A sharp revisiting of the generation that was floored by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), and how the book is still relevant today.
In order to understand how Friedan’s bestseller affected the World War II generation of women in America, Coontz (History, Family Studies/Evergreen State Coll.; Marriage, a History, 2006, etc.) delved into Friedan’s archives at the Schlesinger Library, in Cambridge, Mass., as well as conducted surveys of her own. She taps into the incendiary reaction originally provoked by the book, and thereby is able to elucidate more clearly how the women’s movement evolved over the succeeding decades. Having done their part for the war effort, the middle-class, mostly white women of Friedan’s late-’50s/early-’60s study welcomed their men back and were safely ensconced in the home, aspiring to an ideal of wifeliness and motherhood perfectly calibrated by Madison Avenue and the popular magazines of the day. Although many of the women were the first in their families to attend college, many of them were “tricked” into believing that their greater purpose in life was to serve husbands and raise children, rather than pursue a career. Ultimately, they succumbed to what Friedan called a “nameless aching dissatisfaction.” which was something like emotional paralysis and existential malaise. Psychologists and so-called experts often blamed the problem on the women themselves for their inability to conform, but Friedan diagnosed it presciently as the thwarting of “the need to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings.” In fact, there was a name for what was ailing American women of the era—sex discrimination—and Coontz examines it with a battery of facts and figures. She traces Friedan’s research and some gaps in her argument—e.g., she largely ignored African-American and working-class women—and the creative spin she gave to her own background. Coontz concludes that we still have far to go in achieving Friedan’s vision of equality between the sexes.
A valuable education for women and men. For readers looking for a thorough biography of Friedan, check out Judith Hennessee's Betty Friedan: Her Life (1999).