TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In 1963, when it was still largely assumed that the chief role of a woman was to be wife, mother and homemaker, Betty Friedan's book "The Feminine Mystique" addressed yearnings that many women felt but had not yet articulated - the desire to find meaning outside the home as well as in it.
Friedan asked questions she thought many women were afraid to ask themselves about why they weren't as content as they thought they should be. The book helped launch a new wave of feminism.
My guest, Stephanie Coontz, has written a new book about the impact of "The Feminine Mystique" based on interviews with women who read it and responded to its message. Coontz also writes about the laws, stereotypes and prejudices that limited women's lives at the time "The Feminine Mystique" was published and the book's impact on how feminism has been seen by its advocates and opponents.
Coontz is the director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families, and she teaches history and family studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Her new book is called "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s."
Stephanie Coontz, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Ms. STEPHANIE COONTZ (Author, "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s"): Thank you.
GROSS: In your book, you say that the opening paragraph of "The Feminine Mystique" is a paragraph that really sticks in the minds of women who read it when the book was first published. So I'm going to read that paragraph so our listeners get a chance to hear it. This is page one of "The Feminine Mystique."
(reading) The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone as she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night. She was afraid to even ask of herself the silent question: Is this all?
So what did the women who you interviewed say about the impact that that paragraph had on them?
Ms. COONTZ: Well, there was this just shock of recognition that they all reported. When you go back, and you look at how women in the 1950s and early '60s were living, especially housewives, and especially, for some reason, educated housewives, the people who tend to be the most confident today, it is just stunning to realize how self-doubting they were about every feeling they had.
And so they'd been going along thinking something was wrong. Later on in the book, Friedan says: Sometimes they think it's their husband's fault. Sometimes they think they need more things, or they need better sex, or they need an affair, but that's not really the problem.
And that's exactly what was going on in these women's head. They were saying: Something's wrong. What is it? Is it me? Is it my kids? Am I a bad mother? Is my husband a bad husband? What is the matter with me?
And when they read that somehow they weren't alone in this feeling, it occasioned this relief that they can recall vividly and describe to me often exactly where they were when they read it almost a half a century later.
GROSS: What was the diagnosis of the problem that "The Feminine Mystique" offered to women?
Ms. COONTZ: Well, it was very simple. It said, look, it's not because you're ungrateful. It's not because you're unfeminine, the way the Freudian psychiatrists 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 you're a real human being. And here we have a world, the post-war world, where men were being encouraged to be all they can be, and women were encouraged to make their men be all they could be and to get all their satisfactions out of that.
She said something that now seems so simple it's astonishing that it evoked such controversy. She said: Women are people, too. Women are human beings. They have a need for meaning in their life not as an alternative to but in addition to their personal lives, their loves, their family.
GROSS: And you write about how a lot of women at this time felt guilty for not feeling satisfied, middle-class women, because they had nice homes, they had families, they had material possessions. And yet they felt somehow incomplete, that something was missing, that there was something wrong.
And in "The Feminine Mystique," Betty Friedan wrote: Part of the strange newness of the problem is that it cannot be understood in terms of the age-old problems of poverty, sickness, hunger, cold. It's not caused by lack of material advantages. It may not even be felt by women preoccupied with desperate problems of hunger, poverty or illness. And women who think it will be solved by more money, a bigger house, a second car, often discover it gets worse.
Ms. COONTZ: Yes. Friedan was talking to a new group of women. This was one of the weaknesses of the book and one of its incredible strengths, actually. A group of women, usually from working-class backgrounds but who had, in the post-war prosperity, moved into the middle class, usually through marriage, through marrying a man who'd taken advantage of the GI Bill or taken advantage of the new jobs and been able to move himself up into the middle class and often to buy her a home in suburbia, to give her the things that had been held out, after the Depression and World War II, as the absolute epitome of the American dream.
And these women were saying: I'm not satisfied. What's wrong with me? And sometimes people criticize Friedan for speaking to a privileged layer of women. After all, one woman wrote to me when she heard I was doing this book, she said: I don't have time to be worried about people who were just bored with their lives.
