Betty Friedan’s influential book The Feminine Mystique is now fifty years old and has sold over three million copies. Its champions are many, and the book has been credited with “igniting” the women’s movement, transforming gender roles, and bringing the language of women’s oppression into the mainstream. It has also been blamed for the decline of [End Page 301] family life and criticized for various methodological shortfalls. Stephanie Coontz suggests in this analysis of the book and its times that if the impact of The Feminine Mystique was exaggerated by Friedan and others, it nevertheless has had a profound and continuing influence on generations of American women.
Betty Friedan wrote during an era when the ideal woman’s role was in the home as a wife and mother, working women earned about 60 percent of what men earned in similar jobs, “attractiveness” was often a job requirement, and women had little control over their sexual and reproductive lives. Friedan argued that women were unhappy and insecure in this culture, and she included in her book such topics as the “sexual sell” of consumerism, the importance of meaningful work for women as well as men, and her belief that fulfilling public lives for women as well as men lead to happier private relationships. She also criticized the conventions of psychology at that time, particularly discussing Sigmund Freud and his antifeminist ideas, which “settled over the American landscape ‘like fine volcanic ash’” (69).
A Strange Stirring looks at Friedan’s intent and readers’ reactions, using letters to and from her in the archives at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library, book reviews and magazine articles, and oral histories conducted by Coontz and her students. But the book also offers a comprehensive framework for understanding the longer social and political history of American women. Coontz provides a portrait of middle-class white women in the 1950s, from the prescription of women’s place in the home to the description of discriminatory laws impacting labor, sexuality, economics, and education. She then turns back to the earlier years in the twentieth century and the discussions and realities of women’s lives in the United States. It was not until many read The Feminine Mystique, Coontz says, that a language developed for women to identify what Friedan termed “the problem with no name”—for there was then no vocabulary “to understand their conflicted feelings and no way to justify their inchoate desire to get ‘something else, something more, out of life’” (57).
Coontz reminds us that the 1950s were more nuanced than Friedan suggested—that the conformity, repressiveness, and passivity often considered hallmarks of the era masked radical changes then emerging in the workforce, politics, and social attitudes. At the same time, for many women the book was transformative because it presented an alternative framework for understanding their discontent—that their unease with their status was not necessarily an individual psychological deficit but a reasonable response to structural inequality. Or, as later feminists would assert, “the personal is the political.”
The book then turns to those women who many critics have said were ignored in Friedan’s analysis—African American and working-class women. African American middle-class women, including mothers, worked for wages at a much higher rate than middle-class white women. Working-class wives [End Page 302] identified more strongly with their role as homemakers but also when they worked often found satisfaction at the kinds of jobs that Friedan considered menial. Despite these and other limitations—not least was Friedan’s uncritical acceptance of prevailing prejudices about lesbians—by questioning gender stereotypes Friedan contributed to a movement that would improve the status of all women, not just those in the white middle class.
Friedan was not alone in her recognition of gender issues in the early 1960s. When The Feminine Mystique appeared in 1963, feminist networks were already under way, and significant social change loomed on the horizon. By 1961 Eleanor Roosevelt had predicted that the equal rights...