The problem that had no name

A Strange Stirring:

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

It is no longer possible to ignore that voice, to dismiss the desperation of so many American women. This is not what being a woman means, no matter what the experts say. For human suffering there is a reason; perhaps the reason has not been found because the right questions have not been asked, or pressed far enough…. The women who suffer this problem have a hunger that food cannot fill…. We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: “I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.” —Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 1963

PUBLISHED ALMOST half a century ago, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is often credited with helping to launch the women’s liberation movement, providing the decisive spark to the long quiet but smoldering anger of women in the United States. While the book and its legacy are often contested, Friedan’s seminal work The Feminine Mystique, which exposed the “problem with no name,” was widely read, and played a crucial role in giving expression to the suffering of millions of women held hostage by the 1950s myth of the domestic bliss of the American housewife. That The Feminine Mystique was ranked theirty-seventh in a list of most important works of journalism by a panel of experts from New York University and seventh in a list of the ten most harmful books of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by the right-wing Human Events is a testament to its far-reaching and long-lasting influence. In A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, Stephanie Coontz provides a must-read history and analysis of the book and its role in galvanizing (and at times antagonizing) the burgeoning women’s liberation movement.

Through countless interviews and extensive research, Coontz explores The Feminine Mystique’s impact on a generation of women—many of whom felt the book literally saved their lives. As Coontz argues,

A half century after they read the book, many of the women I talked to could still recall the desperation that they had felt in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and their wave of relief when Friedan told them they were not alone and they were not crazy…. It is 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.

As Coontz makes clear, the book was far from radical. It argued that women would be better wives and mothers if they pursued other interests outside of the home in addition to their domestic duties, and Friedan often blames women for their own oppression. Despite these (and other) limitations, its central message inspired a generation of women who had internalized the 1950s mythology of the American housewife. This mythology was part of a conscious attempt to drive women back into the home after the Second World War and forcibly repress any memory of the gains made by women activists and radicals in the first half of the twentieth century.

It’s hard today to imagine just how radical the book’s message could be for women in 1963 without some sense of the overwhelming pervasiveness of women’s oppression in this period. Mad Men gives modern audiences a taste of sexism in the period, but it barely scratches the surface. Coontz devotes a chapter to exploring the lives of women in this era to highlight the oppressive weight of sexism on women’s lives. Reading this chapter is like walking through a veritable hall of horrors of women’s oppression. Women were routinely fired from jobs for being pregnant or getting married. The “Help Wanted” section was divided into male and female jobs with the female section littered with requests for “pretty receptionists.” Seventeen states restricted access to contraceptives. In Massachusetts, it was still a misdemeanor for anyone, married or not, to use birth control. Abortion was illegal everywhere—with some exceptions when a woman’s life was at risk.

Violence against women was not only tolerated, it was officially sanctioned. Rape was legal within a marriage. As Coontz notes, “Until 1981, Pennsylvania still had a law against a husband beating his wife after 10 p.m. or on Sunday, implying that the rest of the time she was fair game.” One of the most egregious and nauseating examples of the institutionalized violence against women was a 1964 article in the Archives of General Psychiatry, which published a study of thirty-seven women whose husbands had abused them. In general, it was found, women did not call the police until ten years after the violence began—often after a teenage child had intervened in an altercation. The point of the article was not to look at why women took so long to report these crimes. As Coontz notes,

The psychiatrists explained that the child’s intervention disturbed “a marital equilibrium which had been working more or less satisfactorily.” To hear them tell it, most problems in such marriages were the fault of the wives, whom they described as “aggressive, efficient, masculine, and sexually frigid.” In many cases, the psychiatrists suggested the violent incidents served as periodic corrections to the unhealthy family role reversal, allowing the wife “to be punished for her castrating activity” and the husband “to re-establish his masculine identity.”    

These examples provide a stark reminder of the reality of women’s lives in contrast to the glossy depiction of the happy housewife on magazine covers in that period.