But these women weren't just bored with their lives. They were working very hard. They actually felt guilty. But, you know, knowing that you don't have a right to feel bad actually often makes you feel worse.
GROSS: Because you feel guilty for feeling bad.
Ms. COONTZ: That's right, exactly, and that's what they did. And Betty Friedan said to them: You know, yes, maybe you do have some privileges. And Friedan herself had been, in her youth, very conscious of working for women who faced real material deprivation.
But she said: Privileges or not, you need to be treated like a human being, and you have every right in the world to feel frustrated when you're simply treated as an appendage of your husband and your children.
GROSS: And when you don't have the opportunity of doing work outside the home.
Ms. COONTZ: Exactly.
GROSS: When your whole sense of fulfillment is supposed to depend on raising children and taking care of your husband, as well, even if you have yearnings outside the home.
Ms. COONTZ: That's right, and that's what these women were being told. And ironically, it was the women who had a few years of college, often, or a little more education than usual and were reading the magazines that were filled with this, who were being told over and over again: If you want anything else, you are unnatural. You're not a real woman. You must have sexual hang-ups. You must be making your children neurotic.
And so these were the ones who felt tremendously guilty. You know, working-class women had many, many problems, many of them much more serious and immediate, but one of the interesting things in the sociological studies of those days, is they were much less likely to feel guilty about their feelings, to feel - to second-guess themselves all the time.
And these women were going around in a cloud, second-guessing themselves, crying, thinking they were crazy, going to psychiatrists, often being told they were crazy, taking tranquilizers. And Friedan said to them: Wait a minute. You know, wait a minute. This is not your problem. It's a social problem that we're wasting your capacities.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephanie Coontz. She's the author of the new book "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s."
Why did you want to study the impact that Betty Friedan's book, "The Feminine Mystique," had on American women and on American culture?
Ms. COONTZ: Well, I'm kind of embarrassed to answer that question because the idea didn't even come from me. It came from my editor then at Basic Books, who said, look, we're doing a series of biographies of great books. And given all your research on family and gender, why don't you do one on "The Feminine Mystique"? And I said, oh, gosh, that would be great. I'll have to reread that book.
And then I went back to it, and I picked up the book to, quote, reread it and realized I never had read it. Now, I'd heard a lot about it, not only from the conversation that was going on - it was a very provocative best-seller in '63 and '64 - but also even before that from my own mother, who had read it and adored it.
And somehow, ideas from it had seeped into me, and I had imposed some of my own ideas on it. The phrase, of course, was just wonderful and you can make it mean what you want. And I had thought I had read the book.
So I claim no credit for going back, and in fact, when I first started, I said, what in the world have I embarked upon? I don't even like this book. But then as I started to interview these women who had read it at the time, I began to study, restudy, the history of the 1960s and all the changes that had occurred for women since the suffrage movement.
I got more and more attached, and ironically, every time I reread it, I got a little more out of the book, despite the fact that I still consider it very dated.
GROSS: Why don't you like the book? It's amazing, like, you finally read it and you decide, I don't even like the book.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. COONTZ: Well, for one thing, it was a very hyperbolic, you know, it was a work of, you know, indignation and journalism that was very good in some ways, but as an academic who often has to quote other academics' works, I was really put off by her failure to give credit to the people who gave her these ideas and gave her these research leads. So that was off-putting about it.
She also accepted, ironically, a lot of the Freudian ideology that she attacked. You know, people don't realize this but the 1940s and '50s and early '60s were a time when housewives were not glorified and romanticized. They were constantly being attacked by people who told them that they were smothering their children, infantilizing their husbands, making too many demands upon their husbands.
And, you know, what Friedan did is she accepted these critiques. And some of the things that she accepted were, for example, the Freudian idea, very common at the time, that women were responsible for homosexuality - they produced homosexual sons by overinvesting in their kids; for schizophrenia; that they were nagging their husbands all the time.
