The Feminine Mystique in Retrospect: An Interview With Stephanie Coontz, Part 1

Award-winning author Stephanie Coontz has published a long list of books and articles about the history of family and marriage. She has written about the evolution of those two institutions from prehistory to today, in works that have been widely praised for their intelligence, wit, and insight. In her most recent book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (Basic Books, 2012), Coontz takes us back 50 years to a breakthrough that changed the role of women in American households.

“Equal marriages require more negotiation than unequal ones.”

In 1963 it was clear that a revolution was beginning. After its approval by the FDA at the beginning of the decade, 2.3 million American women were using the birth control pill, the oral contraceptive that Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger had been instrumental in pioneering. And on February 19, 1963, 50 years ago today, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a book that sold millions of copies in its first three years. It quickly became the object of both derision and acclaim for awakening women to aspirations beyond what discrimination and prejudice had long defined for them. If oral contraceptives were the breakthrough in medicine that finally enabled women to plan their reproductive lives around their educational and career goals, Friedan’s landmark book was the breakthrough in consciousness that gave many the resolve to do it.

Friedan was a magazine writer whose experience surveying women at a college reunion was the spark that drove her to uncover “the problem that has no name.” She was referring to the dissatisfaction and depression she found widespread among housewives, not just at the reunion but in many other encounters she had with them as a writer. Convinced that it would help married women — and their marriages — if they sought their own identities outside of the home, Friedan synthesized a wealth of research to make her case in The Feminine Mystique. Stephanie Coontz’s A Strange Stirring is a social history of The Feminine Mystique that takes readers from an era of far-reaching sex discrimination in the early 1960s when Friedan made her breakthrough, to the contemporary era when many of Friedan’s appeals have been realized but new challenges hinder equality. Continue reading