stephanie coontz

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


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