So all of this was a little off-putting to me when I first read the book and still is off-putting. It's just that after listening to these women - I interviewed almost 200 women and men who read the book - and reading the history and reading what they were reading and how they must have felt reading it, I began to appreciate the text.
When you scrape away the stuff that's become historically irrelevant, she did a very important thing for one layer of women, a layer of women that I've come to think of as the sidelined wives of the greatest generation.
GROSS: You just used the word "the greatest generation," the wives of the greatest generation, which is interesting because when people talk about the greatest generation, as you point out in the book, they're almost always talking about the men.
Ms. COONTZ: That's right. That's right, you know, I mean, usually, of course, it's associated with the war, and the...
GROSS: World War II, yeah.
Ms. COONTZ: In fact, I asked several of the women I interviewed, you know, you're members of the greatest generation. And they immediately got very uncomfortable. They said, well, my husband, he's the one who fought in the war. These women did not think of themself as the greatest anything.
GROSS: So you were able to actually able to see some of the copies of "The Feminine Mystique" that the women you interview read, in other words, the original book that they had...
Ms. COONTZ: Yes.
GROSS: ...which was dog-eared and underlined. And you say the chapter that had the most underlinings in it in many of the women's copies was the chapter titled "The Sexual Sell." What was this chapter about?
Ms. COONTZ: Well, it's so interesting, and it's the one piece that, when I assigned this book to my students, still resonated for them, as well. She does this lovely, just - she dissects the advertising industry and the way that they told women in these days, and still do in more sophisticated ways but still the same message, that if you will just buy the right appliance, the right food, do the following things in your home, furnish yourself so that you feel more attractive to your husband, you will find these immense satisfactions, almost sexual satisfactions, certainly meaning and fulfillment, in the shopping.
And she just took it apart. She analyzed. She got access to the files of the motivational researchers who were doing this and how they consciously said what we want, our ideal consumer, is a woman who is smart enough to know there's a little something missing in her life but whom we can convince to buy things to fill that hole.
GROSS: What did "The Feminine Mystique" have to say about actual sex?
Ms. COONTZ: Not very much. Friedan, you know, was certainly not a permissive type of person. I've been told by people who knew her well that she loved men and she loved flirting with men but she was not into the sort of sexual fulfillment.
And in fact, what she argued to people, and I think actually, despite maybe some prudery that she may have had, this is an idea worth discovering today, that she said, you know, sometimes people, when they find something missing in their life, think that they can fill it not just with things but with sex, that women become sex-seekers. They look for new sensations and new feelings in sexuality that they ought to be getting from believing that they are doing something meaningful, that they are competent in their own lives and that they are contributing something worthwhile to society. So she would be very much against "Sex And the City" feminism.
GROSS: What was this book credited for and blamed for?
Ms. COONTZ: Well, it has been credited by many for launching the women's movement, awakening women to their discontent and, of course, it's been blamed for the same thing. You will read these, if you just go online and look at what people say about "The Feminine Mystique," social conservatives often say that she convinced women that there was something wrong with their lives and made them march out of the home, and actually, they are so much more unhappy now than they used to be because of what she did.
And the fact is that the book did nothing of the kind. For one thing, these discontents had been recognized. In fact, physicians had a name for it, the housewives' syndrome: irritability, nervousness. So, Betty Friedan didn't discover that. She didn't even name it. Lots of articles were being written about it.
So, but what she did was she called it a different thing. She called it the problem with no name and then proceeded to describe where that problem came from. So that was a very important contribution.
But she didn't invent the problem, and she certainly didn't drive women out into the workforce. Women had been entering the workforce during the 1950s at an ever-increasing rate. And they began to, of course, even more in the late '60s and '70s.
So she didn't start this, but she explained to women the mixed messages they were getting because what they were being told at the time was, you certainly do not want to be a career woman. You don't want to aspire to be a breadwinner or to compete with a breadwinner or to be like men in any way.
But neither do you want to be a parasite all your life. What you ought to do is to be completely devoted to your husband until all your kids are off to school. And then you can get a job that is something that won't threaten him, that won't take up too much of your time.
