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Decades After 'The Feminine Mystique,' Many High-Achieving Women Find Satisfaction in Marriage

A new book explains why Betty Friedan might have paved the way for equal marriages by blowing the roof off the feminine mystique.

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She also points out that Friedan took some liberties with her own story so she would fit more neatly into the type of a woman – the apolitical, college-educated, middle-class housewife – she was targeting in her book. But in fact, before writing the book, Friedan was already an experienced journalist and had a history in labor organizing. Though, as Coontz explains in a counterpoint, the direct, partially biographical tone of The Feminine Mystique was a big part of why it had such an impact. Readers felt like they could relate to Friedan, which ultimately made her work more of a self-help manual than a call to arms. 

While Coontz certainly takes Friedan to task, she never goes into full condemnation mode, leaving ample room for awe, hers and ours, of this book that changed everything. She softens up the sharp contours of her criticisms with powerful segments of the nearly 200 personal interviews she did for the project--interviews with women recalling the first time they opened the book. 

One woman, Janice K., told Coontz that after reading the book she wrote a letter to her psychiatrist saying, “he should read it before he ever again told a woman that all she needed was to come to terms with her ‘feminine nature.'"

Another woman, Rose, whose husband beat her, said that when she “read this book it was like the curtain was thrown back on the ‘wizard’! I suddenly understood what was going on, how sexism works, and was energized to begin to survive as an individual person.” Today Rose runs a center for victims for domestic violence.

Coontz closes the book with a look at Friedan’s legacy, examining what she calls the contemporary challenges women face, which include “motherhood mystique,” referring to the “moms gone wild” obsessive parenting culture that regularly appears in the media if not at the local playground, and the “hottie mystique,” the idea that young women increasingly feel they must compensate for their strength and smarts with hotness. She also looks at how Friedan’s prescriptions for marital stability have been realized by contemporary partnerships. 

My own marriage in some ways reflects a post-Friedan trend. Reports came out last year showing that a slightly unexpected turn in marriage has taken place in the states, and affluent, educated women are now more likely to report happy marriages and are also increasingly getting married, while these rates continue to drop for the less-educated and less-affluent. When this study was released there was a lot of discussion about why marriage is on the decline among the latter group. The answer? A large group has essentially been priced-out of such a basic institution as marriage. However, there wasn’t much inquiry as to why marriage has strengthened for women who can afford its privileges.

In a way, the whole marriage thing took me by surprise. During my early 20s, I was right at home in what is known as hookup culture (I saw it more as very casual dating), and I was never on the lookout for Mr. Right, and especially not Mr. Good Enough. For most of this time marriage was something that my parents had failed at. I can’t say I ever took a conscious position against it, just that it wasn’t on my mind.

But then I met a good man, and through him the whole partnership idea seemed, in addition to romantic and exciting, quite practical. As I got older and began to think about how exactly I was going to “have it all,” having a husband rose up as a rather attractive solution. A reliable partner would provide me with support during the ups and downs of my writing career, would offer the financial security of a second income, and share the work of raising children. The long-term commitment came to feel comforting rather than nerve-wracking. 

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