News & Politics

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 20th 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.

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. 

W. Bradford Wilcox, sociology professor and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said there has been a generational recognition of the fact that it is easier to do well in life and to have one’s kids do well in a married household. He calls this new type of marriage a “soulmate” marriage and said this type of equal arrangement stems from the psychological revolution that took place among women in the 1970s.

Of course, as Coontz explains, Friedan seemed to know this all along. While many observers of the battle of the sexes predicted that women’s rise to independence would lead them away from the home, Friedan suspected that a sense of personal fulfillment would actually make women better partners.

This is hardly to say that we have entered some utopian phase in marriage. Statistics show that women still do more of the housework (approximately two times more, down from the four to five times more done by our grandmothers and many of our mothers) and earn less. There are far more stay-at-home moms than stay-at-home dads. (Of course, the argument stands that better maternity and daycare policies, and not necessarily better spouses, would relieve women of much of the burden that is keeping them behind their husbands.) Additionally, the dissolution of gender roles has led marriage into a Wild West territory, with couples making up rules and circumstances as they go along. Indeed, a commitment to equality comes with the burden of keeping score.

Nonetheless, we have moved much closer to parity than ever before, and young wives no longer ask themselves, as Friedan wrote, “Is this all?” If anything, we are faced with the problem of too much, and for that, in addition to occasionally feeling tired and perplexed, I feel very grateful. Thanks, Betty.

Elissa Strauss is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is a journalist, essayist and blogger. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Salon, the Village Voice, The American Prospect, the New York Daily News, Tablet, and the Forward, where she is also a contributing editor to the Sisterhood blog.
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