And she said: No, you should start thinking about a job when you're young, and you should start thinking about educating yourself and preparing yourself for something that is meaningful and that really means something to you, something besides your husband and kids that means something to you.
The other thing she's been credited and blamed for is launching the women's movement, but that's not true. There isn't a word in "The Feminine Mystique" about going out and organizing.
And there already were many feminists who had been working behind the scenes ever since the 1920s and '30s and were beginning to regroup long before that book came out.
But the book was helpful in terms of getting these people, some of them in touch with each other, more of them, though, who were already in touch with each other, with Betty Friedan who could use the fame she'd gotten from 1963 to be a public spokesperson. But NOW was not formed until three years after the publication of "The Feminine Mystique."
GROSS: So, you know, it's interesting. As you point out in the book, a year before "The Feminine Mystique" is published, Helen Gurley Brown writes her famous bestseller, "Sex and the Single Girl." And the message of that book is so different from Betty Friedan's message, although both books sense dissatisfaction. What's Helen Gurley Brown's message to young women in "Sex and the Single Girl"?
Ms. COONTZ: Well, Helen Gurley Brown considered herself a feminist, and she was very supportive of Betty Friedan's book when it came out. But I think Betty Friedan was far less approving of what Helen Gurley Brown had to say.
Helen Gurley Brown said: Look, women are - don't earn the same salaries as men, and they're told constantly that all they should do is just be virgins and prepare themselves for the happy day when they get married.
And what Helen Gurley Brown said was, hey, marriage is not going to be the best day of your life. It's insurance for the worst days of your life. What you should do is take advantage of it when you're young and pretty and sexy and hot and get a little - get a job, and you should feel free to explore your sexuality just the way men do. And you should use your sexuality because, after all, you earn less than men, you are going to be supported by a man in marriage, and in the meantime, you should make sure that you're supported by the men you date.
So she had this idea that you use your sexuality, you embrace your sexuality. It was feminist in the sense that it told women that they didn't have different urges than men and that they had a right to express them and to be themselves. And she did explain to people that they should try to get jobs that they like because that can be, she called it a happy pill for you.
But the real difference between her and Friedan was that she said you should use the existing discrimination and prejudices and stereotypes about women to your own advantage. Flirt with the butcher to get him to give you a better piece of meat. Make sure that any man you're dating buys the booze - not only buys all the meals when you're out but buys the booze that you keep at your house when you have him over, and that he gives you gifts every once in a while.
And so it was a very, very different message than Friedan.
GROSS: So when you started this biography of the book "The Feminine Mystique" and started to study its impact on women who read it when it was published in the '60s, you realized although you thought you'd read it, you actually had never read it. So you sat down to read it. But your mother had read it. And when she read it, she talk to you about the impact it had on her life. What did she tell you?
Ms. COONTZ: Well, by this time, I was away at college. She was a homemaker in Salt Lake City who had recently experimented with going to classes and maybe started a part-time job. Eventually, she got one where she was the executive director of a community organization. And she would - you know, there wasn't email in those days, so she would call me once a week and we would chat. And by that - of course, this was back in the early '60s.
And for me, what I was very interested in was the civil rights movement. And I was always running off to picket stores that discriminated or restaurants that would not hire African-Americans. So, you know, I was sort of like, oh, okay mom. We've got to hurry up and talk. And then she started talking to me about this book she was reading called "The Feminine Mystique." And she was so taken by it, and she would try to explain to me - you know, and I'm so embarrassed now that I was sort of a little bored by it, because she'd say this is how I felt. And you know what the advertisers did? And they made me think I was worthless. I just - I was this housewife for so long, and I felt so worthless. And I was sort of like, mmm - roll your eyes, you know. I love you, Mom. But after all, you know, my generation is never going to end up like that.
GROSS: So how did you know and when did you know that you didn't want to live your mother's life, that you wanted to be - you wanted a life outside the home? You wanted to have your own work or your own cause, whatever it would turn out to be.
