A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique & American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s by Stephanie Coontz Download (read online) free eBook .pdf.epub.kindle

A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique & American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s

In 1963, Betty Friedan unleashed a storm of controversy with her bestselling book, The Feminine Mystique. Hundreds of women wrote to her to say that the book had transformed, even saved, their lives. Nearly half a century later, many women still recall where they were when they first read it. In A Strange Stirring, historian Stephanie Coontz examines the dawn of the 1960s,

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    K

    Apr 27, 2015

    rated it
    really liked it

    I enjoy Stephanie Coontz’s books, with their critical analysis of the way we think things were historically vs. factual evidence. This book overlapped a little with her book on marriage but focused on myths and facts surrounding The Feminine Mystique and its impact, both perceived and actual.

    In her introduction, Coontz tells us that The Feminine Mystique “has been credited — or blamed — for destroying…the 1950s consensus that women’s place was in the home.” Passionate opinions abound about w

    In her introduction, Coontz tells us that The Feminine Mystique “has been credited — or blamed — for destroying…the 1950s consensus that women’s place was in the home.” Passionate opinions abound about whether this was a good thing or a bad thing, including many from people who’ve never actually read the book. When Coontz finally read the book, she discovered that she found it “boring and dated…repetitive and overblown,” as well as making oversimplified claims about feminism in the 1920s and antifeminist reactionary sentiments in the 1940s and 1950s. Friedan was also not exactly liberated by today’s standards — she opined against homosexuality, failed to acknowledge the experience of people of color, and was actually not as single-minded about women working outside the home as she is perceived to be.

    Coontz begins by acknowledging that the early 1960s was in fact a time of much institutionalized sexism in America. She writes about Freudian psychiatrists promoting ideas that if a woman felt dissatisfied in her wife/mother role, there was clearly something wrong with her rather than with her situation. Coontz notes that Friedan did not actually challenge the notion that women should be wives and mothers. Rather, Friedan gave voice to the fact that many housewives, while striving mightily to convince themselves and others that they were content to revolve their lives around the routines of housework and childcare, felt a deep insecurity, self-doubt, and unhappiness that they could not articulate. This was a message which spoke to a large number of 1960s housewives.

    According to Coontz, a prominent theme of The Feminine Mystique was that women, like men, want to feel that their lives have a greater meaning and purpose. Friedan argued that although a woman who could stay home and raise her children was arguably privileged, and may feel guilty for failing to appreciate her situation, she could still feel frustrated and stifled. This struck a chord with many women in this situation, who were struggling with depression and taking tranquilizers and blaming themselves for the dissatisfaction they felt. Interestingly, Coontz notes that “Nowhere does the book advocate that women pursue full-time careers or even suggest that women ask their husbands to help them with childcare and housework if they went to school or took a job.” In fact, many later feminists felt that The Feminine Mystique failed to confront male privilege in the home. Friedan simply advocated for women to “pursue and education and develop a life plan that would give meaning to the years after her children left home.” This agenda was hardly a militant one.

    According to Coontz, Friedan argued that following women’s suffrage and the first wave of feminism in the 1920s, the Great Depression and World War II resulted in a backlash that drove women back into the home out of a need for family stability in trying times. Friedan added that manufacturers saw the population of homemakers as ideal consumers, and promoted household goods as a source of self-actualization for women in these roles. She named other sources as well as promoting the idea that women should feel entirely fulfilled in homemaking roles and have no need for any other outlets. However, Coontz adds, Friedan’s account does not exactly jive with actual history.

    Although successful activism by women for the sake of women’s suffrage resulted in progress, feminism in the 1920s was not a monolithic movement and many expressed discomfort with the changes on this front. More women began working at this point, but it was a time of glaring double standards and inequalities. Further, having gained the vote, feminism lost a unifying cause and the threat of fascism in the 1930s became more of a concern than women’s rights. Additionally, a review of popular articles published in the late 1940s and 1950s suggests that Friedan’s ideas were not as novel as people believe; in fact, feminist ideas were being voiced and the ideal of a woman staying home was being challenged in a variety of quarters. In other words, although there was some truth to Friedan’s views of feminist history from the 1920s until the 1960s, the picture was more complex than she acknowledges.

