Book review: A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique & American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s

Over the last few weeks, I’ve read A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. (Which I found when Hilary tweeted the link to this article written by the author.) From looking at the Goodreads reviews, it seems those who regularity read feminist theory thought this was too surface-level but other readers enjoyed it more. 

I’m clearly no women’s studies major, given one reason I checked this out is because I didn’t even know what the feminine mystique was and wanted to find out. For some reason, I kind of thought (but wasn’t at all sure) it was ‘that mystical thing that makes women desirable.’ (In a positive way – not an objectifying way.) In this theory, The Feminine Mystiquewould have been an empowering “embrace your mystique!” kind of novel.

Turns out, the feminine mystique is “the mystique that surrounded the roles of housewife and mother, denying women’s need for any other source of personal identity or meaning in their lives.”

So. Sort of different.

Freidan/Coontz says 50s housewives were “misled into thinking that service to their family was the highest and only aspiration women should have.”

“’The female doesn’t really expect a lot from life,’ explained one mother [whom Coontz quotes from a Saturday Evening Post article complied from a Gallup poll in 1962]. ‘She’s here as someone’s keeper – her husband’s or her children’s.’” Those who wanted more were thought to be defective or not appreciative enough of what they had and thought themselves inadequate.

As I read more, it seemed The Feminine Mystique (the book) was to a lot of women what the internet has been for many of those in my blogging circle – a “shock of recognition and an overwhelming sense of relief they were not alone in their feelings.” Even I’ve always bought into the idea marriage and motherhood are these magical wonderful things and when I found out they’re hard and often not wonderful it meant a lot to find out others felt the same. I’m nowhere near as trapped as 50s housewives were – I even have exactly what Betty Freidan said would solve everything: a job (though not the housekeeper she also recommended) – yet I initially thought there was something wrong with me for not being completely fulfilled and blissful as a mother.

At the end of the book, Coontz goes into issues facing women (and men) today. I found the last section, talking about “the career mystique…the idea that a successful career requires people to commit all their time and energy throughout their prime years to their jobs.” especially fascinating.

“The feminine mystique defined the ideal wife as having no interests or obligations outside the home. The career mystique defines the ideal employee – male or female – as having no familial or caregiving obligations that compete with work.”

It’s nice to think this could change, much as the role of women in society has changed since the 1950’s.