A Strange Stirring

Since its publication in 1963, The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan has been credited with launching the contemporary women's movement and decried for tearing housewives from home. In 2007, the book even ended up on a conservative magazine's list of top-ten most harmful books, just under Hitler's Mein Kampf. Love it or hate it, there's no question the bestseller was revelatory for a certain segment of women—largely white, educated, and middle-class—who found that a life limited to marriage and motherhood wasn't as fulfilling as society told them it should be.

 

In A Strange Stirring, historian Stephanie Coontz examines how and why Friedan's book inspired such a passionate response from so many. Excerpting from interviews, oral histories, and letters Friedan received, Coontz captures the book's impact on real women: "I didn't know why I was so unhappy until I read The Feminine Mystique. Then something clicked"; "It left me breathless"; "I got my mind back."

 

Moving beyond personal testimonials, Coontz makes abundant use of statistics to dissect the post-war period as experienced by American women more broadly—including African-American and working-class women, who were left out of Friedan's study. She also considers Friedan herself, critiquing her more exaggerated and oversimplified claims, praising her for those observations that remain relevant. Ever more central to the workforce, women today must now face many of the economic pressures that once bore down almost solely on men. As Coontz's enlightening book demonstrates, Friedan's core message about the need to balance meaningful work and family life endures.


Erica Wetter is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in Bookforum, Orion, Bust, and The Georgia Review, among other publications.

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