    That being said, Coontz acknowledges that reading The Feminine Mystique was transformative for many women. Many women describe The Feminine Mystique as liberating them from the self-blame they experienced as they struggled with anxiety and depression in their roles as homemakers, sometimes with difficult marriages. Although Friedan’s claims had been anticipated by some earlier scholars, Friedan’s book reached a wider audience and was therefore perceived as original. Some women credit Friedan with giving them the courage to leave their unhappy marriages; however, Friedan was actually not anti-marriage. Friedan’s argument was that marriages would be happier when women no longer tried to meet all of their needs through their assigned roles as wives and mothers, not that women should leave their marriages. In fact, Coontz encountered women (and men!) who reported that reading The Feminine Mystique actually helped their marriages.

    According to Coontz, many critics dismiss The Feminine Mystique “as written by a middle-class housewife who did not understand the needs of working women or minorities and who addressed problems unique to elite, educated readers.” Coontz notes that the book was clearly biased in favor of women from middle-class backgrounds, and had its biggest impact on women who were college-educated but could not see how to integrate their education with their adult life as wives and mothers. This was certainly a different problem from women who were working out of necessity, although some working-class women embraced The Feminine Mystique as well. Coontz is sympathetic, noting that although the pain of women struggling with hardship and deprivation should clearly not be overlooked, the internal struggles of middle class women experiencing role conflict are worth examining as well.

    In her final chapters, Coontz notes that Friedan exaggerates the originality of her ideas and fails to acknowledge some of her source material. The Feminine Mystique was not actually ahead of its time, according to Coontz, who states that books “don’t become bestsellers because they are ahead of their time. They become bestsellers when they tap into concerns that people are already mulling over, pull together ideas and data that have not yet spread beyond specialists and experts, and bring these all together in a way that is easy to understand and explain to others.” Rather than innovating, The Feminine Mystique “synthesized a wide range of scholarly research and contemporary social criticism.”

    Coontz also notes that Friedan exaggerated the “hostile reception” her book received; in fact, she had a large number of supporters. According to Coontz, “The women’s movement certainly would have taken off without Friedan’s book.” What Friedan did accomplish, though, was “lifting so many women out of such deep self-doubt and despair.” Coontz describes The Feminine Mystique as a “journalistic tour de force, combining scholarship, investigative reporting, and a compelling personal voice.” According to Coontz, Friedan’s “insistence on the need to break down prevailing assumptions about women, work, and family and to look for the societal origins of dilemmas that are often experienced as purely personal remains extremely relevant.”

    Coontz describes Friedan as far from a “‘man hater.'” Rather, she was “consistently, almost romantically, optimistic about heterosexual love and marriage in a world where women were men’s equals.” According to Coontz, although sociologists and economists correctly predicted that women with more resources would be more likely to walk away from an unsatisfying marriage, after an initial increase the divorce rate actually began to decline after the 1980s. More women are happily integrating careers and motherhood, and more men are helping with housework, even if their wives stay home. The lowest level of life satisfaction is not reported by stay-at-home mothers or by working mothers — rather, it’s reported by those who have had one of these paths forced on them when their preference is the other path.

    Coontz argues that we have come a long way since The Feminine Mystique; however, we have some new problems. According to Coontz, in out time of increasingly liberal dress norms, young girls are increasingly preoccupied with looking “hot” without looking “slutty,” and this early emphasis can lead to girls becoming sexually active before they are emotionally ready. Coontz adds that as a society, we continue to give conflicting messages about motherhood and work as well as promoting the myth that stay-at-home mothers and working mothers are divided into two hostile camps and sides must be taken about who is “right.” According to Coontz, while most women desire some combination of professional development and hands-on motherhood, rigid work policies create a reality where one of these goals must take a backseat, even if it is no longer sacrificed entirely. Today, “…few workers have the luxury of a full-time caregiver at home, even though obligations to children last longer than in the past…” and “…employees who do earn enough to support a family…are often forced to work more hours than they really need or want.” Coontz notes that other countries set limits on the maximum length of the workweek and are more generous with subsidized parenting leaves.

    I remember learning in high school that The Feminine Mystique rocked American society, and in my religious circles, feminism is often blamed for the breakdown of families and all sorts of societal ills. It was fascinating to examine this rhetoric through the lens of a historical look at the book that supposedly — though not actually — launched the movement.


