Mad Women: Wives and Daughters of the Greatest Generation

Author and historian Stephanie Coontz loves to reexamine conventional truths and poke holes in them, as she did in her book chronicling the evolution of matrimony over the centuries, Marriage, A History. Her current book probes the myths and reality of The Feminine Mystique, a groundbreaking work from 1963 that argued vigorously for gender equality and is widely considered among the most influential books of the 20th century.

Nearly 50 years after The Feminine Mystique was published, its author, Betty Friedan, remains a controversial figure. Coontz’s new book, A Strange Stirring, promises to add more complexity to our understanding of her and her readers. Coontz’s book revisits the “Mad Men” era in which Friedan lived and wrote, drawing on a study of nearly 200 original readers of The Feminine Mystique whose lives were upended by it.

Stephanie Coontz discussed Friedan’s famous work in a recent telephone interview.

Amy DePaul: In your research on Friedan, what myths did you encounter and in some cases debunk?

Stephanie Coontz: There’s the obvious anti-feminist myth, that she was a manhater and told people to pursue careers and was a radical feminist. She was never anti-male; in fact Betty Friedan loved men. Then there are the other myths to which she contributed herself. She presented herself as just another suburban housewife, a victim of the mystique, but she actually had a very political and left-wing history. She was an activist in college, and worked for a left-wing newspaper; she was never “just a homemaker.” In the context of McCarthyism, I could understand why she wanted to play down her left-wing history and play up the things she had in common with housewives....

She also said her publisher never believed in this book, and her biographers have accepted the myth that she had to browbeat him into hiring a publicist. This is not true. The publisher was very high on the book…he postponed it so excerpts could appear in Ladies Home Journal and McCall’s, which was unprecedented for two competing magazines. He solicited endorsements.

AD: So why did she misrepresent herself, in some cases?

SC: She wanted to portray herself as a lonely battler, playing up what she did against all odds and playing down the support that she had. She seemed driven to present herself as more original than she was. For example, she never fully credited her big debts to Simone de Beauvoir and others. I responded viscerally because I do a lot of what she did, going to researchers who spend their entire lives on something that I reduce to a paragraph, so it’s my duty to give them credit in that paragraph. That turned me off to Friedan.

But I turned a corner and learned to admire what she did. I came to understand it as her own insecurity. She was ambitious in a way that women were not supposed to be ambitious, passionate in a way… afraid if she didn’t burnish her credentials she wouldn’t be taken seriously by intellectuals and reviewers. And I really came to admire the skill she showed in making important research and big ideas accessible to ordinary readers.

AD: On the subject of readers, why and how did you get in contact with them?

SC: I had begun to see if I could find a group of women, and men if possible, who had read her when the book came out. This is not a bio of Betty Friedan so I didn’t want women who had gone on to work with her. I tried to find women who had not gone on to become prominent leaders. I put out notices on women’s studies sites, at the Ladies Home Journal website and found people through the staff at Evergreen State College, who sent me off to other people — almost 200 women and men in all who read the book at the time. Their stories allowed me to get past my initial frustration at some of the myths about Friedan and by Friedan about understand how much she meant to a particular layer of women.

My book turned into a collective biography of this group of women, whom I came to think of as sidelined wives and daughters of the greatest generation. They were mostly white women, many with a bit more education than usual, whose parents or husband had moved into the middle class in the postwar era and who found themselves not as fulfilled with their homes and families as they expected to be. Some were being mistreated or put down by their husbands, but many couldn’t put their finger on why they were so unhappy. They were so aware they had more privilege than many women, more than their parents, and thought they had something wrong with them.

AD: What did you learn in surveying her original readers?

SC: Many many stories were very powerful, some very dramatic, in terms of women who were being beaten by husbands and thought it was their fault and something was wrong with them. In the ideology of the day, almost every problem in marriage was blamed on women. In 1964, the American Medical Association published an article that said domestic violence was more or less a satisfactory way to reestablish equilibrium in marriages where women were too efficient and aggressive. Women had internalized self blame and guilt. They felt little entitlement to happiness and justice in their relationship. The women in the study told stories about husbands who had bullied them and were cold and contemptuous, and said, “What am I doing wrong?” And the ones who had loving marriages but still felt that there was something missing in their lives felt even more crazy. They turned their discontent inward, and until Betty Friedan came along they had no way to understand that problems were not their fault. 

AD: Your book shows the incredible contrast between Friedan’s message and what 'experts' at the time were saying about women. Can you explain?

SC: As I read the expert advice of the day, I realized why Friedan seemed so radical. One expert was Marynia Farnham, a bestselling psychiatrist of the 1940s and '50s. She actually stated that the biggest mistake a society can make is treat citizens as people rather than male or female. Her message was that men’s role was to be the provider and search for meaning in their life and it was part of their makeup as men, their sexual and intellectual drive, to have to continually search for meaning, find an identity. But women had no such need; it was their natural desire to be taken care of, be sexually passive and find achievements through their men. She had a double-barreled critique: feminists and career women had made homemakers discontented and were threatening men.

