Rebecca Traister on Stephanie Coontz's A Strange Stirring

"Pink right down to her underwear!"

A colleague of mine sent me a link to Rebecca Traister’s review yesterday in the New York Times of Stephanie Coontz’s A Strange Stirring:  “The Feminine Mystique” and American women at the Dawn of the 1960s (New York:  Basic Books, 2010).  It–like the book it reviews–is a refreshing review of Betty Friedan’s signal achievement and its importance in the intellectual and political history of American feminism.  In this respect, it’s quite a departure for Coontz, whom most of us know as a prominent American historian of marriage and the family.

After decades of distancing themselves from Friedan, whose activism after the publication of The Feminine Mystique was frequently controversial, it seems like feminist historians of all ages are now drawn to reconsider her work.  Her work (like any historical document or artifact) was a prisoner of its time, and since it was based on a survey of Smith College graduates, it was primarily an examination of la querelle des femmes from a white, middle-class perspective.  Perhaps 50 years is now a comfortable distance from which to read all of the uncomfortable questions Friedan’s book asked and raised about itself?

But as Traister points out, so many of these conversations throughout the twentieth century about women’s roles and how to combine family life with a working life have a Groundhog Day-like quality.  “Reading Coontz’s account of postsuffrage backlash — ‘Three decades of relentless attacks on feminism as antimale and anti­family had taken their toll’ — it’s hard to remember that she is writing about the 1950s. When she quotes Dorothy Thompson, who proclaimed in 1939 that the fantasy of women’s being able to meld career and family was ‘an illusion,’ we might as well be reading a modern antifeminist screed about the impossibility of ‘having it all.'”

I have to put in a word for Daniel Horowitz’s terrific biography Betty Friedan and the Making of “The Feminine Mystique”:  The American Left, the Cold War, and Feminism (Amherst:  University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), which may have started the whole Friedan revival.  (Those of you modern U.S. historians, please feel free to chime in here to correct my impressions.)  In the course of researching his book, Horowitz discovered that Friedan was far from the typical bored housewife–she had worked after college for a newspaper with Communist Party ties, and that part of her history was something she worked hard to conceal for understandable reasons:  conservative anti-communists were quick to see pink or red in all leftist movements and to try to discredit them by calling their leaders communist sympathizers. 

But, this stunning discovery has never really percolated into the popular feminist vision of Friedan.  If it had, I wonder if so many younger feminists would be so quick to demonize Friedan for her class bias or her homophobia.  (As we discussed here last year upon the death of Mary Daly, it’s too easy to dismiss feminist intellectuals because they too were prisoners of their time, as we all are.)  Horowitz’s analysis makes it clear that Friedan knew all too well what the stakes were in Cold War America, and how easily it would have been to dismiss feminism if her ties to the CP had been exposed.

One final note:  I met Stephanie Coontz over a decade ago when she was an invited speaker at my former university, and had dinner with her with a few other faculty members and students.  She was a truly lovely person–unfailingly gracious, and curious about our students and our research.  If you’re interested, don’t hesitate to invite her to come to your campus. 

(“Pink right down to her underwear” was Richard Nixon’s fanous characterization of his 1950 opponent for the U.S. Senate, Helen Gahagan Douglas.)

0 thoughts on “Rebecca Traister on Stephanie Coontz's A Strange Stirring

  1. I think Friedan spoke to a lot of women, but I wonder if she has aged as well as de Beauvoir? (Sorry to go off-topic but…) I always found de Beauvoir far, far more exciting — she has a systematic analysis about power and culture, whereas Friedan always seemed to me more circumscribed in the scope of her analysis. Friedan helped me observe something about heterosexual families in the suburbs like mine, whereas de Beauvoir helped me contextualize and understand the whole concept of patriarchy.

    Indeed, I suspect my Failure to Reproduce is partly (not wholly) due to reading de Beauvoir at the impressionable age of my late teens. She was the one that brought home to me the idea that patriarchy begins at home, and is the most intimate and invisible of oppressions. I wish I had more time to finish re-reading the brilliant new translation of *The Second Sex,* out last year: I started it and was as inspired as ever, but had to put it aside to get back to my own work.