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    Susan Albert

    A Strange Stirring is an excellent “biography of a book” that sets The Feminine Mystique in its historical context. I grew up in the 1950s, read Friedan’s book in 1964, and was strongly influenced by it. In its time, for Friedan’s intended audience, it was a powerful book. It has come under fire in recent decades by people who weren’t there when it came out and don’t understand how it felt to be a fifties woman. A Strange Stirring sets the record straight. Kudos to author Stephanie Coontz for a

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    Veronica

    Jan 23, 2011

    rated it
    really liked it

    I’ve described A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique & American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s by Stephanie Coontz to others as a historical look at the women who read The Feminine Mystique, the impact of the book on their lives and a look at the myth of Betty Friedan. For a women’s history nerd like me, this book was awesome. Admittedly, the semester took it’s toll on how quickly, or rather how slowly, I read this book as this review was supposed to be included in Girl w/Pen’s salon bac

    I also have to admit that I’ve never read The Feminine Mystique. I know, I know…but Coontz also talked to women who didn’t read the book either! The mythology surrounding TFM is so strong that it has touched most of our lives whether we have read it or not. I believe the mythology of TFM is simply put that Betty Friedan, a 1950s housewife, wrote a book about how she discovered that her boredom of caring for the kids and cleaning the house lead her to single-handedly revive the feminist movement in the USA. This includes founding the National Organization for Women. The critiques focus on how the book and the mainstream feminist movement (NOW) were too focused on middle-class white women. Coontz painstakingly proves and disproves these myths.

    She also puts all the realities into historical perspective. Coontz is a historian and while some may think she is making excuses for how Friedan frames the issues in the book as well as tweaks Friedan made to her own backstory. Coontz outlines the often ignored/hidden feminist movement of the post-WW II era before the second wave officially begins with facts such as:

    …by 1955, a higher percentage of women worked for ages than ever had during the war. In fact, women’s employment rate grew four times faster than men’s during the 1950s.The employment of wives tripled and the employment of mothers increased fourfold. (page 59)

    The emotion that Friedan tapped into with TFM, according to Coontz, wasn’t that being married and a mom was a terrible thing, but that by having marriage & motherhood as THE goal in life, for most women in the 1950s, their life goals were achieved by 25. “..a few years after having children [they] found that they had no compelling goal left to pursue. As Cam Stivers said, it felt as if her life was already over (page 86).”

    The myth that Friedan was anti-marriage was explored and Coontz finds evidence that yes, some of the women who read TFM eventually divorced. But she also found that many of those women remarried and loved their second marriages. Coontz also talked with men who had read the book. Those men recounted how it helped them reframe how they saw marriage as more of a partnership.

    As for the whiteness of TFM, Coontz acknowledges this fact. She spends one chapter to answer this critique directly while educating readers on the often unacknowledged history of African-American women in the civil rights movement as well as their leadership in “balancing” work and family. Coontz interviewed African-American women who wrote to Friedan who were upset that Friedan thought working would solve housewives problems as well as those who said it steeled them against the “prejudices in graduate school or medical school (126).”

    I loved the chapter where Coontz lets Ruth Rosen’s working class critique take center stage. So many white working class women wrote to Friedan with essentially a “wah..wah..wah…” message. Women who were working their butts off at the office and at home and did not feel liberated. And the even-handedness of Coontz also shows us working-class women who used TFM as their only ally in their quest to attend college and postpone the marriage & baby carriage.

    Coontz ends the book with a look at how women are faring today. Did feminism kill marriage? Nope. The more education a woman gets, the more likely they are to marry. Did feminism kill sexiness? Nope. The more men contribute to housework, the happier they are in the bedroom! It’s not all fun and roses, but it’s not the gloom and doom that anti-feminists want us to believe.

    And lastly, does feminism hate mothers? Hell no! Coontz wrote an excellent op-ed in the NYTimes for Mother’s Day outlining how feminism has helped mothers by pushing for women to make their own choice about staying home with the kids, working outside the home or both depending on the family’s need. Most pressure on women to be a certain kind of mother usually comes from non-feminist talking heads.

    I really hope that everyone who has any opinion of what TFM did to our culture will read this book. It won’t convert those who fiercely opposes feminism, but those who hold moderate views or hesitate to call themselves feminists based on any of the myths this books debunks, will be moved to reexamine those beliefs. It will also allow for a re-examination of Friedan herself. For those of us who are fiercely feminist, this is a must read book. One who doesn’t know her history is bound to repeat it. And we all know how that turns out in the feminist movement. *wink*

    Disclaimers: I requested a copy from the author and am a big fan of her previous work.
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