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

A Conversation With Faye Wattleton: Part 2, Belief and Mission

Ms. Wattleton speaks out against George H.W. Bush’s gag rule, which banned any mention of abortion in federally funded family-planning programs.

Faye Wattleton was president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1978 to 1992. She was generous enough to speak to me on January 7, 2013, and throughout the month of February we’ll be sharing her experiences and perspectives in observance of Black History Month. In this second installment, we discuss her religious beliefs and their influence on her work, which came up often in our conversation.

Religion was a strong influence during Faye Wattleton’s childhood and remains so in her adult life. She grew up in a fundamentalist family, and that religion, along with her experiences as a nurse, brought her to a belief in individual freedom that was absolute, including the conviction that every woman has the right to make her own reproductive choices.

When I asked about her work for reproductive rights, she said, “My view about that is perhaps most reflective of my religious upbringing, with respect to who shall judge. Judge not that you be not judged.”


“Our reproduction is still a proxy for the larger question of our full status as human beings and as citizens.”


That religious upbringing was shaped by the fact that her mother was an ordained minister in the Church of God, and her calling determined the course of Wattleton family life. While Faye was still little, this calling took her and her parents away from St. Louis and the safety of extended family. When she reached school age, her parents left her with families within the church, each year in a different place. During this time, she learned to rely on herself and think independently, perhaps preparing her to be a leader while keeping her within the protective bubble of the greater Church of God community.

The Church of God is Christian, Protestant, foundational, evangelical, and charismatic. Members believe in prayer, the inerrancy and literal truth of the Bible, personal salvation, and the unique, individual revelation of the Holy Spirit.* Ms. Wattleton often heard her mother preach and witnessed the emotional responses of her listeners in churches and revival meetings.

While her mother evangelized, bringing others to what she saw as the only way to God, Ms. Wattleton’s sense of mission came from the conviction that each person acts within unique life circumstances that must be respected. When I asked about this difference between her mother and herself, she replied that it “probably was due to my early training as a nurse. I went to college as a 16-year-old, graduated at 20. And so I was really deeply influenced by my professional training and exposure [to other people’s lives and problems]. It’s possible that, had I chosen a different profession, I may have seen life differently, but this is the profession that I chose.” Continue reading