The Feminine Mystique in Retrospect: An Interview With Stephanie Coontz, Part 1

Award-winning author Stephanie Coontz has published a long list of books and articles about the history of family and marriage. She has written about the evolution of those two institutions from prehistory to today, in works that have been widely praised for their intelligence, wit, and insight. In her most recent book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (Basic Books, 2012), Coontz takes us back 50 years to a breakthrough that changed the role of women in American households.

“Equal marriages require more negotiation than unequal ones.”

In 1963 it was clear that a revolution was beginning. After its approval by the FDA at the beginning of the decade, 2.3 million American women were using the birth control pill, the oral contraceptive that Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger had been instrumental in pioneering. And on February 19, 1963, 50 years ago today, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a book that sold millions of copies in its first three years. It quickly became the object of both derision and acclaim for awakening women to aspirations beyond what discrimination and prejudice had long defined for them. If oral contraceptives were the breakthrough in medicine that finally enabled women to plan their reproductive lives around their educational and career goals, Friedan’s landmark book was the breakthrough in consciousness that gave many the resolve to do it.

Friedan was a magazine writer whose experience surveying women at a college reunion was the spark that drove her to uncover “the problem that has no name.” She was referring to the dissatisfaction and depression she found widespread among housewives, not just at the reunion but in many other encounters she had with them as a writer. Convinced that it would help married women — and their marriages — if they sought their own identities outside of the home, Friedan synthesized a wealth of research to make her case in The Feminine Mystique. Stephanie Coontz’s A Strange Stirring is a social history of The Feminine Mystique that takes readers from an era of far-reaching sex discrimination in the early 1960s when Friedan made her breakthrough, to the contemporary era when many of Friedan’s appeals have been realized but new challenges hinder equality.

Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, has shared her expert knowledge of marriage and family on The Colbert Report, PBS NewsHour, and numerous other radio and TV programs. She also serves as director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families.

On January 17, 2013, Coontz generously took the time for an interview with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona to discuss her most recent book, A Strange Stirring, and the subject of that book, The Feminine Mystique. Part 1 of her interview, which looks at the immediate and lasting significance of The Feminine Mystique, is presented here. We will present Part 2 of her interview next month in conjunction with Women’s History Month.

In your book, you sort through the criticisms The Feminine Mystique has received, rebutting many but agreeing with others. What explains the book’s lasting influence in spite of its flaws and the changing times?

Friedan’s book is very dated, but she was the first to witheringly dissect the prevailing prejudices against women in a book that reached beyond the academic community. Her book did not call for structural, economic, and political changes; she worked for those later when she helped found the National Organization for Women (NOW). Instead, it was the first consciousness-raising book for women. It was a self-help book, but a very political self-help book, for women who had internalized all the postwar prescriptions that they should be totally happy and fulfilled solely by their roles as wives and mothers and then thought there was something wrong with themselves when they were not.

Friedan used the personal language of the women’s magazines to explain that their unhappiness wasn’t a personal problem. It was a social problem they shared with other women, and its source was a societal view of feminine nature that denied women’s needs for meaning and challenges. For Friedan to bring out into the open “the problem that had no name” and call it “the feminine mystique” — that was a major breakthrough in a world where there was not yet even a word like sexism or sexual harassment.

You write that Friedan’s most important prediction was accurate, but not immediately so — that as late as 1980, women who worked outside the home had a higher rate of marital conflict, but by 2000, that had turned around and the opposite was true. What made the revolution so gradual? Why did it take this long for men and women to both realize the good in giving women the opportunity to find identities outside the home?

In the long run, as you say, Friedan was correct that marriages would be improved when women and men were more equal. But, as women entered the workforce in the 1960s and 1970s, and as women won the right to leave bad marriages, the divorce rate soared, both because women could get out of marriages that were already bad and because once women went to work they began to have new expectations of their husbands, and many men initially resisted making those adjustments.

To the extent that men have adapted to women’s new roles and new options — and many men have adapted — we’ve seen an improvement in marriages. That improvement has been most striking among dual-earner marriages of educated men and women who accept the egalitarian views and practices that were put forward by the feminist movement. Divorce rates have fallen for those couples, and in fact today divorce rates tend to be lowest in states where the highest percentage of wives are in the labor force. Marriages where men and women voluntarily share breadwinning and caregiving tend to be very high quality.

On the other hand, for women who did not want to go to work but were forced into work by the economic changes of the 1980s and 1990s (that Friedan, of course, did not predict) and for women who went to work and whose husbands did not pitch in at home or were not supportive of their work, marriage has become more difficult. And ironically, the things that make marriage better among more educated couples — the fact that there is now an expectation that both spouses will contribute economic resources to the marriage — have made tensions higher among couples where that doesn’t happen. We are now seeing a troubling class divide in access to stable, satisfying marriages. So I don’t think we’re headed for some nirvana where all marriages are getting better, but the potential for marriages to work among people who have a certain amount of income stability and accept egalitarian ideas has increased tremendously.

When it works, marriage is fairer, more intimate, more passionate, more committed than most couples of the past would have dared to dream. But it’s also harder to sustain than in the past, when women had few options outside marriage and were expected to do all the deferring and compromising within marriage. Equal marriages require more negotiation than unequal ones. So even though the divorce rate has fallen, I don’t expect that we will ever get back to the artificially low divorce rates of the 1950s, when women simply didn’t have any alternative, nor did men. And that is not all bad. In every state that adopted no-fault divorce, for example, the next five years saw an 8 to 13 percent fall in wives’ suicide rates and a 20 to 30 percent fall in domestic violence.

Although Friedan received many accolades for the social issues she brought to light and also for the changes she proposed, do you think the many women who held to their principles during this slow change deserve a lot of that praise? As you were writing your book, you interviewed many such women who recounted the impact The Feminine Mystique had on them.

Friedan was a brilliant woman, and she made enormous contributions to the women’s movement, first by writing this book and publishing these ideas, which were not original to her, but which she put into a form that allowed many women who would not otherwise read political tracts to identify with the issues that she raised.

Then, three years later, she was instrumental in founding NOW. It was her idea to do the 1970 women’s strike for equality. She certainly deserves a lot of accolades, but there has been a tendency, both in the press and in Friedan’s own accounts of her work, to emphasize her leadership in a way that gives too little credit to the many women who worked diligently behind the scenes in the 1930s and 1940s to pave the way for the revival of the women’s movement and slights the others who participated equally in the founding of NOW — women like Pauli Murray, the brilliant African-American feminist attorney who co-wrote the statement of principles with Betty Friedan. These people have been neglected, I think, by the sort of cult of personality that is so prominent in the American media.

Part 2 of our interview with Stephanie Coontz takes a closer look at the significance of The Feminine Mystique in the contemporary era and the new challenges to equal relationships today. It appeared on Monday, March 11, in observance of Women’s History Month.

3 thoughts on “The Feminine Mystique in Retrospect: An Interview With Stephanie Coontz, Part 1

  1. I read Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage several years back for a book club. It was one of my favorites! I love how she provides historical context for the fluctuating concept of marriage, which really disproves the idea that there is some kind of “traditional marriage” that has been carved in stone and remained unchanged over the centuries. A perfect book for anyone in your life who decries the “downfall” of “traditional” marriage. Her new book looks exciting, too.

  2. Pingback: The Family Revolution and the Egalitarian Tradition in Black History | Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona | Blog

  3. Pingback: The Feminine Mystique in Retrospect: An Interview with Stephanie Coontz, Part 2 | Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona | Blog

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