A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s by Stephanie Coontz

A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s BY Stephanie Coontz. Basic Books. Hardcover, 248 pages. $25.
The cover of A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s

Though The Feminine Mystique is often cited as a founding text of second-wave feminism, reading it today reveals it to be a brilliant artifact—not a timeless classic. Betty Friedan’s lauded and notorious 1963 bestselling book skewers bygone stereotypes of femininity and homemaking with a provocative bluster that verges on camp. Its exaggerations, blind spots, and biases are a turn-off; its narrow scope is disappointing to those hoping for a comprehensive analysis of sexism or a broad agenda for social justice. But in its time, Friedan’s passionate account of “the problem with no name”—the malaise, emptiness, and frustration afflicting white middle-class wives and mothers in an era of postwar abundance—sounded an alarm in a shrunken world, the suburban “squirrel cage” where, she wrote, “the American woman is once again trapped.” Her exposé of what she called the “feminine mystique” (a passive domestic ideal that excluded women from intellectual pursuits and the public sphere) was a relief and inspiration to a generation of women who had been ushered back into the home by “voices of tradition and Freudian sophistication,” and who believed, in isolation, that their dissatisfaction was an aberration.

Social historian Stephanie Coontz’s new book, A Strange Stirring, is a “biography not of Betty Friedan the author, but of the book she wrote,” and Coontz doesn’t fawn over either one. She corrects some of the strategic fictions of Friedan’s early ’60s persona, showing that Friedan was not “just another unhappy housewife who stumbled upon her subject almost by accident,” but rather an author who once wrote for leftist and union publications, and later freelanced for women’s magazines. Coontz suggests Friedan’s casting of herself as a lone renegade, a writer working against a publishing industry that was inhospitable to her message, was typical of her tendency to elevate her accomplishments, “by exaggerating the hostility or disinterest with which her ideas were initially received.” She sees Friedan as a canny intellectual who peddled a romanticized, suffrage-era feminism against an exaggerated view of a cultish ’50s “housewife heroine,” and in the process, glossed over “the challenges to the feminine mystique that already existed in the 1950s.” In her chapter “African American Women, Working Class Women, and The Feminine Mystique,” Coontz fills in some of Friedan's most glaring blanks.

While Friedan’s scope and scholarship are not up to Coontz’s contemporary standards, the caveats, critical asides, and factual corrections that wind through A Strange Stirring ultimately do not undercut Coontz’s admiration for Friedan's intellectual achievement and popular success. Coontz is impressed by Friedan’s ability to package sophisticated ideas in vivid prose that moved a mass audience of apolitical housewives, and by her instinct for timing and marketing, which brought her “journalistic tour de force” to mainstream America. Coontz reconciles Friedan’s flawed text with its seemingly outsized influence, and deftly depicts the social context for the dramatic testimonials uncovered in Coontz’s research, the revelatory proto-feminist experiences shared by women of her mother’s generation: “Women who told [her] over and over that The Feminine Mystique transformed their lives, even that it actually ‘saved’ their lives, or at least their sanity.”

Friedan’s suggested remedies for the mental health crisis among trapped American housewives of the era were actually quite moderate; as Coontz explains, Friedan simply charged women with the task of restoring meaning to their lives through education, work, and community involvement. In contrast, her rhetoric was often extreme. She angrily picked apart mass-circulation women’s magazines, such as Ladies’ Home Journal and McCall’s, describing them as infantilizing and sinister. Their bloated type-size resembled that of “a first-grade primer;” the male editors were “Frankensteins” responsible for “the feminine monster . . . the housewife wearing eye makeup as she vacuums.”

Coontz especially approves of Friedan’s striking chapter “the Sexual Sell,” an indictment of Madison Avenue’s postwar reprogramming of femininity. Here, Friedan writes, “the really important role that women serve as housewives is to buy more things for the house,” fulfilling an unspoken national economic mandate for sales—particularly of appliances—to “take the place of war contracts.” This is Friedan at her most compelling, and it's easier to accept what Coontz calls Friedan’s “overblown” writing. Her critique of American consumer culture as a seductive siphon of women’s creativity and ambition—its promises and betrayals calculated in terms of gender—is still relevant today. Friedan’s analysis in these passages feels more radical, openly leftist, and less encumbered by the assumed limitations of an imaginary housewife, as though Friedan trusted that her readers would relate to this portrait of contemptuous capitalist manipulation. Coontz writes that it “provided the clinching piece of evidence for many readers that they had indeed been the target of a massive and cynical campaign to erase the feminist aspirations of the 1920s and turn women into mindless consumers.”

Coontz carefully details how bad things were for women as a class during this time: marital rape was legal and abortion was not; sexual harassment and sex discrimination were unnamed and socially accepted realities for women who worked outside the home. She notes that contemporary readers may be puzzled to find that Friedan’s first and most famous work doesn’t mention these issues, and “contained no call for women to band together to improve their legal and political rights.”

Friedan, of course, would later make her career by demanding redress for women on all of these fronts (as a founder and the first president of the National Organization for Women, and as a lifelong activist). If she can be forgiven for not taking up these causes earlier, and for narrowing her focus to a group of women paying “the price of privilege” in cozy traps, then her debut can be understood as profound (as Coontz argues it should be). The interviewees of A Strange Stirring show how The Feminine Mystique spoke to the despair and untapped energies of a group of women caught between feminism’s first and second waves, “women who might otherwise have been lost entirely to themselves and to the women’s movement.” Coontz’s reverent documentation of their reflections, and her clear-eyed review of the social data and cultural contradictions of the time, comprise a fascinating and important study. A Strange Stirring is not propelled by the incendiary prose and probably won’t have the mass appeal of A Feminine Mystique, but it is a book of rigor and undeceiving, one worthy of Friedan’s tradition.

Johanna Fateman is a writer, musician, and owner of Seagull Salon in New York City.