Here’s a review of (some of the many!) reviews of Stephanie Coontz’s A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.

Was Coontz Dissing or Loving TFM?(Answer: Neither)

In the Wall Street Journal online, Melanie Kirkpatrick notes,

Ms. Coontz is clearly a fan of the book, and she quotes many early readers who said that The Feminine Mystique gave them the courage to pursue their dreams.

She highlights some of the debunking that Coontz’s book accomplishes, such as the myths that TFM was man-bashing or that Friedan was an apolitical housewife. It is a nice, uncritical connection to the story of TFM and A Strange Stirring.

A puzzling contrast was in the Washington Post (included in the print edition), where Elaine Showalter is troubled by Coontz’s story of her own (ambivalent) relationship to TFM because it didn’t match Showalter’s positive experience. Coontz, who isn’t one to reply to reviews too often, responded to the Post in a letter to the editor. In it, Coontz points out that while in 1963 Showalter was going through a very similar experience to that of Friedan (young, married with children), Coontz, though just a few years younger, was still at college, not in the job market, not in the domestic world, and thus the themes of TFM did not touch her personally (the way, for example, the civil rights movement did, which was where Coontz focused her stunningly intense sixties-style activist energies.)

The resolution between those first two reviews—was Coontz dissing or loving TFM?–came in Rebecca Traister’s New York Times Sunday Book Review. Traister recounts Coontz’s personal journey with TFM and how, along with her concerns for those women whose experiences were not represented by TFM, she still came to value it. Traister writes:

Halfway through A Strange Stirring, the social historian Stephanie Coontz — parsing the reception of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan’s 1963 examination of middle-class female repression and despair — confesses to feeling some ambivalence over Friedan’s project, and hence her own.

Acknowledging the working-class and minority women left out of Friedan’s best seller, Coontz admits that while it is “pointless to construct a hierarchy of who hurt more,” her own initial reaction to Friedan’s elite scope “was to dismiss the pain of the middle-class housewives as less ‘real’ than that of their working-class sisters.

Traister then describes how Coontz herself reconciles the “dissing vs loving” issue, by recounting a dialogue Coontz had had with TFM-loving colleague.

It didn’t matter, [Coontz’s colleague had said to her], that the women Friedan wrote about weren’t “representative either in size or even aspirations of most American women of their time.” What mattered was that they had spent “years of their lives with their noses pressed against the proverbial glass — looking in at a world that they would never be a part of.”

For a Traister personal bonus, the New York Times online includes an interview with Rebecca Traister about her own reflections on The Feminine Mystique. The interview highlights Traister’s connection with Coontz’s ambivalence, and offers her reflections on TFM. Such reflections on TFM across multiple generations (and microgenerations like Showalter vs Coontz)spurred on by SS are among my favorite benefits of this Strange Stirring phenomenon, as you can see in my own reflection and interviews with two men in their seventies here at Girlwpen.

Reviewers’ reflections on SS and TFM repeatedly engaged their own stories. When you read the reviews of A Strange Stirring, you’ll see how people write from their personal as well as their intellectual perspectives–sometimes without total self-awareness, but still, it reminds me of how much that linking of personal, political, and intellectual is part of what feminism is all about, what it gives us.

What are the uses of a book? (Answer: They are totemic, but that doesn’t tell us whether they cause movements…like the Women’s Movement)

At Ms Magazine online Carol King focused on historical context (“If you were to pick up The Feminine Mystique today, I suspect you’d wonder what all the fuss was about”) and writes appreciatively of the contextualizing of the Mad Men type experience of many of the women depicted in TFM, and those whom Coontz interviewed for SS. She concludes:

There would have been a Women’s Movement without The Feminine Mystique, but there would have been holes where those women described in the book should have been.

A variation on King’s point was in Louis Menand’s essay in The New Yorker. The essay provides a great review of many of the women’s movement publications around the time of TFM—which I had already read about in Coontz’s book. But the best part is where Menand argues “Why the Women’s Movement Needed Betty Friedan.” He picks an argument with Coontz around her assessment of the American reception of De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and also with her contention that the cultural shift towards the Women’s Movement preceded TFM, rather than followed it. But he makes Coontz’s case any way, as well as a wonderful case for the value of books as a cultural intervention. Here’s how: Menand includes TFM with several other books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring that made a difference because, as he says, “books became totems.”

These are books whose significance exceeds anything they actually said. For many people, it doesn’t even matter what they said or why they were written. What matters is that, when the world turned, they were there.

Yes! The books were there for people to point to to express the ideas that they were already starting to have.

In Bitch Magazine Eryn Loeb wrote a delightful reflection on the imagery of The Feminine Mystique (very Mad Men, very old issues of Good Housekeeping). The images help to conjure the myths of womanhood and the myths of TFM from the earlier era. Then, she draws our attention to Coontz’s skillful work on decomposing those myths—and links this myth-busting to Coontz’s body of work, especially The Way We Never Were and Marriage, A History. Loeb concludes with another important point. See, Coontz, like people Coontz interviewed, didn’t even realize that she hadn’t read the book “back in the day.” Still, it had stuck with her, and many others. Loeb notes:

The book’s legendary status had eclipsed its actual content. In some ways, this is a triumph: Friedan’s salvo for women’s liberation has been so effectively distilled and shared in the 47 years since its release that there’s no need to actually sit down and read 350-plus pages. As long as we get the gist of it, do the specifics really matter?

Where are women—and men—today? (Answer: “In it together”)

Tracy Clark-Flory’s interview with Stephanie Coontz for focuses on “Why Feminism Was Good for Marriage.” The interview highlights links between growing gender equality and improvements in marriage, adding a coda to Coontz’s Marriage,A History. The interview links up what Coontz wrote in SS to how she sees gender and feminism today. Message: A big piece of it has to do with keeping men—working men, caregiving men, and really all men—in the equation.

And if you want to hear more of Coontz on where are men and women today—in relation to what she wrote about in A Strange Stirring—listen to her interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

…there’s more: I can only imagine what will be the lesson from Coontz’s interview on The Colbert Report later this month (slated for 2/23/11). But I bet it will have something to do with men and women “these days.”

What else? (Answer: It keeps coming!)

I’ll keep adding links here to other reviews and interviews, but here are a few more I found useful:

History News Network: “Puncturing Betty Friedan, but Not the Mystique: An Interview with Stephanie Coontz”: This engaging interview gives more details about how Coontz did her research.

The Feministing Five: Stephanie Coontz: Chloe Angyal presents a thoughtful, more personal interview with Coontz.

Virginia Rutter