Open Book

The Most Famous Book Never Read

What Makes the Feminine Mystique so Special?

Magazine Issue
May/June 2011
Bookmarks May-June 2011

A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s
by Stephanie Coontz
Basic Books, 222 pgs

Freud famously asked what women want. In her 1963 major bestseller, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan provided an answer that resonated throughout America: they wanted to escape the stereotyped yoke of femininity, and be freed to become full human beings.

A must-read in its era, Friedan’s book became a touchstone for a generation of middle-class women relieved to discover that they were neither alone nor crazy in their desire to find meaning, expression, and personal identity beyond the social and psychological trap Friedan called “the feminine mystique,” a life defined by hubby, 2.5 children, housework, and a well-appointed suburban home—all of which, conventional opinion insisted, should satisfy them. The book hit a cultural nerve, provoking as much controversy as agreement, generating buzz long before that word became commonplace. It not only helped jump-start the dormant women’s movement (with Friedan among its top leaders): it made the very term feminine mystique a symbol of female oppression, embodying everything women’s liberation opposed. Even now, close to five decades later, the book generates extreme reactions. In 2006, for instance, the right-wing magazine Human Events ranked it the seventh most harmful book of the last two centuries. Only the year before, a New York University–sponsored survey of the best books of journalism of the 20th century placed it at number 37 on its list of honor.

This kind of notoriety, positive and negative, suggests that the work holds a secure place on the library shelf. But how often is it taken down and actually read? Near the start of her engrossing new book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, noted social historian Stephanie Coontz admits that she herself believed she’d read Friedan’s opus long ago—that is, until she actually opened a copy and realized she hadn’t. It was her mother, a housewife in Salt Lake City, who’d read it, in 1964, after Coontz had left home for college. Coontz’s mom had so filled their weekly, long-distance telephone conversations with insights garnered from Friedan that Coontz seemed to have absorbed the book by osmosis.

Flash forward to the mid-2000s, when Coontz began researching her own book about The Feminine Mystique and actually did read it. She found much of it tedious and dated, frustratingly narrow in its predominant focus on middle-class white women, and in some passages, shockingly homophobic. Then she had an “aha moment”: what had made the book important wasn’t Coontz’s response now, but what it had meant to women—like her mother—who’d read it when it was first published. That’s the story Coontz tells here, and it’s an urgent reminder that equality is an issue that does, indeed, speak to the personal as well as the political.

Here, as in her previous books, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap and The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America’s Changing Families, Coontz does what she does best: differentiates between what we think we know about marriage and family life in previous generations and the historical reality. In this case, that means providing a fresh assessment of the impact that Friedan’s book had on women of different classes and racial backgrounds, even beyond its white, middle-class, target audience. It also means distinguishing between Friedan’s relatively tame (especially when read now) propositions for giving women the choice to work versus the radical, man- and marriage-hating diatribes that so many pundits (then and now) falsely read into and projected onto Friedan’s pages, basing their fearmongering accusations on exaggerated caricatures of the book, rather than on the book itself. (No, Friedan never told women to burn their bras or to abandon their marriages en masse, but she did encourage women “to live their own lives again according to a self-chosen purpose.” Also, she counseled that “They must begin to grow.”)

Friedan herself exaggerated when she claimed credit for single-handedly reviving the women’s movement. Although the extraordinary popularity of The Feminine Mystique certainly helped herald a revolution, it was a protest whose time had already been made ripe in the 1950s by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and by sociologists such as Mirra Komarovsky of Barnard College, who pioneered the study of gender roles and whose book Women in the Modern World anticipated Friedan’s work by 10 years. These and other influential women all argued for more-flexible gender roles. Friedan’s book, which borrowed from her higher-brow predecessors while aiming at a broader readership, provided the tipping point.

Friedan did so not just by giving voice to women who felt silenced by the prevailing ethos; she spoke in their voice. She began her now-classic account by describing the “strange stirring” of discontent—“the problem that has no name”—that lurked beneath the pasted-on happy face of domestic bliss that so many middle-class housewives felt compelled to wear. This outward image of conformity was the badge of post-World War II’s new and improved version of “normalcy”: an affluent, consumer-oriented society, in which men went to work and women stayed home with the kids. The fact that those early Baby Boom years of the 1950s and 1960s coincided with the red-baiting reign of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the cold war added to the societal message (and social norm) that it was distinctly “unfeminine”—if not downright unpatriotic—for a woman to yearn for something other than the American Dream of homebound domesticity.

There seemed no escaping this message, even in escapist television entertainment, with popular series like Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It To Beaver portraying housewives who wore pearls, dresses, and high heels to do the vacuuming, bake cakes from scratch (in immaculate kitchens), and serve milk and cookies to the kids after school. Employers assumed no sane woman would want to forgo such pleasures, and it was perfectly legal—and common—for interviewers to ask about a woman’s plans for marriage and motherhood if she did dare apply for a job. In one of the more egregious examples of the era’s attitude toward the very idea of a mother wishing to pursue a career, when one airline stewardess became pregnant, the airline generously offered her the option of resigning or, if she decided to stay on the job, putting her child in an orphanage.

At home, as well as on the job, basic legal protections we now take for granted didn’t exist or were generally ignored, whether for sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, domestic abuse, or rape. Abortion, of course, was illegal, and birth control for single women was difficult, if not impossible, to come by.