Ms. COONTZ: Well, I think that I was very typical of a whole generation of older daughters of the, quote, "greatest generation." And that was that our parents were very excited about the fact that they were moving up, that at least the man was moving up and the woman was getting more things in her life, more possibilities and she could eventually go back to school if she wanted. But the men were not very supportive of their wives' efforts to improve themselves.
On the other hand, part of their notion of social mobility was that they encouraged their daughters to do so. And so some of us were raised by our fathers to be different than our mothers. Others of us, and many other women I interviewed, said that they grew up in loving families, but they noticed that their dad really didn't respect their mom. You know, he loved her, but he didn't respect her, and they didn't want to grow up the same way. So we decided that we did want something else. And our moms encouraged us.
Even - you know, it's really interesting. There was a poll taken in 1962 where 90 percent of the housewives - even the ones who were totally happily married -said we don't want our daughters to do the same thing. We want them to wait longer to get married. We want them to have some job experience. We don't want them to have as few options as we do.
GROSS: If this is too personal, let me know, but was your father an example of the kind of father who you could see loved your mother but didn't respect her?
Ms. COONTZ: Yes. I adored my father. He was a great father, but he was not a good husband, and eventually they did divorce. But even when things were okay, one of the ways that he encouraged my self-confidence was at her expense. He would say: I bet your mom can't figure this problem out, but you can. You know, and now I cringe when I look back at that. It's a wonder to me that my mom loved me as much as she did and that we became best friends when we got older.
GROSS: So did you ever talk to your mother about that?
Ms. COONTZ: Yes, many years later we talked about it. And we had a very painful conversation where she, you know, told me how much she loved me and how proud she was of me and my sister and all the things we were learning, but how frustrated she was at how left out she was of some of the conversations. Now, we made up for that later because, you know, she went back to school. She became an English teacher. She was - she founded the first women's center in Washington State. She was beloved by her students and her colleagues and respected by her second husband who just adored her and still adores her, even though she's dead now. And she and I just became best friends. So I feel not so guilty as I did for a while.
GROSS: You say that your biggest surprise in researching "The Feminine Mystique" and the larger culture at the time it was published was how few rights women actually had in 1963 and how many social prejudices they still faced.
Let's start with that Gallup poll that you referred to that was the cover story in December 1962. This was about three months or two months before "The Feminine Mystique" was published. It was the cover story of the Saturday Evening Post. And the opening page featured a photo of someone named Mrs. Charles Johnson. She was surrounded by her husband and children, and the caption read: I just want to take care of Charlie and the children. And the caption explained that this was the collective attitude of, quote, "American women in toto."
Tell us about the Gallup poll that the story was based on.
Ms. COONTZ: They excluded old maids, is what they called them, working women, divorced women. They said those people exist, but they are just not in the mainstream of American society. So we're going to interview just housewives. And what we find is that they're the happiest people on earth. Why? Because, George Gallup himself interpreted their answers as saying, because they know exactly why they're here on earth. Unlike men, they don't have to search for meaning in life. They find it in being a wife and mother. And then he went on to describe what these women told him they wanted from being a wife, in particular. And that is, one of them said, a woman needs a master-slave relationship, whether it's at work or in marriage. Women said over and over again, you know, he must be the boss. He must tell me what to do.
But you go back to this article, and you realize just how pervasive these ideas were, that even people who may have harbored secret doubts had to keep assuring the pollsters that no, they didn't believe in - that a man and a woman should be doing the same things, that yes, they found all the fulfillment in pleasing their husband and pleasing their kids. And then that led me into looking at the actual laws at the time. You know, these homemakers are so happy, right? What kinds of - were they really better off then?
And there's this big myth that homemakers had higher social status and more security back before the feminist movement. My goodness, I discovered that was not true at all. I was stunned. And I lived in the '60s, and yet I hadn't even realized how pervasive the discriminatory laws were, not only against women who wanted to work, but against women who were homemakers.
GROSS: Well, what are some of the legal rights you had or didn't have as a married woman - to the house that you lived in, to your joint bank account with your husband?
