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.” Continue reading