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Stirring Up 'The Feminine Mystique' for a New Generation

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I am a young professor of sociology teaching classes on gender, marriage and social change -- and I have never read Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique." Like many women of my generation, I thought I had. I must have, I told myself. Perhaps in college? No. And it turns out that very few of my well-educated, feminist-leaning friends have either.

When I bring up "The Feminine Mystique" (1963) in passing in lectures, I ask my students if they've heard of that phrase, or have heard a reference to "the problem that has no name." The majority of them raise their hands, but few can tell me what the book was about. They certainly haven't read it. With professorial authority, I tell them that "The Feminine Mystique" was a battle cry for housewives everywhere that they could put down their dishrags and demand equality. But since reading "A Strange Stirring," Stephanie Coontz's excellent new social history of the impact of Betty Friendan's landmark book on American women, I'm not quite sure.

I associate Betty Friedan with metaphorically lighting the match that burned all those bras in the 1960s and 1970s, yet Coontz demonstrates that Friedan was pretty conservative by today's standards. She didn't tell women to divorce their husbands. Nowhere in "The Feminine Mystique" does she say women should pursue careers. And she certainly wasn't anti-marriage.

At core, writes Coontz, "Friedan asked us to imagine a world where men and women can both find meaningful, socially useful work and also participate in the essential activities of love and caregiving for children, partners, parents, friends and neighbors." That is neither a radical concept nor one we have achieved in the nearly 50 years since.

Coontz is the rare social historian who knows how to weave meticulous research into a compelling narrative of our not-too-distant past. As the author of several myth-busting books about marriage and family, Coontz does more than simply tell a story of "The Feminine Mystique": She guides readers from the era of "Mad Men" straight through to the present to show us that while things have changed, Betty Friedan's message of equality is still a long way off.

The study of gender is not just about the study of women. It's about the study of men and masculinity, too. Yes, in my classes on the sociology of gender we spend time talking about pink-collar jobs, discrimination against working mothers and the media's sexualization of young girls. But we also talk about attitudes of misandry that permeate popular sitcoms and the restrictive, macho "tough guise" that often prevents men from expressing emotions or pursuing interests not deemed acceptable by current norms of manliness.

"A Strange Stirring" details Betty Friedan's belief that men weren't the enemy -- rather, they must be partners with women in gender equality. Coontz notes that one of the reasons that "The Feminine Mystique" seems dated today is that we live in an era where women are raised to believe that they can be or do just about anything -- a fact that would make Friedan proud. Yet men who don't conform to the manliness codes -- say, a man who wants to be a primary caregiver or a boy who isn't interested in fighting -- are likely to be labeled as "sissy" or "gay." And that, Coontz writes, is a "masculine mystique" that would make Friedan cringe.

"A Strange Stirring" will be a staple of many college reading lists. But it's not an academic book. It's a compelling read for anyone who wants to understand the evolution of our modern ideas about gender. I can see it being devoured by book clubs of women in their 50s and 60s who want to understand their mothers anew. Perhaps the audience in greatest need of this book are women like me; those who don't know their history are bound to repeat it. As women in their 20s and 30s take on the role of wife and mother, we must remember that the quest for gender equality isn't just a women's issue. Those of us who want husbands who will share the joys and burdens of caregiving must fight against restrictive ideas of masculinity and femininity that hold both genders back.

It's unlikely that many of us will rush to our local libraries to check out "The Feminine Mystique." That's fine. "A Strange Stirring" is, in many ways, better than the original. Today the problem has been named, and "A Strange Stirring" offers poignant personal reactions, accessible history and present-day comparisons to give voice to the modern quest for gender equality.

Around the Web

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