Ms. COONTZ: Well, there were some states that did have community property laws. But even in those states, the man had the right to manage the property without consulting the wife, and even to bequeath his share of the community property - like his half of the house - to someone else without consulting her, which the woman didn't have. But many states did not even have those rights, that the laws were that anything a man earned or acquired during marriage was his. She had no legal claim on it. He didn't have to share it with her. She supposedly had the legal right to be properly supported, but that left a lot of leeway for judgment.
Now, these laws meant that if you wanted to leave your husband or your husband left you, you were not entitled to the earnings that he had accumulated. If you could prove fault, then you could do some alimony. You might have some claim on it. But there was none of what we now take for granted, that a homemaker who has raised the children, helped her husband get through school, acquire and hold down a really demanding job, that she had some point of vested stake, had contributed to and therefore deserved to share in the accumulations he'd made. That was totally lacking back in 1963 in all but eight states.
GROSS: So what you're presenting here in this conversation - and it's two incredibly compelling reasons why women needed a women's movement. One was the personal reason, that a lot of women felt this yearning for something that they couldn't quite define while they were full-time homemakers and mothers, but wanting something outside the home, as well. And the other was, like, the legal reasons, all the restrictions on women's rights that I think a lot of women hadn't really thought about or realized, but that was the climate that they were living in.
Ms. COONTZ: Absolutely. And it's important to note - because people think that the women's movement was taken on behalf of working women, and it was just as much on behalf of homemakers. And it's one of the reasons that stay-at-home moms have more protections than they used to. But if you did want to have a job, this was still an era when there was "help wanted male," "help wanted female." I went through the ads of The New York Times back in 1963 and '65, and they were all, you know, for the women's section, "pretty gal Friday." You know, one asked for a college gal, but she had to be single. One employer said you must be really beautiful. I mean, imagine.
When you got hired, there was no protection against being asked all of these sort of personal questions. The employer could fire you if you got married, certainly if you got pregnant. Women had a different pay scale than men. Many jobs were not open to them. It wasn't until, I think, the 1980s that the Supreme Court ruled that a law firm couldn't deny partnership to a woman just on the basis of her sex.
GROSS: Let's jump ahead. You say that the feminine mystique today has been replaced by the hottie mystique. What do you mean by that?
Ms. COONTZ: I think the feminine mystique, as we knew it back in the '60s, when it said women can't do these things, they shouldn't want to do these things, they're neurotic and unfeminine if they want to succeed at work or be good at sports or any of these kinds of things, I think that feminine mystique is practically gone. But I think it's sort of morphed into two other ones. One kicks in in the teens and young 20s, when women are told yes, indeed, you can be anything you want. But, you also have to be hot while you're doing it. And there is this tremendous pressure on young women - no longer not to achieve.
You know, when I grew up, I was once pulled aside by my teacher and told don't use such big words. It will make the boys unhappy. And my best friend was told don't be so good at sports. Lose at the sports. Now, we're no longer told that. But we're told, win at sports. Use big words if you like, but be hot. Be hot. And I think that this can be very destructive to young girls when they are channeled into this sort of sense that the way to empowerment is to display your sexuality.
The other mystique, I think, that kicks in after marriage or non-marriage and motherhood, is this idea that you have to be the perfect mother and make every moment a teachable moment, and that somehow what you do as a mother counts for so much. It's so much more pressure, in some ways, than mothers faced in the '60s when they were told over and over again, just be there. Don't do anything special. Don't intervene too much. Now we're told: Intervene constantly, or your kid will not be the best he or she can be.
GROSS: You know what I find kind of interesting? And this isn't anything I can prove with sociological data, but it just seems to me that the first generation of women that came of age during the women's movement of the '60s and early '70s, during that phase of the women's movement, many of them kind of rejected the idea of being the full-time homemaker and wife and decided, and you know what? I'm not even going to have children. I want a life really different from my mother's, and I'm going to head in the opposite direction. I'm not going to have to have children.
