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Betty Friedan’s Book
by Jo Freeman
A review of
The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s
by Stephanie Coontz
Basic Books, 2011, xxiii, 222
When Coontz’ editor asked her to write about the impact of The Feminine Mystique she sat down to re-read a book she thought she knew well, but in fact, had never read. She had heard and read so much about it over the years, that she had absorbed its message without having read it at all.
It was her mother who told Coontz, a child of the Sixties, about the 1963 book, and her mother’s generation that had been excited by it. When Coontz assigned it to her own students, they found it “boring and dated.” So much had changed since 1963, that the book that stirred a generation of women didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know.
Her students had no idea how much their grandmothers had to learn about their own unhappiness, let alone why they had to learn it. So Coontz set out to write about a generation of intelligent, well-educated women who had been marginalized by their own society. She wanted to understand how being confined to the home had undermined their sense of self and self-worth, until Friedan told them about “the problem that has no name.”
She began by reading the numerous letters Friedan received after publication of her book, and some that Friedan wrote herself. She also went through oral histories and did interviews of women who had read and been moved by the book. The bulk of her book is based on this research, as she relates the stories of women whose lives were changed by reading Friedan’s book. Some of them thought that Friedan had literally saved their lives.
The women who paid the “price of privilege” were mostly white and middle-class, but Coontz devotes a chapter to African-American and working class women. She criticizes Friedan for ignoring the African-American experience, but acknowledges that it was a different experience. She points out that overall, black women faced different problems and had different priorities; only a few found that Friedan’s book had something to say to them.
Working class women were also left out of the book; Coontz reviews the many studies done on such women to explain why. Essentially, less education led to lower expectations and lower expectations led to greater satisfaction with what they had. The college-educated women that Friedan wrote for – and about – expected more out of life; society’s insistence that such expectations were unhealthy created its own social pathology.
Betty Friedan’s book was successful because it explained something than needed explaining, and did so in compelling language. “The book was a journalistic tour de force,” Coontz, concludes, “combining scholarship, investigative reporting, and a compelling personal voice.” It was also well promoted by its publisher.
The book’s success generated many myths, some fostered by right-wingers and some by Friedan herself. Among these, that Fridan was herself “just another unhappy housewife” when in fact she was a successful free-lance writer, who got her start working for labor and left-wing publications. Coontz argues that Friedan hid her past in order to avoid being discredited by professional anti-communists looking for red influence behind every dissident idea.
While The Feminine Mystique certainly didn’t jump-start the women’s movement, it was able to ride the wave of female discontent that jelled into organizational protest in the mid-1960s. The book’s success and Friedan’s celebrity made it easier for the nascent movement to attract press attention and thus attract members. The movement would have happened without Betty Friedan’s book, but it happened faster with it. For that Coontz and every other feminist is grateful.
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