Saturday, January 29, 2011

Women's History: Stephanie Coontz and Gail Gollins

Two fascinating new women's history books, Stephanie Coontz's A Strange Stirring:  The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, and Gail Collins's When Everything Changed:  The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, analyze changes in women's role in society over the last 50 years.  
The former is a critical study of Betty Friedan's 1963 bestselling book, The Feminine Mystique, and its effect on the women who read it in the 1960s; the latter is a lively general history which also briefly chronicles Friedan's role in the Women's Movement.  The two writers' approaches to history are very different.  Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, summarizes and analyzes Friedan's book in the context of twentieth-century history.  Although A Strange Stirring is well-organized, well-written, and very readable, Coontz is weirdly irritated by small perceived inaccuracies in Friedan's interpretation of data. She comes to terms with the book in the course of criticizing it.  It is a page-turner, if you can believe that of a scholarly non-fiction book.

Collins, a columnist at The New York Times who was the newspapers' first female editorial page editor, is more blatantly feminist yet has a pop-light journalistic tone that not may not be everyone's cup of tea. When Everything Changed is much more ambitious than A Strange Stirring, and though it is a bit disorganized, I am enjoying it immensely. 
I find both books addictive.  There is terrific information in both.
Our mothers read Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963, or perhaps when it was released in paperback. It inspired women to question their lives as housewives, and Friedan received much mail saying it had changed women's lives.  I read it in junior high.  Although my friends and I didn't aspire to traditional break-out careers like law or medicine, and pursued liberal arts, neither did we relive our mothers' lives. The Feminine Mystique was inspiring.
Friedan, a freelance writer and alumna of Smith College, spent a year preparing a questionnaire for the fifteenth reunion of her class of 1942.  She published an article on their despair and wasted education  and then expanded it it into a book.  Many of her housewife classmates admitted they "were slowly going crazy in their well-appointed homes, just as she felt she had been doing" (Collins, p. 58).  Friedan said women were coerced to "waste their lives on meaningless household chores in order to create profits for the manufacturers of household goods." (Collins)  She encouraged them to work part-time or go to school while their children were growing up.  It is not the radical book that many condemned, though she did compare being a housewife to living in a concentration camp.
On the other hand, Coontz admits that she thought she was above Friedan's book in the '60s and that she could do any work she wanted. (A very unusual attitude for a woman born in 1944, I would say.)    Coontz taught The Feminine Mystique a few years ago and said she and her students found it very dated.  It was not her idea to write A Strange Stirring:  she was asked to take on the project. Although she isn't the enthusiast I expected, I very much enjoy her detailed history of the American women's suffrage movement, followed by the greater freedom of women, and then the post-war cocooning of women till the Women's Movement blossomed in the '60s.  In the course of the book she questions Friedan's reasoning and claims she exaggerated the post-war changes in attitudes toward women and the family, but she seems to reaffirm Friedan's conclusions.    

I should read more women's history.

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