Skip to main content

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.

* Book links are affiliate links. If you buy your book here I could make a very small amount of money that goes towards this blog.


Popular posts from this blog

Review: Mary: The Adventures of Mary Shelley's Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter

Mary: The Adventures of Mary Shelley's Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Granddaughter by Brea Grant My rating: 4 of 5 stars View all my reviews

Frederick, A Virtual Puppet Performance - Read by Michael Shannon

WOW...this is my first post during the Coronavirus pandemic! I hope you and your loved ones are healthy and safe. Thanks to the Chicago Children’s Theatre, the city’s largest professional theater devoted exclusively to children and families, for launching a new YouTube channel, CCTv: Virtual Theatre and Learning from Chicago Children’s Theatre. To kick if off we are treated to Frederick. Here's hoping this helps with your little ones. Or is a comfort to everyone of all ages. Chicago Children’s Theatre’s all-new virtual puppet performance was created while all of the artists were sheltering in place, working with resources limited to what they had in their homes or on their laptops. Frederick is directed by CCT Co-Founder and Artistic Director Jacqueline Russell. Puppets and sets were designed, built and puppeteered in a home studio by Grace Needlman and Will Bishop, CCT’s Director of Production, the creative team behind CCT’s annual series of Beatrix Potter puppet show

Book Review: Wolfpack by Abby Wambach

Less than a year ago, Abby Wambach took the stage at Barnard's commencement and gave a speech that shook many, including myself, to the core . Her speech went viral and I made the above image in order to share the highlights of her speech. Earlier this month Abby released the speech in book form. Wolfpack : How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game is short (less than 100 pages) but is much more than just her speech . You get a peek into how the speech came together and why she said everything. And because the book is short and is an expanded speech, it moves quickly. I feel that it moves with the same ferocity that Abby use to move down a soccer field. And you might find yourself cheering as she takes you through the story. Abby has always been one of my favorite players. The way she ran amok on the pitch was exactly the way I felt I played sports. Never caring how you looked and giving it your all. Leaving it all on the field. When she retired from socc