Author Demystifies "The Feminine Mystique"

Ever since "The Feminine Mystique" was published in 1963, the book, which debunked the idea that women's only role in life is to be a wife and mother, has been hailed as the spark that ignited the feminist movement and radically reshaped the aspirations of American women – or decried as a subversive manuscript that upset the harmony of American life and turned men and women against each other.

So when Stephanie Coontz, author of "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1060s," first read the book by Betty Friedan, co-founder of the National Organization of Women, she was amazed that it was so bland, so "mealy-mouthed."

But, as Coontz told a crowd at the Soda Center on May 5 during her lecture, titled "Mad Men, Working Girls and Desperate Housewives: The 1960s and the Feminine Mystique," it's only because the book touched a raw nerve and so transformed our views of women's place in society that it seems unremarkable today.

The Way It Was

She reminded the mostly college-age crowd of the way it was back then. Males were stereotyped as independent and aggressive and women as dependent and passive. A married woman had to use her husband's name on a credit card. Help Wanted ads were segregated into Male and Female columns. And she told them about her own experiences, like the time when she was pulled aside by a grade school teacher and told, "The boys would like you better if you didn't use such big words."

But society was already changing, and the myth of the feminine mystique was being questioned. "By the mid-60s, it had suddenly become desirable for women to get a college education," Coontz said, "but it still wasn't desirable for them to use that education once they got their MRS degree." No wonder they felt "a strange stirring," an unspoken discontent.

Enter Betty Friedan, with the message that the accepted wisdom was a bunch of hooey and that women as well as men need education and fulfilling work to be truly actualized. In the context of the time, says Coontz, "it was a very radical thing to say, a very necessary thing to say."

Coontz, whose book "Marriage, A History" is considered the definitive work on the subject, found fault with some parts of Friedan's work, particularly its fast-and-loose approach to history, but ultimately realized just how crucial it was. She interviewed more than 200 men and women for "A Strange Stirring," and found that many of them were so moved by the book that they could remember right where they were when they first read it.

Old Mystiques and New Mystiques

Today, Coontz believes "the old feminine mystique is just about gone." In an interview, she said, "today's young women understand that motherhood and marriage don't have to be cages." Still, as women continue to struggle with work-life balance, its message sometimes seems surprisingly modern.

And contrary to fears expressed at the time – and since then – that working outside the home would erode the institutions of marriage and family, she said research has shown that women who have a college education have a better chance of marrying, a lower chance of divorce and higher self-esteem. Divorce rates are falling, she added, and studies show that when a woman takes a job, it actually stabilizes the marriage and that the more egalitarian the marriage, the more stable it is.

But she warned that new mystiques have cropped up that are deeply troubling:

The Supermom Mystique, which persuades mothers that they have to spend more time interacting with their children than women did when they were stay-at-home moms.

The Masculine Mystique, which subjects boys to tremendous bullying for any activity that could be defined as feminine.

The Career Mystique, which decrees that the ideal employee has to be totally available to the job.

The Hottie Mystique, which tells young women they have to be "hot" all the time. That kind of open sexuality can be liberating, she said, but it can also be quite repressive.

By naming these new mystiques, Coontz hopes to demystify and debunk them, just as "The Feminine Mystique" did in its time. Friedan began her book with a chapter called "The Problem That Has No Name" and proceeded to give voice to a generation's discontents and change the world for millions of women.

"It's stunning to realize that once you name a problem correctly, you can make enormous strides," Coontz says. "For many women, when they read Feminine Mystique, it was the first time they'd been told, maybe this discontent isn't your problem, maybe it's society's problem. They realized it wasn't too late to change their lives."

Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications