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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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Another weakness of the book was Friedan’s uncritical acceptance of the severe prejudices against homosexuality that were so common back in the 1950s and 1960s. It took her quite a few years, for example, to accept that lesbians had a legitimate place in the women’s movement. But again, to do her justice, she DID change over time.

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Almost 50 years after Betty Friedan wrote "The Feminine Mystique," how have we done?

Today many of us feel so stressed by the pressures of juggling work and family that it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come and how little we’d like to live the lives of the housewives I describe in my book. One of the rewards I got from writing this book was to gain a little perspective on how much better we have it in comparison to the 1960s.

In 1972, women were only 3 percent of all licensed attorneys and 8 percent of physicians. Today, women are a full quarter of all practicing physicians and nearly one-third of all lawyers. Young women in their 20s actually out-earn men the same age in many metropolitan areas. High school girls now take as many advanced math classes as the boys. Women now have equal rights in both private and public life. Even the incidence of rape has fallen significantly.

Men have benefited too. Most men report feeling relieved that they no longer have to be the sole breadwinner in the family, and many have discovered the rewards of becoming more involved in family life…. After spending their lives as “good providers,” and having enjoyed some very real masculine privileges as a result, men often found out upon retirement that they were strangers to their children, and sometimes to their wife as well. Today’s men and women are less likely to experience such crises.

Mission accomplished, then?

Not quite. The old feminine mystique – the idea that women are not capable beyond the home – has pretty much broken down. But there are some new mystiques. One I call the “hottie mystique” – the idea being sold to young women that you can indeed do anything the men can, but only if you constantly display how “hot” you are at the same time. Another is the mothering mystique – which tells slightly older women that they too can be anything they want in the work world but that they also have to be super-moms besides, and if they can’t do everything perfectly they should opt out.

The mommy mystique is the flip side of what sociologists Phyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling call the “career mystique” – the idea that a successful career requires you to be constantly available, more than full-time, to the demands of work… These mystiques create higher levels of work-family conflict in America – for both men and women. In fact men now report higher work-family conflict than women do. Paradoxically, you might say that one of the biggest gains of the women’s movement is that many of the issues we face today are no longer confined primarily to women but must be solved on behalf of BOTH sexes.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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