Lorraine Glennon

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. Read more

Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail: Q&A with Daniel Akst

February 2, 2011 at 11:57 am , by

Now that the first month of 2011 has trudged to a chilly close, it’s a good time to review those New Year’s resolutions that so many of us made with utmost sincerity and determination a scant four weeks ago. How did they manage to evaporate so quickly? I recently sat down to discuss this problem with my old friend Daniel Akst, whose new book We Have Met the Enemy: Self Control in an Age of Excess (Penguin Press), examines what he calls “the democratization of temptation” and why we have so much trouble resisting it.

LG: In We Have Met the Enemy, you say that the extraordinary abundance we enjoy today comes with a price—the need to self-regulate, since society is no longer doing it for us. Why is self-control so hard these days?

DA: In truth, self-control has always been hard, because we’re torn between short-term rewards, which exert the most power, and the much more abstract—yet ultimately greater—long-term rewards we can achieve if we can manage to keep our impulses in check.

LG: Still, in your book you look back in history and argue that self-control is exponentially harder now and the stakes are higher.

DA: Yes, that’s true. And that’s because, while human nature hasn’t changed, the landscape of temptation has. Not that long ago, all you had to spend in a store was the money in your pocket, and the store was probably closed on Sundays. Today, giant emporia are open 24/7, and in addition to the money in your pocket you have several pieces of plastic that enable you to get thousands of dollars in instant credit from banks you’ve never even visited. Similarly, a hankering for fried chicken once meant catching and killing a live chicken and then plucking and cooking it. Now, all it takes is a trip to the nearest KFC. And there’s no shortage of those: The number of fast-food outlets per capita grew more than fivefold from 1970 to 2004. Or look at gambling. In 1970 casinos were legal only in Nevada, and New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York were the only states with lotteries. Today every state but Utah and Hawaii has legalized casinos or lotteries or both. And the Internet entices gamblers at all hours with offshore “virtual” casinos.

Then, to complicate matters, our views about indulgence have also changed. Once upon a time you were supposed to defer gratification until you were dead, when you would be rewarded in the afterlife. That started to seem too long a wait for most of us, and over time our attitudes toward consumption, borrowing and fulfillment shifted. Read more

Remembering Elizabeth Edwards (1949 – 2010)

December 8, 2010 at 4:25 pm , by

Here at Ladies’ Home Journal, we received the news of Elizabeth Edwards’s death with particular sadness. She was a good friend of the magazine, and we twice published excerpts of her memoir Saving Graces—first when the hardcover came out in 2006 and again with the paperback edition, which included a new chapter about the return of the cancer that would eventually take her life.

I was lucky enough to attend the luncheon that LHJ hosted in her honor after the first excerpt was published. It was an intimate gathering—perhaps twelve of us assembled around a single table—that gave everyone present a chance to chat informally with Elizabeth, who immediately revealed herself to be a powerhouse. She was unfailingly charming—warm, funny, compassionate—but what struck me above all was her lively intellect. As she fielded questions ranging from what she really thought of Teresa Heinz Kerry (read the book) to how she would fix healthcare in America, she was insightful, provocative and original. She truly was that rare individual who was as comfortable chatting about her kids as discussing foreign policy—and she did both with aplomb.

She also was a beautiful writer and her books are lasting testaments to that fact. (At the lunch she mentioned that her publisher, upon signing Saving Graces, had provided her with a ghostwriter, but after trying out the arrangement, she quickly decided she preferred to write her own story.) I happened to be an editor at Broadway Books (a division of Random House) at the time her second bestseller, Resilience, was slated to go into paperback. The hardcover version had been published before the news hit that Elizabeth’s husband of thirty-plus years had not only had an affair with a campaign videographer but had also fathered her child; for the paperback, Elizabeth wanted to write an afterword that told her readers the truth. I was honored to work directly with Elizabeth on this new chapter, and, again, I was stunned by the quality of her writing and amazed by her refusal to indulge in even a smidgen of self-pity (to which, given the tragedies she endured, she was more than entitled). That final chapter, which was written last April, began with her recollections of Christmas 2009 (“our last as a family”) and ended with her simple wish for just “eight years”—enough time to see her son Jack graduate high school, her daughter Emma Claire choose a college major and her older daughter, Cate, hand her “at least one child to hold.”

It pains me beyond measure to think that she got only eight months. Rest in peace, EE. You were an inspiration to millions of women.