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Stirring Up 'The Feminine Mystique' 47 Years Later

Betty Friedan, the late author of <em>The Feminine Mystique,</em> is shown in her New York apartment May 25, 1970.
Betty Friedan, the late author of The Feminine Mystique, is shown in her New York apartment May 25, 1970.

In Betty Friedan's obituary, The New York Times described the publication of her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique as a pioneering moment in American history.

"It ignited the contemporary women's movement in 1963 and as a result permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States and countries around the world," wrote Margalit Fox. "With its impassioned yet clear-eyed analysis of the issues that affected women's lives in the decades after World War II — including enforced domesticity, limited career prospects and, as chronicled in later editions, the campaign for legalized abortion, The Feminine Mystique is widely regarded as one of the most influential nonfiction books of the 20th century."

Though it initially sold more than 3 million copies, the book had never reached the shelf of social historian Stephanie Coontz. It was only after an editor suggested that she write about The Feminine Mystique that Coontz, the author of several popular books about marriage and family, realized she had never picked up the book that made American housewives realize they could "grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings."

"But I'd heard a lot about it, not only from the conversation that was going on — it was a very provocative best-seller in 1963 and 1964 — but also even before that from my own mother," Coontz tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "She had read it and adored it. And somehow ideas from it had seeped into me."

But Coontz says she didn't fully appreciate the book until she interviewed almost 200 women and men who had read The Feminine Mystique when it was first published. Her resulting social history, A Strange Stirring, takes its name from the very first paragraph of Friedan's text, in which Friedan famously describes a "strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning" in American housewives' minds.

Though Coontz says A Feminine Mystique is now dated and narrow in scope, she praises the text's importance for the generation of women coming of age in the 1960s. She explains that many of the women she interviewed still remembered exactly where they were and what they were doing when they encountered Friedan's groundbreaking text for the first time.

"When they read that somehow they weren't alone [in feeling dissatisfied], it occasioned this release because [the book] said: It's not because you're ungrateful, it's not because you're unfeminine — the way the Freudian psychologists have been telling you — and it's not because there's something particularly wrong with your marriage or your children or anything else in your life — except that you're a real human being [and] you have a need for meaning in your life, not as an alternative to, but in addition to your personal life, your loves and your family," Coontz says.

And, she says, doing the research for A Strange Stirring taught her how far women have come in the past few decades.

"It's so easy to look around and complain," she says. "But when you actually see, not only how women were treated by society — their legal status — but how they thought of themselves, how low their self-esteem was at all income levels in all racial-ethnic groups, and compare to the self-confidence today that women have, it's stunning to see how much can be accomplished in just 47 years."

Stephanie Coontz is the director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families and a faculty member at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.