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'A Strange Stirring'

June 15, 2011 By:
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Betty Friedan leads a protest in 1971 calling for equality for women.

SPEAKING VOLUMES

Stephanie Coontz makes a point repeatedly in her new book, A Strange Stirring, a study of feminist Betty Friedan, author of the groundbreaking bestseller, The Feminine Mystique. Coontz reminds readers often that Friedan disliked Daniel Horowitz's biographical study of her, which appeared in 1998 and looked into Friedan's political background. Perhaps disliked is too tame a word. According to Coontz, Friedan denied Horowitz "permission to quote anything from her unpublished papers, told confidantes that he was attacking her, and threatened to sue him."

Well, if Friedan didn't much like the Horowitz volume -- which, no matter its disclosures, was a sympathetic portrait -- then I doubt she would have been a big fan of A Strange Stirring either (Friedan died at age 85 in 2006). Even though this is also a positive portrait of the writer and of the work that changed so many women's lives, Coontz, in her determination to set the record straight, felt it necessary to revisit Friedan's temper tantrums over Horowitz and pin down the truth about her subject's past and politics. Coontz comes down consistently on Horowitz's side, though that hardly puts a dent in her admiration for Friedan.

In essence, A Strange Stirring, which is published by Basic Books, is as much about the creator of the work and its effect on society since its publication in 1963 as it is about certain women who were affected by reading it. Coontz managed to track down some of those initial readers and has them speak about what their lives were like before The Feminine Mystique appeared and what happened to them afterwards.

But though Coontz never denies the importance of the book under examination, or Friedan's centrality to the modern feminist movement, she also tests many of her subject's major claims about herself, the women of the post-World War II era and what they all were suffering from in 1950s' suburbia.

The book is divided into nine chapters that consider such issues as Friedan's message to American housewives; how women fared in America from the 1920s to the 1940s; and how African-American and working-class women reacted -- or didn't -- to The Feminine Mystique. Her penultimate chapter is titled -- not to put too fine a point on it -- "Demystifying The Feminine Mystique."

'When the Men Came Home'

As Coontz points out in her author's note, much has been written about the Greatest Generation -- i.e., those men who fought and helped win World War II -- but there has been much less focus placed on the women of that same period, many of whom were these men's wives and daughters. Writes the author: "They were, as one of the women I interviewed told me, 'a generation of intelligent women, sidelined from the world.' Some were content to provide love and comfort when the men came home. But others felt that something was missing from their lives, though they could seldom put their finger on it."

Coontz is obviously interested in what such women had to say about The Feminine Mystique, but she's also set out to recalibrate how Friedan saw herself before, during and after the writing of the work.

Friedan states in her book that she had lived according to the feminine mystique as a suburban housewife and that it took time for her to see that there was something wrong with the way she and other American women were being told to organize their lives. When Coontz began looking into the historical record -- using Daniel Horowitz's road map -- she discovered that Friedan had misrepresented the type of life she'd lived and where her ideas emanated from.

In addition, when Coontz compared some of Friedan's conclusions to the historical record, she saw that the text was both "repetitive and overblown" and also "made claims about women's history that I knew were oversimplified, exaggerating both the feminist victories of the 1920s and the antifeminist backlash of the 1940s and 1950s." And, Coontz shows conclusively, that Friedan's book alone did not launch the wave of feminism that arose in the 1970s.

But when she talked to the women whose lives had been altered byThe Feminine Mystique, Coontz also realized that none of this mattered as much as the long and potent influence the book has had throughout the decades. These faults could be excused when they concerned a text so wide-ranging in its effect. (Some readers -- including myself -- may feel that the author has been a little too lenient on her subject in certain regards.)

But despite all those people who thought -- and some who still think -- that Friedan's famous book is anti-marriage and that the famed feminist was a "man-hater," Coontz states that nothing could be further from the truth. Though Friedan may have disdained housework and its tedium, "she was consistently, almost romantically, optimistic about heterosexual love and marriage in a world where women were men's equals." Friedan was certain even back in 1963 that if educational and professional opportunities for women would improve, then that could only make marriage stronger. What sensible person would argue against these things (though it was not so apparent 40 years ago when it took great courage to broach such ideas)?

A Strange Stirring is a much-needed corrective about both Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, which, though very much a work that reflects and embodies its time, still has a great deal to say to women and men. As Coontz points out, Friedan's insistence "on the need to break down prevailing assumptions about women, work, and family and to look for the societal origins of dilemmas that are often experienced as purely personal, remains extremely relevant. This is especially true when it comes to figuring out how to balance the need for meaningful work and meaningful relationships, for creative fulfillment and for love."

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