I begin this review with an admission: I have never read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). Neither, it turns out, have many American feminists. When author Stephanie Coontz set out to write a cultural history of the text she remembered having read the work … only to realize upon “rereading” it that, in fact, she had never read it in the first place. Interviewing women for the project, she discovered many similar stories: people who started out certain that they had read (and been profoundly influenced by) the text realized upon talking to Coontz that, in fact, they never had. This didn’t stop the book from having affected them deeply.
My girlfriend, Hanna, is actually one of the few people I’ve met who sat down and read the book. Or rather, tried to read the book: she found it so frustrating that it ultimately ended up on the opposite side of the room, after having been thrown violently against the wall. She holds it responsible, in part, for her long history of disillusionment and irritation with feminist activism. The only “strange stirring” it provoked in her was rage!
Nor did it speak to Coontz, who chronicles the anger and irritation she felt while “rereading” Mystique for the first time in her introduction to A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (New York: Basic Books, 2011) . From the moment it was published, many feminist activists and cultural critics took issue with the narrowness of its vision and the very individual solution it proffered for middle-class married women’s unhappiness. Basically: Don’t let your education go to waste while raising children (volunteer! take continuing education courses!) and once your kids are in school, consider going back to work. Hardly a revolutionary suggestion, despite Friedan’s background in radical politics (chronicled in Daniel Horowitz’s 1998 intellectual biography of Friedan). As Coontz writes, “When she was writing The Feminine Mystique in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Friedan did not choose to tackle issues of legal, economic, and political discrimination. Instead, she asked her readers to take a closer look at the supposedly happy housewife described in articles [published in women’s magazines] … The Feminine Mystique did not challenge the assertion that most housewives believed their ‘chief purpose’ was to be wives and mothers” (18).
Cultural critics claimed that the American gospel of success made too many women desire careers and lose their femininity in the process. Psychiatrists and marriage counselors suggested women’s dissatisfaction [with domestic life] originated in sexual maladjustment. All those explanations, Friedan argued, simply perpetuated the mystique surrounding the roles of wife and mother, denying women’s need for any other source of personal identity or meaning in their lives … (23)
To us, this argument hardly seems revolutionary. And yet women across the socioeconomic spectrum reported to Coontz in personal interviews that reading the book provoked intense feelings of relief: finally someone was giving them language to speak about the pent-up frustration, anger, uselessness, depression, and anxiety they felt inside but attributed to some personal failing rather than larger sociopolitical forces. A Strange Stirring explores the zeitgeist that Friedan tapped into when she wrote Mystique — the critical studies of postwar gender roles that presaged her own (phenomenally popular) work, the personal struggles of the women with whom the book struck a chord (and the “solutions” they tried that failed to help them) — and teases out the nuances of reception within different demographic groups. Coontz challenges us to take a fresh look at text that is both iconic and problematic within recent feminist intellectual history, and ask why and how such a flawed text came to mean so much to so many women during the mid-twentieth century.
Coontz offers us a comprehensive overview of the various discourses of gender that existed in postwar America, arguing that far from a cultural consensus that a “Leave it To Beaver” lifestyle was best, Americans were extremely ambivalent about gender roles and married life.
During the late 1940s and the 1950s, many women — especially those in the middle class — came to internalize society’s ambivelance about women’s nature and role in postwar America as a personal shortcoming rather than a societal contradiction. And precisely because they recognized how much better off [materially] they were than their parents and many contemporaries, those who did feel discontented also felt deeply guilty about it. Until they read The Feminine Mystique these women had no language to understand their conflicted feelings and no way to justify their inchoate desire to get ‘something else, something more, out of life (57).
While Coontz recognizes that not all women were in the middle class, subject to the specific “feminine mystique” straight jacket Friedan articulated, she encourages us to remember that in American culture middle class values are often the normative values: the way of life we are taught to aspire to or mimic as closely as possible, even if our particular class standing (or other contingent factors) preclude us from living up to the ideal. Further, she points out, the postwar vision of what it meant to be a wife and mother was much more all-encompassing than it had been during the Depression and Second World War: “Prior to the 1940s and 1950s, a woman was condemned if she did not do what was expected of her. In the 1950s, she was pitied if she did not want what was expected of her” (75; emphasis mine).
In other words, in previous generations if a woman chaffed against the duties of housework or childcare, voicing that discontent was acceptable. You wouldn’t necessarily be able to do anything to alter your circumstances — but you also weren’t expected to embrace those circumstances with joy. Being a wife and mother was women’s cross to bear. During the 1950s, such emotional distance from housewifely duties became unacceptable: a sign of serious maladjustment and possibly mental instability.
Coontz does an admirable job of navigating the complex relationship between a book and its readers: between what the author wrote and what the readers made of it. I was especially impressed by the range of voices we hear from in A Strange Stirring: working-class women, suburban married women, college-age daughters who were running like hell from the life of a middle-class housewife that their elders were pressuring them to accept. She points out how “middle class” is a deceptive label, masking the way in which the majority of middle-class, college-educated women of the 1950s and 60s generations were first generation college graduates, often under pressure from their working-class parents to conform to middle class standards of living as a sign they had “arrived.” Slightly younger women saw the desperation of their mothers lives and drew from The Feminine Mystique confirmation for their determination not to replicate their parents’ mistakes.
Two particular themes jumped out at me while reading Coontz’s history. The first was the personalization of systemic social problems: the fact that during the 1950s and early 1960s, women (and men) who did not aspire to the ideal of a middle class suburban lifestyle were encouraged to believe the problem lay with them: that they, as individuals, were responsible for their own discontent and if they just got their act together and went with the program, they’d be happy. On the one hand (thanks, in large part, to the feminist activists of the 1960s and 70s!) this emphasis on personal responsibility for discontent has been successfully challenged. Many of us do insist that “the personal is political,” and that many of our most intimate concerns are affected (positively and negatively) by the cultural and political context in which we live. We resist the idea that it is wholly the responsibility of the individual to conform to social expectations or live with the pain and marginalization of existing outside the boundaries of what is considered acceptable or normal.
And yet … the personalization of suffering, the willingness to blame individuals for their own misfortunes, and the resistance to understanding the negative effect that powerful normative pressure has on individual lives continues. Just look at the way in which we’ve personalized unemployment during this most recent recession.
The second theme, which I will pick up in next week’s booknote, is the continued relevance of mid-century critiques (The Feminine Mystique among them) of the way our society conceptualizes and organizes the relationship between wage-work and family life. Observers have, riffing off Friedan’s turn of phrase, called this the “career mystique”: “This is the idea that a successful career requires people to commit all their time and energy throughout their prime years to their jobs, delegating all caregiving responsibilities to someone else” (Coontz 183). Judith Warner suggests, in her book Perfect Madness (2005) that it might be understood as a “mommy mystique,” for not only does the career mystique require a delegation of caregiving responsibilities … but those responsibilities continue to remain, overwhelmingly, women’s work. And work that, much like in the 1950s, women are expected to embrace with joy (see Marie Anelle’s recent post about the self-sacrificial devotion which “good” mothers are expected to practice). I read Warner back-to-back with A Strange Stirring and plan to write a review next week — so stay tuned for more!
In the meantime, I’d love to hear any thoughts y’all have about The Feminine Mystique (have you read it?) and its place within mid-century feminist thought; the ways in which our cultural expectations of married life and motherhood have and have not changed since the 1950s; and anything any other thoughts this post has prompted. The floor is now open for discussion.