Stephanie Coontz revitalizes feminist debate

Historians in the News

[Cynthia Fuchs Epstein is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Among her books are Woman’s Place, Women in Law, and Deceptive Distinctions.]

The “F” word (feminism) has been revived in academic and literary discourse with Stephanie Coontz’s A Strange Stirring, a widely publicized book that considers the intent and impact of Betty Friedan’s iconic The Feminine Mystique. Like other critics, Coontz claims that Friedan’s book should not be credited with starting the women’s movement, suggesting it would have happened anyway. She also faults her for being “elitist,” focusing on the lives of middle-class women, and neglecting the situations of working-class women and women of color. Because Coontz’s perspective is not uncommon, it is worth reviewing Friedan’s contributions to social change in America.

Coontz, like other writers who do not distance themselves from the term “feminist” and who (sometimes grudgingly) acknowledge that Friedan did play a role in achieving greater women’s equality, somehow feels that The Feminine Mystique was deficient. It was “only” an analysis of the despair felt by housewives isolated in domestic roles after the Second World War and “contained no call for women to band together to improve their legal and political rights.” In interviews with women who read Friedan’s book when it came out in 1963, Coontz heard of how much it “changed their lives,” how Friedan connected their private distress to a larger social problem. She gives Friedan credit for arguing that this problem needed to be addressed by education, work, and community involvement, and for providing “the clinching piece of evidence…that they had indeed been the target of a massive and cynical campaign to erase the feminist aspirations of the 1920s and turn women into mindless consumers.” But she faults her for not mentioning marital rape, abortion, sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and issues faced by African-American women.

But to assume that the book should have been a manifesto for the women’s movement is ridiculous and wrongheaded. Its purpose was to shed light on the “mental health crisis” middle-class women faced because of their entrapment in roles as housewives and mothers, and to expose the rationalizations of these “functional” roles as necessary for social stability in social science analysis (particularly the work of Talcott Parsons). To fault her for not writing a book that prescribed wide social change is foolish. It raised the consciousness of millions of readers and gave Friedan the visibility required for her to begin building a movement. The notion that she was not pivotally important in creating one of the largest movements ever for social change in the United States, and indeed the world, points to the lack of respect and recognition women leaders face, even on the part of their own constituencies. It also shows ignorance of the context and the history of the movement....

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