A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s
Basic Books, 2011
248 pp., $25.95
Naomi Schaefer Riley
The 'Feminine Mystique,' Revisited
Coontz reminds us that one major target of Friedan's anger was Sigmund Freud. Women who, after years of education, found that they were not stimulated enough by cooking and cleaning and taking care of children, were told there must be something wrong with them. Some began taking medication—"mother's little helper"—while others received electroshock therapy. As Coontz writes, "Psychiatrists increasingly focused on Freud's notion of 'penis envy,' which, they declared, led many women to reject the passivity that women needed to reach true sexual fulfillment, thus dooming themselves and their families to maladjustment and misery."
Such psychobabble, however harmful, was a luxury. Working-class women were not the intended audience of The Feminine Mystique. (What would they have made of Friedan's disparagement of housework and her recommendation that women hire maids while they found more meaningful jobs?) Still, among a fairly wide swath of educated women, lectured by magazines and psychologists and politicians and parents who told them to be satisfied, Friedan's book did spark a revolution of sorts, however limited.
As Coontz points out, Friedan's work drew heavily on that of lesser-known researchers, and she did not always credit them. Moreover, her book didn't do much to address structural inequalities or job discrimination. Writes Coontz: "She did not advocate that women organize to oppose the multitude of laws and practices that relegated women to second-class citizenship, restricted their access to many jobs, and gave husbands the final say over family decisions and finances." Today, of course, The Feminine Mystique would hardly qualify as feminist. It doesn't say anything about universal childcare or the wage gap. Friedan evolved into a feminist leader, but the book that put her on the map was one in which the personal remained very much personal.
Nevertheless, Coontz thinks that Friedan has something to say to women today. For one thing, she cites evidence that women don't make up a representative portion of the United States Congress or of Fortune 500 CEOs, and concludes: "The glass ceiling is not yet shattered." In an otherwise even-keeled book, such statements stick out like obnoxious bumper stickers. Since, as Coontz herself writes, marital quality tends to fall when women work more than 45 hours a week, women may well decide of their own accord to stay out of such high-powered positions.
But Friedan's theme that women's choices are heavily influenced by cultural ideals of what they should be is a timeless one. Though Coontz says that women today don't have to choose between intellectual fulfillment and marriage—recent research shows that in fact the two go hand-in-hand these days—American culture has certainly suggested otherwise. Women are told by some that they are neglecting their kids if they work outside the home and by others that they are setting women back generations if they stay at home.
Perhaps the lesson is simply that in a society with a free exchange of ideas and a vibrant (and sometimes overwhelming) popular culture, there will always be pressures pushing us in one direction or another. Indeed, for the women who have become obsessed with striking the right work-family balance—feeling guilty about whatever choice they make—maybe Friedan's best lesson is this: skip the therapy.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a former Wall Street Journal editor and writer whose work focuses on higher education, religion, philanthropy, and culture. She is the author of God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America (St. Martin's). She is currently working on a book about tenure in higher education.
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