Stephanie Coontz will join me on my radio show on KRFCFM.org on October 3, 2011 – LB
bookforum.com, January 3, 2011
By Johanna Fateman
Though The Feminine Mystique is often cited as a founding text of second-wave feminism, reading it today reveals it to be a brilliant artifact—not a timeless classic. Betty Friedan’s lauded and notorious 1963 bestselling book skewers bygone stereotypes of femininity and homemaking with a provocative bluster that verges on camp. Its exaggerations, blind spots, and biases are a turn-off; its narrow scope is disappointing to those hoping for a comprehensive analysis of sexism or a broad agenda for social justice. But in its time, Friedan’s passionate account of “the problem with no name”—the malaise, emptiness, and frustration afflicting white middle-class wives and mothers in an era of postwar abundance—sounded an alarm in a shrunken world, the suburban “squirrel cage” where, she wrote, “the American woman is once again trapped.” Her exposé of what she called the “feminine mystique” (a passive domestic ideal that excluded women from intellectual pursuits and the public sphere) was a relief and inspiration to a generation of women who had been ushered back into the home by “voices of tradition and Freudian sophistication,” and who believed, in isolation, that their dissatisfaction was an aberration.
Social historian Stephanie Coontz’s new book, A Strange Stirring, is a “biography not of Betty Friedan the author, but of the book she wrote,” and Coontz doesn’t fawn over either one. She corrects some of the strategic fictions of Friedan’s early ’60s persona, showing that Friedan was not “just another unhappy housewife who stumbled upon her subject almost by accident,” but rather an author who once wrote for leftist and union publications, and later freelanced for women’s magazines. Coontz suggests Friedan’s casting of herself as a lone renegade, a writer working against a publishing industry that was inhospitable to her message, was typical of her tendency to elevate her accomplishments, “by exaggerating the hostility or disinterest with which her ideas were initially received.” She sees Friedan as a canny intellectual who peddled a romanticized, suffrage-era feminism against an exaggerated view of a cultish ’50s “housewife heroine,” and in the process, glossed over “the challenges to the feminine mystique that already existed in the 1950s.” In her chapter “African American Women, Working Class Women, and The Feminine Mystique,” Coontz fills in some of Friedan’s most glaring blanks.
While Friedan’s scope and scholarship are not up to Coontz’s contemporary standards, the caveats, critical asides, and factual corrections that wind through A Strange Stirring ultimately do not undercut Coontz’s admiration for Friedan’s intellectual achievement and popular success. Coontz is impressed by Friedan’s ability to package sophisticated ideas in vivid prose that moved a mass audience of apolitical housewives, and by her instinct for timing and marketing, which brought her “journalistic tour de force” to mainstream America. Coontz reconciles Friedan’s flawed text with its seemingly outsized influence, and deftly depicts the social context for the dramatic testimonials uncovered in Coontz’s research, the revelatory proto-feminist experiences shared by women of her mother’s generation: “Women who told [her] over and over that The Feminine Mystique transformed their lives, even that it actually ‘saved’ their lives, or at least their sanity.”
Friedan’s suggested remedies for the mental health crisis among trapped American housewives of the era were actually quite moderate; as Coontz explains, Friedan simply charged women with the task of restoring meaning to their lives through education, work, and community involvement. In contrast, her rhetoric was often extreme. She angrily picked apart mass-circulation women’s magazines, such as Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall’s, describing them as infantilizing and sinister. Their bloated type-size resembled that of “a first-grade primer;” the male editors were “Frankensteins” responsible for “the feminine monster . . . the housewife wearing eye makeup as she vacuums.”