At the same time, while Friedan depicts the 1950s as a period of passivity and conformity, Coontz points out that there were already revolutionary changes afoot which paved the way for the success of Friedan’s seminal work. Women’s employment was increasing rapidly, and there were substantial gains in education for women. Despite a changing reality, the massive growth in television and women’s magazines helped promulgate a “feminine mystique,” so that despite the fact that married women were more likely to be negative about marriage, they felt that they should be happy no matter the reality—and, if not, to blame themselves.

Coontz argues that “Friedan exaggerated the ubiquity of the happy housewife,” as women’s entrance into the workforce, increased education, and growing dissatisfaction—along with the inspiration provided by the civil rights movement in which many early feminists took part—began to produce contradictions that could not be contained by the Ozzie and Harriet narrative.

The Feminine Mystique itself is firmly rooted in the experiences and concerns of comparatively privileged white suburban housewives who had greater access to education than most working-class women and women of color. In one cringe-worthy passage in the book, she argues that hiring housekeepers and nannies would free women up to work—never mind the fact that this was hardly a liberatory prospect to the women who worked domestic jobs. The intense homophobia of The Feminine Mystique also underscores the limited audience Friedan had in mind—and anticipates the divisive role she would later play in the women’s liberation movement, referring to lesbian activists as “the lavender menace.”

One of the best chapters of Coontz’s history is devoted to working-class and African American women, who are entirely absent from Friedan’s work. Not surprisingly, The Feminine Mystique failed to resonate with these women—primarily because they already worked outside the home by necessity and rarely worked in the types of jobs that provided the fulfillment that Friedan advocated. For many of these women, the struggle for equality was not bound up in the struggle against the feminine mystique as Friedan defines it. In fact, working-class women and women of color were far less likely to see marriage and family as incompatible with work and political activism.

Coontz also takes issue with Friedan’s elitism in regard to her understanding of the relationship between work and women’s liberation. While Friedan encourages women to engage only in creative work that can provide opportunities to pursue their interests, Coontz argues that she downplays “the intangible rewards, such as a sense of self-confidence or independence that women could gain from work she dismissed as unskilled or menial.” She cites, for example, surveys that found that working women—even women who worked in jobs they hated—were frequently more satisfied with their lives as they valued the opportunity to interact with other people and the independence, sense of competence, and self-esteem that working provided.

Coontz also argues that Friedan downplays the role of radicals and the left in her own political development and that of the women’s liberation movement. While Friedan claims that she herself had come to the conclusions she expresses in The Feminine Mystique as a result of her own experience as a housewife and by interviewing women she knew, Friedan was in fact deeply immersed in the left in her early years as a journalist. Citing the research of Daniel Horowitz, Coontz eviscerates Friedan’s mythology of her past. In fact, she had been a political activist who was deeply concerned with issues of gender equality and social justice long before The Feminine Mystique. As a writer for union newspapers and other publications, Friedan was involved in struggles for workers’ rights, civil rights, women’s rights, and the Left.

If Friedan distanced herself from her leftist roots, she often took more credit for the birth of the women’s liberation movement than is due her. Coontz “demystifies” this image of Friedan as singlehandedly launching second-wave feminism and reminds us of the lesser-known networks of activists who had been organizing for years, laying the groundwork for what would become the women’s liberation movement. She nonetheless acknowledges the importance of Friedan’s work in providing one of the first widely read articulations of the discontent, anger, and desire for change felt by millions of women.

For all its (and its author’s) flaws, The Feminine Mystique is, as Coontz concludes, a crucial work for the women’s liberation movement, past, present, and future. Friedan inspired millions of women by encouraging them to see their own unhappiness as a collective problem, not a personal one, and thus, to seek collective solutions through struggle. As Coontz argues, Friedan invited people to struggle for “a world where men and women can both find meaningful, socially useful work and also participate in the essential activities of love and caregiving for children, partners, parents, friends and neighbors.” That struggle is more urgent than ever. 

Issue #93

Summer 2014

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