CRF Blog

A Strange Stirring

by Bill Hayes

In A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, Stephanie Coontz (also author of Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage) examines the phenomenon of Betty Freidan’s book The Feminine Mystique.

From the New York Times Book Review:

That we can simultaneously appreciate and condemn Friedan for helping to light a fire under a social movement that exponentially expanded the scope of possibility for women is the tension at the heart of Coontz’s smart and lively meditation. It also makes “A Strange Stirring” a timely contribution to the conversation about what constitutes progress for women (and for which women) in these days of mommy wars and mama grizzlies.

Long celebrated as the founding text of the second wave and vilified by anti-feminists, “The Feminine Mystique” has been frequently misremembered as a militant call for women to abandon home and hearth for professional, political and sexual liberation. In fact, Friedan’s book was a long, dry and (in contrast to the wild-eyed responses it inspired) rather mild analysis of the ways in which middle-class American women had, since the end of World War II, been suffocatingly characterized as wives, mothers and housekeepers, and nothing else. [more]

In a long New Yorker essay titled Why the women’s movement needed The Feminine Mystique, Louis Menand evaluates the book’s impact. He points out that several other highly influential books appeared around the same time as The Feminine Mystique (1963): Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1962), and Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed (1965). All of the changes championed by these books would have happened without them, but, as Menand argues, “people like to be able to point to a book as the cause for a new frame of mind, possibly for the same reason that people prefer anecdotes to statistical evidence.”

Friedan’s book arrived at a time when women seemed not to be progressing.

The strangest part of it—this was one of Friedan’s main points—was that, by many of these measures, women were worse off in 1963 than they had been in 1945, or even in 1920. In 1920, fifteen per cent of Ph.D.s were awarded to women; in 1963, it was eleven per cent. (Today, it is just over fifty per cent.) Forty-seven per cent of college students were women in 1920; in 1963, thirty-eight per cent were women. (Today, fifty-seven per cent of college students are female….) The median age at first marriage was dropping: almost half of all women who got married in 1963 were teen-agers. And the birth rate for third and fourth children was rising: between 1940 and 1960, the birth rate for fourth children tripled. [more]

Below Coontz is interviewed about her book.