But I think if you look around today, there's very few women making that choice. And most women who can have a family and a career are trying to have both, are trying very hard to balance both, but are managing to do it, to be frustrated a lot, but to do it. And who isn't frustrated, no matter what your choices are?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. COONTZ: Mm-hmm. Well, you know, one of the tragedies of Friedan's book was that she left out the example of African-American women, who, in fact, have a long tradition of combining work, motherhood, social activism and being wives, not seeing them as contradictory. And she could, I think, Friedan could have used those as a model for women. But many of the white middle-class women she talked to and she spoke to, had grown up in that period when it really was all or nothing. And yes, I think a minority of them, it was always a minority, who chose either not to marry at all or if they married, not to have children. And nowadays, I think women feel entitled, in a good way, that yeah, I can have a job and I can also have a family. I can also have children. I'm entitled to that. I see that in my graduate students. Many of my brightest graduate students now have one or two kids before they've even gotten their tenure-track position.
I limited myself to one child. And I'm ditzy about kids. But I just couldn't imagine, you know, making it in a career, you know, for my generation, with more than one child. And I'm so happy that I see educated women, career women, being able to say we can have kids too.
GROSS: In your book about "The Feminine Mystique" you describe how when the book was published it reached a lot of women because a lot of women felt that there was a hole in their lives and that this was explaining what that yearning was about. But that the book didn't offer a women's movement as an idea. It didn't say women have to join together and actually work to change laws and work for a new, more equal social structure - although Betty Friedan went on to co-found and then become the president of the National Organization for Women. That was 1963. Here we are in 2011. Do you think there is still the need for a movement?
Ms. COONTZ: Well, I think that yes, that there are many areas in which women are particularly vulnerable and need support. But I think that now more than ever the idea that Friedan and others had that NOW's name was consciously not the National Organization of Women but the National Organization for Women was very important because they were trying to seek male allies.
We might have to go beyond that today. For example, when we think about the issues of work-family conflict, these are not women's issues anymore and it's not in women's interest to see them as women's issues. Men are now more likely than women to say they're experiencing work-family conflict. Just as women have expanded their sense of identity to say I can be a worker, I can be an achiever in addition to being a family person; men have begun to expand their sense of identity to say I can be a family person. I can be a father. I can be a partner, in addition to being a worker. And a lot of these issues have to involve men as well as women.
Americans are hungry to get beyond things like the mommy wars or the male-female wars and to actually develop a society where men can have access to family life and women can have access to work life and achievement. And there's tremendous progress being made at the individual family level, in terms of people's values changing, but there hasn't been this progress at the societal level. Our work policies, our social policies are still 50 years out of date and a good 30 years behind what most men and women want.
GROSS: That's a really interesting point. What did doing the research for this book change your mind about or tell you that you didn't know?
Ms. COONTZ: I think there were two really important, emotionally important -this was the most emotionally moving book I've ever researched. Partly because I started by resenting so much that she had left out black women and working-class women and was focusing on a relatively privileged section of American society, those people who could afford to be housewives, a little bit more education than normal, people who were moving into the middle class. And as I studied this more, I began to realize that you can't - it's wrong to set up this big hierarchy of pain. That black women and working-class women were facing really severe problems but that doesn't mean we have to write off the tremendous pain that these middle-class women were feeling in the culture of the era.
And I think the other big thing that I got from researching this book was just to appreciate how far we have come as women. It's so easy to look around and complain. 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 compared today to the self-confidence that women have. I mean it's stunning to see how much can be accomplished in just 47 years.
GROSS: Well, Stephanie Coontz, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. COONTZ: Thank you.
GROSS: Stephanie Coontz is the author of the new book "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, our rock historian Ed Ward reviews a new box set of music about war called "Next Stop Is Vietnam: The War on Record, 1961-2008."
This is FRESH AIR.
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On Fresh Air, social historian Stephanie Coontz explains how the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963 helped women view themselves differently. But Coontz, author of A Strange Stirring, also critiques many aspects of Friedan's pioneering book, including its omission of minority women.
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.