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48 years later, a fresh look at Friedan's 'Feminine Mystique'

Betty Friedan would relish this moment.

Nearly half a century after publication of her paradigm-altering treatise, "The Feminine Mystique," she is back in the limelight.

Social historian Stephanie Coontz's new book -- "A Strange Stirring: 'The Feminine Mystique' and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s" -- is handing us a fresh look at Friedan, the feminist author who told American housewives of the mid-20th century that they were being sold a bill of goods by a society that saw only one, three-pronged role for them: Wife, mother, homemaker.

For some of us, this is a jolting "remember when;" for others, a slice of history forgotten all too soon. For all of us, there remains relevance.

" 'The Feminine Mystique' has been credited -- or blamed -- for destroying, single-handedly and almost overnight, the 1950s consensus that women's place was in the home," Coontz writes, recalling that, at Friedan's death, in 2006, "dozens of news accounts reported that 'The Feminine Mystique' ignited the women's movement, launched a social revolution, and 'transformed the social fabric' of the United States and countries around the world."

Not all scholars, including Coontz, give Friedan quite that much credit. But no one can deny that her book was a bombshell -- zeroing right in on what Friedan called "the problem that has no name," the mysterious angst of millions of housewives.

As Friedan put it in the memorable first paragraph of her 1963 shocker, "The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning Each suburban housewife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children lay beside her husband at night she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question -- 'Is this All?' "

That "strange stirring," Friedan maintained, stemmed from the American dream of the years following World War II when a "mystique of feminine fulfillment" developed, painting an idyll wherein a woman was to be "healthy, beautiful, educated, concerned only about her husband, her children, her home."

Nowhere, Friedan lamented, did society take into account women's needs for personal identity and personal meaning in their lives.

No wonder so many of them "felt so anxious about their femininity and so guilty about their aspirations," Coontz notes in her book. "It's not your fault, Friedan told them, that you feel trapped and discontented. The fault lies with the way society has denigrated and wasted your capacities Strange though it may seem today, many women in the 1950s and early 1960s had never heard anyone say that out loud."

Reading "The Feminine Mystique" in recent times, Coontz found, she says, "much of it boring and dated The book seemed repetitive and overblown. It made claims about women's history that I knew were oversimplified, exaggerating both the feminist victories of the 1920s and the anti-feminist backlash of the 1940s and 1950s."

Coontz was intrigued by Friedan's "account of how she had 'lived according to the feminine mystique as a suburban housewife' and only gradually come to see that something was wrong" But Coontz, like others before her, couldn't overlook the fact that Friedan's "generalizations about women seemed so limited by her white middle-class experience that I thought the book's prescriptions for improving women's lives were irrelevant to working-class and African-American women."

What Coontz set out to do in her own book, she says, was "to tell the story of the generation of women who responded most fervently to what Friedan had to say -- a group of women whose experiences and emotions are poorly understood today"

In this, Coontz the scholar is very much at home -- giving us an exhaustively researched (although often dry) book that includes not only a history of the "waves" of women's movements in the U.S. but a critique and full accounting of the Friedan book's impact from 1963 to the present along with thoughts and memories from women for whom "The Feminine Mystique" was a rude awakening.

"Many states," Coontz points out, "still had 'head and master' laws, affirming that the wife was subject to her husband. And the expectation that husbands had the right to control what their wives did or even read was widespread. In many states, a woman was obliged to take her husband's surname A woman who did not change the name on her driver's license or voter registration upon marriage could have it revoked until she did At least five states required court approval (for women) before opening a business in their own name Married or single, women had a much more difficult time than men in getting financial credit"

Women who wanted to work faced obstacles: "There were no laws preventing employers from firing female employees if they got married or got pregnant, or from refusing to hire married women or mothers at all." For those who were able to find work, "there was no recourse against what we now call sexual harassment." There was also discrimination against women "in pay, promotion and treatment on the job."

A popular saying at the time was that men went to college to get a good job -- women, to get a good husband. Thus the "mystique" -- the pretty, educated, suburban housewife of the women's magazines, a spouse like the Betty Draper of the early episodes of "Mad Men," looking content on the outside while inwardly seething (and feeling confused and guilty about it to boot).

Coontz puts a lot on her plate here while keeping everything in perspective, citing feminists who chastised Friedan for "failing to confront male privilege in the home" while defending Friedan from those who believed her book to be a call to arms, and to full-time employment.

"Contrary to many caricatures of the work, 'The Feminine Mystique' never urged women to leave their families or even to pursue full-time careers," Coontz writes.

Friedan, it should be noted, wasn't the first to point out women's inequities of the time but she was the wisest, targeting her audience -- of white, educated, suburban housewives -- with a book that spoke with the simple language of the women's magazines most of them read.

Coontz faults her, in retrospect, not only for overlooking working-class women, particularly African American women -- but for failing to reveal her background in labor and politics.

But Coontz also points out that many of today's women's centers and women's studies programs were started by disciples of "The Feminine Mystique."

Friedan herself went on to co-found and head the National Organization for Women, later helping establish the National Women's Political Caucus as well.

Thus it seems a shame that Coontz chose, in "A Strange Stirring," not to interview other leaders of that time, including Gloria Steinem who, with Friedan and others, was so instrumental in kick-starting the enormous strides women have made since.

But Coontz is spot-on when she lists "three themes" that, she notes, "resonate today":

"One is Friedan's forceful analysis of consumerism. 'The sexual sell,' as she termed it, is even more powerful than in the 1950s, although it is now most destructive for girls and teens Second is Friedan's defense of meaningful, socially responsible work -- paid or unpaid -- as a central part of women's identity And third is her insistence that when men and women share access to real meaning in their public lives, they can build happier relationships at home as well."

Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.

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

By Stephanie Coontz

Basic Books

222 pages, $25.95

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