Stephanie Coontz's "A Strange Stirring," her assessment of "The Feminine Mystique"

By Elaine Showalter
Friday, January 21, 2011; 7:40 PM


The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s

By Stephanie Coontz

Basic. 222 pp. $25.95

When our daughter was born in 1965, my husband sat by the hospital bed dutifully reading Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" (1963). In her first paragraph, Friedan famously describes "a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning" in the minds of middle-class American housewives. "The Feminine Mystique" was the right book at the right time; it jolted women readers, including myself, into an awareness of their need "to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings," along with men. While Friedan didn't anticipate all the strategies of the women's liberation movement - she would help invent them a few years later - and didn't try to address all of women's problems, her message of self-development was very inspiring to me when I was in my 20s.

Although she is only a few years younger than I am, the eminent social historian Stephanie Coontz, whose books include "Marriage: a History" (2005), had not read "The Feminine Mystique" and grew up with the belief that Friedan was a great feminist pioneer for her mother's generation, not her own. When her editor suggested that she write about Friedan, Coontz was startled to discover that she found the book "repetitive and overblown," "boring and dated." She didn't like Friedan's egotism and simplifications of women's history in the 20th century either. No wonder, as she admits, "I wasn't sure of my ultimate focus."

This is not a very stirring declaration, and initially it seems that Coontz comes to bury Friedan rather than praise her. The first half of "A Strange Stirring," incorporating statistics, interviews and details about American women in the mid-20th century, reads like a dutiful book report, rather than a labor of love. Coontz decided to focus on the women who read "The Feminine Mystique" when it came out, the wives and daughters of the World War II veterans immortalized as the "greatest generation," perhaps the "Gallup generation," because every aspect of their lives seemed to have been measured and ranked by the Gallup Polls. She studied the emotional and intimate letters to Friedan in the archive at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard and interviewed nearly 200 people who had read Friedan's book soon after its publication and vividly recalled it. She also immersed herself in the major women's magazines of the time, getting a sense of the expectations and advice directed to women readers.

Discovering the actual lives of Friedan's first readers gave her insight into the impact of the book, and, she says, "gradually my appreciation . . . grew." Coontz's narrative catches fire when she tells the story of Anne Parsons, who wrote an eight-page letter to Friedan in 1963. The daughter of the famous Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons, who had asserted the importance of traditional gender roles in the family, Anne resisted this parental and social message and became an anthropologist. Yet she felt marginalized by colleagues who regarded her as "aggressive, competitive, rejecting of femininity." In despair, later that year she committed herself to a mental institution, and in 1964 she committed suicide. Coontz is also impressed by Constance Ahrons, one of her academic heroines, who reveals in her interview that "The Feminine Mystique" had rescued her from the limbo of depression and boredom and encouraged her to pursue a Ph.D. Coontz understands the plight of these talented academic women, but sees them as figures of the distant past.

Coontz's penultimate chapter, "Demystifying The Feminine Mystique," protests that Friedan did not single-handedly awaken American women, that the women's liberation movement had many origins and "certainly would have taken off without Friedan's book." She argues that Friedan built on the work of many unacknowledged precursors, including Mirra Komarovsky, Eve Merriam and Simone de Beauvoir. But Coontz concludes with a qualified defense: "It in no way disparages Friedan's accomplishments to point out that The Feminine Mystique was not ahead of its time," she writes. "Books don't became best sellers because they are ahead of their time. They become best sellers because 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." Coontz concedes that "The Feminine Mystique" was "powerful and moving" for its time, but she does not see it as relevant to the emerging young generation of the 1960s, to which both she and I belong. Her faint praise, I suspect, shows how rapidly and deeply Friedan's ideas have indeed changed the world our generation came to inhabit.

Elaine Showalter is professor emerita of English at Princeton University.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company