Nor did the therapeutic professions offer much comfort to women seeking help, whether to escape from violent relationships or to further their personal or career development. Indeed, reinforcing the mindset of the feminine mystique was the prevalence of Freudian ideas about women who castrated their men and made their children neurotic through “smother-love” (beware those mother fixations!) or became “icebox mothers,” who didn’t care enough and “caused” their kids to become autistic. Such messages could be wildly contradictory as to why this was all the fault of women, but the finger of social blame was somehow always pointed at them, even by the psychology profession. Indeed, in the same year that The Feminine Mystique was published, one psychiatrist opined that most family ills could be traced to women’s “distorted perceptions” and lack of understanding of the “feminine social role.”

If the retrospective shock of the reality of the bad old days is nothing less than bracing, then imagine the revelatory impact upon first reading Friedan in 1963. “I thought I must be crazy” was the most common refrain Coontz read in the numerous letters women wrote thanking Friedan for her book shortly after its publication. Even decades later, in the 188 retrospective interviews Coontz conducted as part of her research, she heard the phrase again and again. One woman had felt only worse after seeing two psychiatrists, she told Coontz; then she read Friedan’s book, and she “realized that what I thought might be wrong with me, was in fact right with me!” As the renowned social scientist Lillian Rubin, who read the book in 1963 when her own life was in flux, put it, “It was like having a pain and finally your doctor tells you, your pain actually has a source. You aren’t imagining it.”

The validation, insight, and vision of untapped possibilities in its pages made The Feminine Mystique more than just a self-help book, Coontz writes, but the one and only self-help book that many women ever needed. In a welcome relief from Freudian ideals of femininity, Friedan emphasized Abraham Maslow’s humanistic psychology, which posited that beyond the basic needs of survival, women, as well as men, needed self-esteem, respect, and ways to fulfill their creative, intellectual, and moral potential.

To be sure, not everyone received The Feminine Mystique with enthusiasm, including those criticizing Friedan in 1963 (and even now) for ignoring women who didn’t fall within the white, educated, middle-class audience she’d targeted. Many women who were compelled to work to make a living—and then go home to the “second shift” of family responsibilities—couldn’t identify with “the feminine mystique,” and felt insulted by Friedan’s sometimes-demeaning attitude toward housework and the low-paying jobs that often were the only ones open to them. At the same time, Coontz relates, because of their unfamiliarity with Freudian ideas, many of these women tended to experience less guilt and self-doubt about their dual roles in and out of the household than the more highly educated women who had access to psychotherapy.

Nor did Friedan’s book address the ways in which many black women had been successfully combining family, career, and social activism for decades. Coontz writes: “Long before Betty Friedan insisted that meaningful work would not only fulfill women as individuals but also strengthen their marriages, many African-American women shared the views of Sadie T. Alexander, an influential political leader in Philadelphia, who argued in 1930 that working for wages gave women the ‘peace and happiness’ essential to a good home life.”

So why did Friedan’s book seem purposefully to ignore blue-collar housewives and African American women? Coontz believes that Friedan, a lifelong union supporter and leftist living in post-McCarthy America, consciously chose to downplay her own political background, along with her personal beliefs about class oppression and her support for the civil-rights movement. These omissions no doubt helped her avoid being branded as even more radical than she was, and allowed the publisher to focus its marketing efforts on a specific audience and demographic. But, Coontz asserts, by avoiding class and race issues, she missed the chance to use working-class white and African American women as examples of how to combine the roles and identities of wife and mother with job-holder or community activist.

Throughout, Coontz gives Friedan her due, the bad along with the good. Yes, Coontz writes, Friedan was prone to overstatement. To heighten the sense of the psychosocial plight of women in 1963, she highlighted the historical victory of the early women’s movement in winning the vote, while exaggerating women’s indifference to pursuing further goals in the 1930s and 1940s. Her repeated expressions of homophobia are now shocking to encounter, and she ignored the examples of working-class women and contributions of African American women who were among the early leaders of the civil-rights movement.

Friedan’s acute critique of what she called “the sexual sell” advertisers use to tap into women’s anxiety about their sexual attractiveness (their “hotness” in today’s terms) and mothering abilities (the pressure, these days, to be SuperMom) still resonates. Her emphasis on the importance of genuine, meaningful work for women—whether for pay, full-time, part-time, or as a volunteer—continues to empower women of all segments of society. Coontz points to the fact that the divorce rate has dropped in recent decades from its peak of 22.8 per 1,000 couples in 1979 to 16.7 per 1,000 couples in 2005. That this rate is lowest in states where a greater percentage of married women work outside the home, Coontz believes, bears out Friedan’s prediction that encouraging women’s sense of independence and individuality would lead to stronger domestic partnerships.

Coontz fills her book with so many affecting stories of women whose lives Friedan’s book changed that as I read, I couldn’t help thinking of my own mother, who’d left behind a career running kindergartens for the children of working women during World War II to marry my father and raise my brothers and me. And yet—or perhaps because of her own abandoned professional dreams—Mom absolutely instilled in me the importance of finding a way to balance career and family. “Don’t get stuck,” was the way Mom put it—her own shorthand for the feminine mystique that had thwarted some of her own aspirations. It’s a thread of personal history I hadn’t teased out until now, and I have Stephanie Coontz to thank—and by extension, Betty Friedan—for changing my life, too.


Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.