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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.

Stephanie Coontz begins her new book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, with the results of a 1962 Gallup poll examining the outlook of the “typical American woman.” The ladies interviewed were, on average, 35 years old, married with two children, white and full-time homemakers. They were also, reportedly, deeply satisfied and quite comfortable with the idea that “the man should be number one,” an outlook reinforced in many states by “head and master” laws. 

And so, as feminist lore has it, Betty Friedan took on the oppressive institution of marriage in The Feminine Mystique, peeling away the external layer of satisfaction that married women professed to feel, revealing a generation of hollow women who were hungry for change.

But while Friedan did indeed take on marriage as she saw it, she did not challenge marriage overall -- something lost on her detractors at the time, and in a way, her contemporary admirers. Friedan never saw the dissolution of marriage as a necessary step in order for women to rise to the top. Instead, as Coontz shows, her vision was a bit softer, even romantic. What Friedan dreamed is that one day there would be egalitarian marriage.

Friedan is certainly not remembered as a marriage bolster, but this only strengthens why this biography of a book is necessary. Coontz’s dusting off and airing out of the text that became a near-instant feminist legend provides us with an opportunity to reconsider the work and the circumstances it was borne out of, including its flaws as well as undeniable might.

Coontz begins with a look at the status of women at the time, producing a catalog of grim laws and statistics that take the mystery out of the mystique. Women had a difficult time getting financial credit on their own, and at least five states required women to receive court approval before opening a business in their name. Employers were legally allowed to discriminate based on family plans and attractiveness, and most newspapers had one “Help Wanted” section for men, and another for women. Sexual harassment was just another inconvenience of employment, like a long commute or bland cafeteria food. Contraceptive access was restricted in 17 states, and there was no such thing as spousal rape. Virginia Slims wasn’t kidding; we have come a long way, baby.

Coontz explains, as did Friedan, how this systemic push to housewifery during the post-WWII years was more of a historical hiccup than a natural progression from the mores of the first half of the 20 th century. Women in the 1920s and '30s, busy taking off their corsets, pushing for suffrage and trying out the workplace, married and had children later than those in the '50s and '60s. Friedan interpreted the mid-century about-face as a result of a feminist backlash and desire for what was perceived as normalcy following the Depression and the war. 

Most of the second half of A Strange Stirring takes a look at Friedan’s prejudices and oversights, and the parts she left out of the story of American women. Coontz fills in Friedan’s gaps through her research of the status and attitudes of African American and working-class women at the time. She explains that in the case of African American women, they generally already saw the individual value in the “co-breadwinner” relationship, and furthermore, were more likely to need two incomes due to the vast economic prejudices still working against them (indeed, had Friedan included them, they might have served as a model for all women). In the case of working-class women, they often reported satisfaction in the type of work, including retail and clerical, that Friedan discouraged her readers to do. “A job, any job, is not the answer—in fact, it can be part of the trap,” Friedan said. Coontz discovers that this wasn’t exactly true.

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