AD: Besides Farnham, who else was influencing the way women’s roles were understood at the time?

SC: Philip Wylie and others, on one hand, said you should get all your fulfillment through achievements of husbands and sons. ...But at the same time, if you try to find too much meaning [in family life] you’re going to start nagging him. You’ll drive him into an early grave, and by overprotecting and smothering your son, turn him into homosexual. Stick around and be a helpful fly on the wall. But as soon as homemakers had gotten their kids out of the house, they were suddenly labeled parasites. There was a lot of talk in those days about how older women whose children were grown were parasites playing bridge all day. Those women were supposed to do some volunteer work or get a job, but not a job that paid too much.

AD: What kind of work lives did women have when Friedan wrote her book?

SC: It was absolutely commonplace that women were paid less than men. They had to go to the “help wanted” female ads, where the main qualifications were “perky” and “well groomed, trim.” One New York Times ad actually demanded, “You must be really beautiful.” Ninety percent of school districts had a rule that you had to quit if you got pregnant. One that shocks people is the example of an airline attendant who actually hid that she had a child. When the airline found out, they said either quit work or put the child in an orphanage.

AD: And how did Friedan fit into that environment, personally?

SC: She had a husband and eventually three children. And although she had been a brilliant student and a feisty writer for a union newspaper, she did have experience with the feminine mystique. She felt pressured out of her job with her second child. Her husband was an ad exec moving up in the postwar world, moved away from center of town, kept moving further out. She started remodeling and worked as a volunteer. She was struggling to find a place for herself, live in the suburbs, work out a career for herself.

She herself had a difficult marriage. The success of her book exacerbated her marital conflict but gave her the means to leave her husband. But this is not what she advocated in the book. In fact, she argued that women would be more likely to appreciate their husbands and be warm wives and mothers if they had interests outside the home. I talked to many women whose husbands had read the book and their lives had changed for the better. The husbands who refused to read the book were those whose marriages broke up.

AD: On a basic level, what is a mystique?

SC: It’s a mystification and a distortion of reality that seems to be good. Even today, if you look up “feminine mystique,” you can find people saying, “Let me help you create a feminine mystique,” like a magician who makes a woman appear to be more beautiful than she is. That’s why Betty Friedan picked that word, that being feminine is beautiful, satisfying, all-consuming and all-fulfilling. And the reality beneath is far less pleasant.

AD: Are there new mystiques that have replaced the feminine mystique?

SC: There is the sexual empowerment mystique….Now it’s no longer the idea of being a dirty women if you have sex; instead, there’s pressure on women at an early age to look hot and act sexual and not say no. What started as liberation that you can be a powerful women and say yes has become a new form of pressure on some young women. I call it the hottie mystique.

The other is the motherhood mystique – the pressure to do super-parenting, which falls especially harshly on women. Moms are there to make every moment a teachable moment. And of course there is also a masculine mystique, which is still alive and well.

AD: Back to Friedan, did her book overlook some women and speak more to elites?

SD: The book did appeal mostly to one group of women who weren’t hurting as much in objective terms – where their next meal was coming from, if their husband was laid off or kids get beaten up on way to school. They felt something was wrong with them for not being happy.

I came to also believe that what was bad about neglecting African-American women is Friedan could have used their example. If you look at African-American women you see that women can be activists in communities, co-providers, and sons and husbands will still love them.

AD: Is it possible that education and privilege put women in the right position to appreciate a feminist message early on? Like the canaries in the coal mine?

SC: When it came to women’s issues, they [middle class white women] were the ones who felt most keenly the contradictions between the promise of American individualism and democracy and the reality of gender discrimination. Middle-class educated women may have been the canaries for all women and I strongly believe, against anti-feminists, that the reforms they instituted were in interests of African-American and working-class women. They also got carried out of the mines earlier. Middle-class women have been better positioned to take advantage of equality. That helps explain why anti-feminist rhetoric does not strike a chord among some working-class families.

AD: Friedan seemed to think improving women’s options would lead to better lives for women and families. Has she been proven right?

SC: At the time people thought she was crazy to think women’s independence would improve marriage. In those days educated women were less likely to marry, and more likely to divorce. As soon as women entered the workforce, there was a surge in divorce. But in this sense Betty Friedan was more prescient than her critics. In fact, women’s independence has improved marriage. Divorce rates for college-educated women have fallen dramatically. By age 35-40, college-educated women are more likely to be married, and report the highest levels of marital satisfaction. Another fact is that divorce rates tend to be lower in states with the highest percentage of working wives. 

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