men, Ms. Coontz says. Friedan was “optimistic” about marriage and once suggested that her tombstone read: “She helped make women feel better about being women and therefore better able to freely and fully love men.”

In her concluding paragraphs, Ms. Coontz peers over the horizon and puts forward an unpersuasive vision of a utopian feminist future. But that’s a small fault in what is mostly an illuminating analysis of the book that helped launch the movement that freed women to participate more fully in American society.

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