Thursday, March 10, 2011

Stephanie Coontz's "A Strange Stirring"

Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College. Her books include Marriage, a History, The Way We Never Were, and The Way We Really Are. She lives in Olympia, Washington.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, and reported the following:
My book started as a biography of Betty Friedan’s influential 1963 bestseller, The Feminine Mystique. But after interviewing 188 women and men who read that book at the time and researching the legal barriers and social prejudices facing women in the postwar decades, I realized this was the collective story of the sidelined wives and daughters of “the Greatest Generation.” A Strange Stirring looks back to the days when the civil rights movement and an emerging student movement were shaking up America but school girls were not allowed to be crossing guards, wives were still governed by “head and master” laws giving husbands the final say over family life, and women seeking jobs had to turn to the "Help-Wanted: Female" ads.

Friedan’s book did not appeal to all women, and initially I was put off by her focus on a white, middle-class audience. But these women faced peculiar dilemmas. Many of them had recently moved into the middle class – often by marrying men who had taken advantage of the GI Bill or found family-wage jobs in the booming postwar economy. They knew they were better off than their mothers and grandmothers, and also luckier than working-class white women and African-American women of all income groups (both of whose experiences I describe in a later chapter). And yet they felt something was missing. And they believed the leading thinkers of the day who claimed that any discontent with women’s assigned roles was a symptom of severe psychological maladjustment. The words I heard most often from these women were “I thought I was crazy” – until Friedan told them their unhappiness was not a personal weakness but the result of a social injustice: their exclusion from any source of meaning and productive work other than that of caring for husbands and children.

Page 99 of my book is half of the final paragraph of chapter 5, a chapter based on what I was told by women and men about how Friedan’s book affected them. The quote I end with is not typical of the book because it is from Gary Gerst, one of the relatively few men I was able to interview. But it illustrates how reading Freidan made him understand the issues facing women in those days:
For Gerst, “the problem with no name” meant that women “had been muffled, ignored, not even allowed to give voice to a truth or even able to describe it. How awful that such discontent by so many for so long was muted without even a term with which to understand it.... I know that from then on it also influenced what type of women I wished to date and eventually marry. I sought strong women who were not about to surrender their dreams or self to assigned servitude or silence.”
Learn more about the book and author at Stephanie Coontz's website.

The Page 69 Test: Stephanie Coontz's Marriage, A History.

--Marshal Zeringue