  2. Squadrato–if you haven’t read the Traister review, do read the whole thing. She talks about how Friedan’s intellectual influences–Beauvoir prominent among them–haven’t gotten their due. Basically, she (after Coontz, I’m assuming) writes that Friedan’s observations weren’t new, they were just packaged in a way that made people eager to read them.

    Nice explanation of the differences between Friedan and Beauvoir, by the way! (A sociological specific illustration versus a theory of patriarchal power.)


  3. I read Feminine Mystique for the first time in graduate school as part of my research on gender in uranium camps (there was a connection, trust me). I was, on the one hand, completely enthralled at how right so much of the critique seemed from my own life experience, even as my own mother had so absorbed the lessons of it by the time I was school aged that I was a latch-key kid in fourth grade. (I actually read her copy which was kind of cool. It had the violently pink cover.) What struck as me as historian, though, was how cleverly it used the rhetoric of anti-communism to demand that women’s talents not be wasted on the home. Repeatedly she made the argument that the key to defeating the Soviets was to unleash female potential. Coming out so shortly after the kitchen debate, it’s hard to underestimate how shockingly counterintuitive it must have been to people. Yet here was an attempt to re-blend feminism and liberalism in ways not seen since the 1930s (with the exception that proved the rule that was Eleanor).

    I know my mother, a middle-class suburban white woman was profoundly changed by the book and by 1970s era Ms. Magazine and all the other stuff that’s been slagged of late (still awaiting the great book on Free to Be You and Me which continues to be a best-selling CD btw) and I know that reading the Stories for Free Children in the back of Ms. Magazine helped shape my early feminist consciousness. Friedan got that shaft started, and everyone else just dug it (okay, mining humor it’s midterms here at Girls’ K-12 and I’m punchy). And like any good motherlode, there were other shafts to dig, and other miners, like bell hooks, to dig them. But you don’t diss the prospector because she only found part of the score. (Beat. that. metaphor. until. it. is. dead.)


  4. I have seen the review, as well as another by Louis Menand in the NYer (which gives greater prominence to her communist background). Indeed, I think the comparison with de beauvoir was inspired by both those reviews. I think it was Menand who noted that *The Second Sex* had some reviews and promotions in the US, but ultimately didn’t become the best-seller *Feminine Mystique* did, because it was regarded as “too French” (e.g, too philosophically abstract and non-sociological). Yet, I think with the passage of time, Freidan’s book has not aged as well as de Beauvoir’s. As Coontz and both reviewers point out, Freidan was more *of* her time than ahead of it; but in my opinion, de Beauvoir *was* ahead of her time, and still the more challenging and interesting book today.


  5. When I taught a feminist theory class last semester, we read De Beauvoir, not Friedan. But Friedan was an organizer, and her work was very important at a particular moment…it suggested (to me as a teenager in the late 60s) that I didn’t have to follow the script.


  6. Indeed, I suspect my Failure to Reproduce is partly (not wholly) due to reading de Beauvoir at the impressionable age of my late teens. She was the one that brought home to me the idea that patriarchy begins at home, and is the most intimate and invisible of oppressions.


    I was also ruined as a prim and proper lady with her eyes set on marriage and procreation after reading de Beauvoir (at 17/18). She first made me realize that many men see women as nothing more than (failed) status objects.

    I haven’t read Friedan yet. I must say that her past anti-lesbian sentiments- making lesbians out to be a threat to feminism’s attractiveness- are especially hard for me to swallow. I get the historical context but that’s basically an old version of “People like you ruin feminism”.


  7. Friedan was really nasty about lesbians and eager to make feminism safe for bourgeois heterosexualists, unfortunately. There is no question about that. Still, I wonder to what extent the Cold War shaped her homophobia. (It’s been 10 years since I read the Horowitz bio, and as luck would have it, it’s in my work office so I can’t check this today.) Was this yet another way to distance herself from her CP affiliation, given the connections between the Red menace and the Lavender menace in the minds of many policy makers?


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