Mad Men? Mad Women! Looking Back at The Feminine Mystique

February 25, 2011 at 11:36 am , by

I got together with my friend Stephanie Coontz the other day to talk about her new book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (Basic Books), which has drawn rave reviews from The New York Times Book Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and a host of other publications. Stephanie is the country’s foremost expert on marriage—she wrote the 2005 bestseller Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage—as well as a frequent advisor to Ladies’ Home Journal.

The new book has an unusual premise: It’s a biography not of Betty Friedan, but of Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the blockbuster work that forever changed the lives of American women—and men. (Fun fact: LHJ carried an excerpt from The Feminine Mystique in its January 1963 issue, a month before the book’s publication. Surprising? Not really. After all, LHJ has been charting the passions and pastimes of American women for 128 years now. As Stephanie put it, “The story of LHJ is the story of American women.”)

A fascinating examination of Friedan’s much-misunderstood classic, A Strange Stirring should be required reading for any young woman today who believes that she’s “not a feminist.” Not only does Stephanie movingly recount how revelatory The Feminine Mystique was to the millions of discontented housewives who read it, but she also details—with examples that had me shaking my head in stupefaction—the unbridled sexism that characterized life circa 1963. Over coffee, Stephanie recapped a few of the more egregious customs from those “bad old days”:

—Only eight states gave a wife any legal claim to her husband’s earnings or property. In the other 42, a wife’s only right was to be “properly supported.” One Kansas woman married to a successful farmer thought that “proper support” should include running water in her kitchen, since all the farm’s work spaces had it. She sued her husband (not for divorce, but for running water) and he fought her all the way to the Kansas Supreme Court, which agreed with him that “proper support” did not cover this amenity.

—Most states had “head and master” laws that gave husbands the right to make all final household decisions.

—The law did not recognize that a woman could be raped by her husband (South Dakota was the first state to make spousal rape a crime, in 1975) and domestic violence laws, where they existed, were seldom enforced.

—To keep their husbands from straying, homemakers were advised to keep their houses tidy and themselves “well-groomed.” The ideal wife, according to one best-selling marital expert, never asked her husband for help with the kids or the housework; was always ready to listen when he wanted to talk but never “bothered” him with idle chat; and was always willing to have sex whenever he wanted—but never threatened his masculinity by initiating it herself.

—If a woman did want or need a job, she could peruse the “Help Wanted: Female” ads, where employers sought “pretty” and “cheerful” “Gal Fridays” with “good typing & steno” (a requirement even when the applicant had a college degree).

—Employers were legally entitled to fire a woman if she got married, became pregnant, put on weight or—if she was a flight attendant—turned 30. In one particularly mind-boggling case, an airline “stewardess” who was discovered to have a child was told by her employer that she could keep her job only if she put the child in an orphanage.

—There were no laws against sexual harassment. If anything, the hit TV show Mad Men actually understates the conditions working women faced in the early sixties. One former (male) advertising executive I interviewed for the book told me that his agency’s personnel manager would send notes to the copy writers (all male) describing the physical dimensions of new female hires and assessing which ones might be “easy.”

So . . . are you convinced yet that you’re lucky to be living in 2011? If you have any lingering doubts, there are plenty of other examples where those came from in A Strange Stirring—and much, much more.

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