Book Review: A Strange Stirring by Stephanie Coontz

I've described A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique & American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s by Stephanie Coontz to others as a historical look at the women who read The Feminine Mystique, the impact of the book on their lives and a look at the myth of Betty Friedan. For a women's history nerd like me, this book was awesome. Admittedly, the semester took it's toll on how quickly, or rather how slowly, I read this book as this review was supposed to be included in Girl w/Pen's salon back in February.

I also have to admit that I've never read The Feminine Mystique. I know, I know...but Coontz also talked to women who didn't read the book either! The mythology surrounding TFM is so strong that it has touched most of our lives whether we have read it or not. I believe the mythology of TFM is simply put that Betty Friedan, a 1950s housewife, wrote a book about how she discovered that her boredom of caring for the kids and cleaning the house lead her to single-handedly revive the feminist movement in the USA. This includes founding the National Organization for Women. The critiques focus on how the book and the mainstream feminist movement (NOW) were too focused on middle-class white women. Coontz painstakingly proves and disproves these myths.

She also puts all the realities into historical perspective. Coontz is a historian and while some may think she is making excuses for how Friedan frames the issues in the book as well as tweaks Friedan made to her own backstory. Coontz outlines the often ignored/hidden feminist movement of the post-WW II era before the second wave officially begins with facts such as: 1955, a higher percentage of women worked for ages than ever had during the war. In fact, women's employment rate grew four times faster than men's during the 1950s.The employment of wives tripled and the employment of mothers increased fourfold. (page 59)
The emotion that Friedan tapped into with TFM, according to Coontz, wasn't that being married and a mom was a terrible thing, but that by having marriage & motherhood as THE goal in life, for most women in the 1950s, their life goals were achieved by 25. "..a few years after having children [they] found that they had no compelling goal left to pursue. As Cam Stivers said, it felt as if her life was already over (page 86)." 

The myth that Friedan was anti-marriage was explored and Coontz finds evidence that yes, some of the women who read TFM eventually divorced. But she also found that many of those women remarried and loved their second marriages. Coontz also talked with men who had read the book. Those men recounted how it helped them reframe how they saw marriage as more of a partnership.

As for the whiteness of TFM, Coontz acknowledges this fact. She spends one chapter to answer this critique directly while educating readers on the often unacknowledged history of African-American women in the civil rights movement as well as their leadership in "balancing" work and family. Coontz interviewed African-American women who wrote to Friedan who were upset that Friedan thought working would solve housewives problems as well as those who said it steeled them against the "prejudices in graduate school or medical school (126)."

I loved the chapter where Coontz lets Ruth Rosen's working class critique take center stage. So many white working class women wrote to Friedan with essentially a "wah..wah..wah..." message. Women who were working their butts off at the office and at home and did not feel liberated. And the even-handedness of Coontz also shows us working-class women who used TFM as their only ally in their quest to attend college and postpone the marriage & baby carriage.

Coontz ends the book with a look at how women are faring today. Did feminism kill marriage? Nope. The more education a woman gets, the more likely they are to marry. Did feminism kill sexiness? Nope. The more men contribute to housework, the happier they are in the bedroom! It's not all fun and roses, but it's not the gloom and doom that anti-feminists want us to believe.

And lastly, does feminism hate mothers? Hell no! Coontz wrote an excellent op-ed in the NYTimes for Mother's Day outlining how feminism has helped mothers by pushing for women to make their own choice about staying home with the kids, working outside the home or both depending on the family's need. Most pressure on women to be a certain kind of mother usually comes from non-feminist talking heads.

I really hope that everyone who has any opinion of what TFM did to our culture will read this book. It won't convert those who fiercely opposes feminism, but those who hold moderate views or hesitate to call themselves feminists based on any of the myths this books debunks, will be moved to reexamine those beliefs. It will also allow for a re-examination of Friedan herself. For those of us who are fiercely feminist, this is a must read book. One who doesn't know her history is bound to repeat it. And we all know how that turns out in the feminist movement. *wink*

Get your copy from IndieBound or Powells.

Disclaimers: I requested a copy from the author and am a big fan of her previous work.

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