The Family Revolution and the Egalitarian Tradition in Black History

Sadie T. Alexander

In the interview with Stephanie Coontz featured earlier this month, we discussed the many changes in American households that have occurred in the 50 years since Betty Friedan published her landmark book, The Feminine Mystique. Friedan’s book was a literary catalyst that helped usher in a family revolution, in which the norm of one-earner households was replaced by the norm of the two-earner households we know today; a change that gave many women more equality in their marriages.

A strong egalitarian tradition has long been a part of black history.

What might surprise some readers is that we could have also discussed the many changes that had occurred already, even as Friedan was still writing her manuscript. Among black Americans, much of what Friedan wrote was not prescient, but dated. As Coontz wrote in A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, “Long before Betty Friedan insisted that meaningful work would not only fulfill women as individuals but also strengthen their marriages, many African-American women shared the views of Sadie T. Alexander, an influential political leader in Philadelphia, who argued in 1930 that working for wages gave women the ‘peace and happiness’ essential to a good home life.”

While sorting out the book’s legacy, Coontz wanted to explain what The Feminine Mystique had gotten right and wrong about American families and women’s domestic roles in the 1960s. A particular problem Coontz addressed was how The Feminine Mystique ignored the experiences of black and other minority women — an omission cited by many critics since the book’s publication. A book Coontz found invaluable in addressing that omission was Bart Landry’s Black Working Wives: Pioneers of the American Family Revolution (University of California Press, 2002). Landry did not write his book as a critique of The Feminine Mystique. Rather, it was while looking at historical statistics on wives’ employment that he decided to write in greater detail about an intriguing difference he noticed between black and white wives: “the employment rates of black wives were about ten years ahead of those of white wives.” Continue reading