Friday, March 18, 2011

Giving Context to The Feminine Mystique

I finally got around to reading Stephanie Coontz's A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, the book that examines, in retrospect, Betty Fridan's most famous work. The slim volume deftly takes on the importance of The Feminine Mystique in the 1960s, but Coontz's examination is not without nuance or critique. Fridan's work was both vitally important and not quite the mythic ignition to the modern feminist movement that it has become.

Coontz surveys 188 women who read The Feminine Mystique and recounts how the work impacted these women. But she also places the work in the historical position that it belongs. The early chapters on the feminist and suffragist movements before Friedan published her work place the frustration women so felt with their roles as wives in important context. Coontz notes that these early women's movements had an impact on public opinion:
In a 1938 poll conducted by the Ladies' Home Journal, 60 percent of the female respondents disliked having the word "obey" in marriage vows, 75 percent favored joint decision-making between husband and wife, and a whopping 80 percent felt that an unemployed husband should keep house for his wife if she were working.
Coontz is sure to note that in some ways, women's equality was backsliding:
From 1951 to 1955, female full-time workers earned 63.9 percent of what male full-time workers earned. By 1963, women's pay had fallen to less than 59 percent of men's Meanwhile the proportion of of women in high-prestige jobs declined: Fewer than 6 percent of woerking women held executive jobs in the 1950s.
This means that the era in which Friedan was putting forth her message about women pursuing work they found fulfilling was happening in the midst of a social backlash to significant advancements in women's involvement in public life. Much of this backlash had to do with externalizes; women's work was viewed as less important during the Great Depression, when many were struggling to find work at all, and women who had advanced in the working world during the war were called on to give their jobs back to veterans—sometimes whether they wanted to or not.

Still, some of the things women faced in this era are somewhat shocking to read from the perspective of today (or at least, they were to me):
Even when a wife lived apart from her husband she could seldom rent or buy a home on her own. In 1972, the New York Times carried a story about a woman who could not rent an apartment until her husband, a patient in a mental hospital, signed the lease.

In many states, a woman was obliged to take her husband's surname. In some, she could not return to her maiden name after divorce unless under the fault-based divorce system, she had proven that he was "at fault." A woman who did not change the name on her driver's license or voter registration upon marriage could have it revoked until she did.
And it is perhaps this context that I found so valuable about Coontz's work and what makes her such an important academic. Her previous book, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, provided a clear and honest history of an institution about which many make mythic claims about its history. She does the same thing with A Strange Stirring, providing both mythbusting and context to an important cultural touchstone of women's rights in the last century. Since I can only read about that time in books, this was an important book for me to read.

Update: Yesterday Jill Brooke over at HuffPo's "Divorce" page (that's kinda weird the page is called that, no?) interviews Coontz. In it, Brooke notes that Phyllis Shlafly (!) says feminism is the cause of divorce. Coontz actually touches on this in her book, saying that at first economic independence did cause more women to walk away from their marriages but now women who embrace feminist ideas about gender equality tend to have happier marriages in the long run. Here's how she responds to Brooke's question.
Feminism didn't make good marriages go bad. But feminist reforms gave women the opportunity to get out of unhappy or unfair marriages, and in that sense feminism was the catalyst for many divorces in the 1970s and 1980s. When women no longer had to prove fault to get a divorce, many women whose marriages had been bad for years found it more possible to get a divorce. Before feminist-inspired reforms, for example, there were 42 states where a homemaker who could not prove fault in divorce (and often the criteria for fault were very stringent), had no claim at all on anything her husband had earned during the marriage, even if her housekeeping and child-raising had enabled his career. Furthermore, once feminist reforms gained women access to better jobs and outlawed discrimination in pay, hiring, and promotions, women who were unhappy in their marriages no longer had to stay married out of dire economic necessity.
You can read the whole interview here.

1 comment:

Kerry Scott said...

When I was a kid, I had this copy of the Minneapolis Tribune wrapped up from the day I was born. It was wrapped in pink paper, and marked "Do Not Open Until Age 21." Apparently, the Minneapolis Tribune offered a service in 1971 where they would mail you a copy of the paper when you had a baby, and my parents had bought it.

Being a history buff even as a child, I couldn't wait to open the paper. It was the very first thing I did on my 21st birthday. I read every single page.

Imagine my surprise when I found the Help Wanted section, which was filled with headlines like "Girl Wanted" and "Family Man Wanted." The ads actually specified what gender they were for. Most of the secretarial ads wanted not just a "girl," but an "attractive girl."

And that's why I became a feminist on my 21st birthday. I had no idea how much had changed in those 21 years.

Women still struggle to keep their names after marriage (just ask Hillary Rodham Clinton).

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