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Why feminism has been good for romance

Stephanie Coontz, author of "A Strange Stirring," reminds women and men why both should be celebrating feminism this Valentine's Day.

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The National Organization for Women was founded in 1966. A few years later, younger women formed consciousness-raising groups and held guerilla theatre actions to protest the treatment of women as sex objects. And in 1970 there was the massive Women’s Strike for Equality, an action that was the brainchild of Betty Friedan. But actual progress in women’s legal rights didn’t make much headway until the 1970s and 1980s. The legal disabilities women faced in the 1960s make for startling reading, and change came slowly. As late as 1968, most newspapers still had sex-segregated want ads that channeled women into low-paid jobs as secretaries and “gal Fridays.” Many states had "head and master" laws giving the husband final say on many family decisions. In 1970, the average female college graduate who worked full-time (and the average black male college grad too) earned less than the average white male high school graduate. The Supreme Court didn’t outlaw discrimination in promotions on the basis of gender until the 1980s. It wasn’t until 1993 that sexual harassment on the job was deemed illegal.

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What is "momism" and why was it considered such a threat in the 1960s?

One of the big myths about feminism is that it downgraded the status of mothers, especially stay-at-home mothers. But in 1963, when Friedan’s book was published, only 8 states gave a full-time homemaker any legal claim on her husband’s earnings. And during the 1950s and 1960s, there were just as many prejudices against stay-at-home-moms as against career women. Sociologists and psychiatrists claimed that the power of SAHMs – “momism” – was an epidemic that threatened the very core of masculinity: Homemakers were supposedly emasculating their sons and neutering their husbands. You could hardly pick up a magazine in the 1950s and early 1960s without reading some article claiming that overbearing mothers were responsible for everything from the rise of Hitler to the fact that 2.5 million men had been found unfit to serve in the army.

This constant negativity took a huge toll. I interviewed almost 200 women for this book, and it was stunning to hear how low their self-esteem was, how little entitlement they felt to good treatment – by their husbands or by society – and how guilty they felt when they wanted something more.

What misconceptions do Americans have about "The Feminine Mystique"?

People have this idea that "The Feminine Mystique" was a radical call to arms for women. In fact, Friedan didn’t [initially] advocate any of the practical reforms she would later champion. She just told women: “It is not crazy for you to want something more from your life than an exclusive identity as someone’s wife and someone’s mother. The impulse to grow and expand your horizons is normal, and it doesn’t make you a bad wife or mother.” Who would disagree with that today? But at the time, women told me, it made them sob with relief to hear those words, to realize that, as so many of them put it, “maybe I wasn’t crazy.” Hearing their stories gave me a deep sympathy for the wives and daughters of what we often call “the Greatest Generation,” when we really mean only the male members of that generation and are ignoring the female ones.

Many of Betty Friedan’s predictions about how feminism would change relationships were true – for example, men are happier and marriages better because of feminism. But she wasn’t always right. What were some of her prophecies and when was she wrong?

The main problem with "The Feminine Mystique" is that Friedan didn’t address the changes needed to make it possible for all women to combine a satisfying work life with a satisfying family life. She advised women to hire housekeepers and nannies when possible, so they could pursue their education or hold down some type of challenging work. But she didn’t pay attention to the needs of the women who would have to take over the housekeeping duties of the middle-class women she addressed in her book. And she also didn’t think through the issue of how to involve men more deeply in family life. In her later years, she recognized these problems and began to advocate for measures to create better work-life balance for both genders and for all economic and racial-ethnic groups.


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