The Feminine Mystique in Retrospect: An Interview with Stephanie Coontz, Part 2

Last month we featured Part 1 of our interview with historian Stephanie Coontz about her book A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (Basic Books, 2012). A Strange Stirring looks at the history of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which has been widely regarded as one of the most influential books of the last century.

“Work is still organized on the assumption that every employee will have a wife at home to take care of life.”

Published 50 years ago in February of 1963, The Feminine Mystique was Friedan’s response to the unease and dissatisfaction that she learned was common among American housewives at the time. Friedan hypothesized that the root of their unhappiness was their confinement to domestic roles, which prevented them from finding meaning and identity outside of their roles as homemakers, partners, and caregivers. Entering the workforce and professions, Friedan believed, would provide them the fulfillment they were missing.

Although social conservatives blamed The Feminine Mystique for sowing marital discontent, that was never Friedan’s intention. As Stephanie Coontz explained in A Strange Stirring, Friedan’s book “made a point of not criticizing husbands for their wives’ unhappiness.” Instead, it suggested that “marriages would be happier when women no longer tried to meet all their needs through their assigned roles as wives and mothers.” In Part 1 of our interview, Coontz discussed the accuracy of Friedan’s insight, noting that “today divorce rates tend to be lowest in states where the highest percentage of wives are in the labor force. Marriages where men and women voluntarily share breadwinning and caregiving tend to be very high quality.”

A sweeping change from single-earner to dual-earner marriages has taken place since The Feminine Mystique was published, but as Stephanie Coontz discusses in Part 2 of our interview, there are remaining obstacles to equal relationships that confront us today. Although couples have by and large adopted this new dual-earner model, many workplaces still have expectations of their employees that echo a bygone era when a single breadwinner could be devoted to a career and leave family obligations to a stay-at-home spouse. It’s a new mystique that Coontz calls the “career mystique,” one that will require us to advocate for more family-friendly work policies.

In addition to the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique, another anniversary that passed last month was the 20th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which granted eligible employees job-protected, unpaid leave for childbirth, adoption, family illnesses, and other qualifying medical and family needs. Although it was a positive step forward, as enacted in 1993, it left the majority of private-sector employees uncovered. Finishing the work of making family-friendly workplaces, Coontz emphasizes, will be one of the next challenges ahead.

On January 17, 2013, Stephanie Coontz generously took the time for an interview with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona to discuss her book A Strange Stirring and the past, present, and future of American women and American families. Part 2 of her interview is presented here.

Now that it’s common for both wives and husbands to find meaningful work and identities outside of their marriages, do you see a lot of remaining obstacles to equal marriages?

I think that when Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique the main obstacle was people’s belief that men and women had totally different natures — that women were best suited to be full-time nurturers within the family and men were less interested in their family identity than in preserving their role as the primary breadwinner. In the early 1960s, the problem was to raise people’s consciousness that women and men had similar capacities and interests in both the personal and the public arenas of life.

Today, I think, the consciousness has been raised, but we keep slamming into the hard realities that our institutions haven’t changed. America continues to organize work life and social policies on the assumption that every employer is entitled to an employee who can give all of their time and attention to the job, because somebody else will take care of the rest of life. Couples are being asked to do two full-time jobs — more than full-time jobs in many cases, given the escalation of work demands — and at the same time to spend more time raising children than parents spent in the 1960s, as well as provide assistance to aging parents and find time to nurture their own relationships.

The result is that there’s a tendency to accommodate these realities by having someone quit or cut back at work — and that still tends to be the woman.  I would never blame anyone for whatever accommodation they have to make in a country that is the worst in all industrial countries in terms of its lack of family-friendly work policies. But unfortunately, when people do make these accommodations — for example, when the woman quits work — we know that this backsliding into more traditional gender roles is associated with increases in marital dissatisfaction and tension. The woman resents her exclusion from the public sphere and her isolation in the home, while the man doesn’t understand why she isn’t more grateful for the sacrifice that he is making by taking on more work hours so she can spend more time with the children.

A lot of our problems now stem from the fact that we as individuals have moved further than our society has and our institutions have. Work is still organized on the assumption that every employee will have a wife at home to take care of life. School schedules are still set as if the kids need to be out of school at 3 o’clock to help with the milking — and off all summer to work on the farm. We are the only rich, industrial country in the world that doesn’t have subsidized parental leave, limits on the work week, some form of national health insurance, and/or strong investments in child care and preschool.

In addition to that backsliding that you mention, and in addition to the many areas where we still need to make progress, what do you think about the current rollback of reproductive rights and what it’s doing to the progress women have made since The Feminine Mystique was published?

That’s the big exception to the continued progress we’ve seen in the acceptance of women’s equality. We’ve gotten to a situation where it would be unthinkable to roll back the laws that mandate employers to pay equal wages or forbid sexual harassment on the jobs. The Supreme Court has undercut the enforcement of those laws in recent years, but I don’t think there’s anything comparable to the rollback in reproductive rights that is occurring in politics.

Back in the 1960s, former presidents Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, and Harry Truman, a Democrat, served as honorary co-chairs of Planned Parenthood. It’s stunning to see the current attacks on Planned Parenthood by so many politicians today. And it’s especially troubling because in light of the widening socioeconomic gap in America and the lack of national health care, the attacks on reproductive rights fall with special force on low-income women and families. Educated, privileged women can still get most of the services we need privately. So I worry that it’s easy for privileged women to see these attacks as infuriating, but not to fully realize how much and how critically they affect lower-income women.

You conclude your book by looking at the mystiques of the current age, among them the “hottie mystique,” an unhealthy emphasis on girls’ and women’s sexual appeal, and the “career mystique” — which you alluded to earlier — the expectation among employers that people devote themselves to their careers without letting family commitments interfere. Do you see any successful challenges to these mystiques on the horizon?

I do think that we are having a productive conversation about the motherhood mystique, which is the other one that I talk about: this distortion of attachment parenting theory that says women need to be there constantly for their child. I think we’re having good conversations and rethinking about that.

I think the hottie mystique remains a real problem, even though women tend to grow out of it as they age. This is the idea that although we now accept that women can be smart, strong, and ambitious, we expect them to advertise their sexual interest and availability at the same time, and at a younger and younger age. And I think, actually, that hottie mystique is spreading to young men as well. Increasingly, my male students tell me they feel they have to have six-pack abs and feel judged by their appearance in some of the same ways women traditionally have felt judged. So this remains a real problem in our media-saturated society.

I think we are making progress on the career mystique. There’s much more understanding than there used to be that we need better policies to accommodate the reality that 70 percent of American kids now grow up in homes where every member of the household is in the labor force. Various states — California, Washington, and others — have moved, for example, toward providing subsidized parental leave. I think our main task in fighting the career mystique is to stop seeing family-friendly work policies as a woman’s issue, because they’re also a man’s issue — in fact, men now report higher levels of work-family conflict than women do, in a reversal of the past. Work-family issues should also not be seen as a couples’ issue or a parents’ issue, because single and childless people also have family obligations. In fact, single individuals spent more time caring for aging parents than their married counterparts. So I think it’s really important to stop seeing this as a feminist demand and start seeing it as an equal-rights demand.

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