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.

"Contrary to myth, [Betty] Friedan was not a man-hater," says author Stephanie Coontz. "She argued that when women gained confidence ... and found meaning in their own lives, they would be better partners."

Thanks to Betty Friedan and her seminal book, many Americans’ romantic relationships are more fulfilling, loving, and meaningful this Valentine’s Day than they might have been 50 years ago.

Indeed, though many people today haven’t read “The Feminine Mystique,” they are enjoying the fruits of the women’s movement that it helped spark: economic independence, legal rights, elevated social status, and more fulfilling relationships.

So says marriage expert Stephanie Coontz, who chronicles the stories of a generation of women whose lives were changed by “The Feminine Mystique,” in her new book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.

Nearly half a century after Betty Friedan’s revolutionary book hit the market, I spoke with Ms. Coontz about how far we’ve come, how marriage has changed, where Friedan was wrong, and what Friedan would have thought about Valenine’s Day.

What would Betty Friedan think of Valentine’s Day?

She would certainly hate the way it has been commercialized. One of the most powerful chapters of "The Feminine Mystique" – and one that still rings true to readers today – is called “The Sexual Sell.” Friedan used the internal memos of motivational research firms to expose how marketers fan our insecurities, to persuade us that buying things will satisfy our hunger for meaningful relationships and meaningful work. She would be very critical of the ads claiming that you can solidify your relationship by buying the right gift or find happiness by receiving such a gift.

On the other hand, she would probably welcome the celebration of romantic relationships. Contrary to myth, Friedan was not a man-hater, nor was she anti-marriage. In fact she argued that when women gained confidence in their own abilities and found meaning in their own lives, they would be better partners…

How has love and marriage – and women’s role in it – changed since Friedan wrote her seminal book?

Women’s new economic independence, legal rights, and social status have had paradoxical effects on love and marriage. On the one hand, women feel less pressure than in the past to enter or stay in a relationship that doesn’t meet the full range of their needs. As late as 1967, two-thirds of college women said they would consider marrying someone they didn’t love if he met their other criteria, most of which had to do with financial security, protection, and social respectability. Today most women hold out for love and mutual respect. Women are more willing to delay or forgo marriage than they were in the 1950s and early 1960s, and they are more ready to leave a marriage if they don’t get the love, respect, and mutuality they expect.

In your book, you explain how “unliberated” women actually were in the 1960s. It’s certainly known as the decade of women’s liberation, so why were so many women unhappy with their lives?

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.

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.

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.

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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