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Does “The Feminine Mystique” still matter?

THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE is the Tupac Shakur of literary feminism, reincarnated at least once every decade with new insights that engender old beefs while at the same time serving as a reminder of why it’s a classic. Indeed, the book’s legacy often takes the form of whatever the written equivalent of an earworm is, its ideas setting up lifelong camp in (largely female) brains absent any real effort or study. Several years ago, Stephanie Coontz began writing a history of how The Feminine Mystique had impacted a generation of women; the result, 2011’s A Strange Stirring, found that many who had believed they’d read the book realized that, in fact, they hadn’t: they had simply absorbed it by osmosis. Similarly, those holding vehemently antifeminist beliefs considered the book an unforgivably radical text, full of screeds against everything from marital rape to — you guessed it — the tyranny of brassieres. Writes Coontz, “When they tried to explain the gap between what they ‘remembered’ and what I told them the book actually said, they usually decided that the title had conjured up such a vivid image in their minds that over time they had come to believe they had read it.”

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