A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s

Overview


In 1963, Betty Friedan unleashed a storm of controversy with her bestselling book, The Feminine Mystique. Women wrote to her by the hundreds to say that the book had transformed, even saved, their lives. Nearly half a century later, many women still recall where they were and what they were doing when they first read the book. In A Strange Stirring, prominent historian of women and marriage Stephanie Coontz strips away the myths, examining what The Feminine Mystique actually said, and which groups of women were ...
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A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s

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Overview


In 1963, Betty Friedan unleashed a storm of controversy with her bestselling book, The Feminine Mystique. Women wrote to her by the hundreds to say that the book had transformed, even saved, their lives. Nearly half a century later, many women still recall where they were and what they were doing when they first read the book. In A Strange Stirring, prominent historian of women and marriage Stephanie Coontz strips away the myths, examining what The Feminine Mystique actually said, and which groups of women were affected. Coontz takes us back to the early 1960s – the age of Mad Men – when the sexual revolution was barely nascent, middle class wives stayed at home, and husbands retained legal control over almost every aspect of family life. Based on extensive research in the magazines and popular culture of the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s, as well as interviews with women and men who read The Feminine Mystique shortly after its publication, A Strange Stirring brilliantly illuminates how Friedan’s book emboldened a generation of women to realize that their boredom and dissatisfaction stemmed from political injustice rather than personal weakness.
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Editorial Reviews

Rebecca Traister
…Coontz's smart and lively meditation…does Friedan the tremendous favor of pulling her down from heaven and up from hell. Among those trying to change the world, we may wish for voices more mellifluous than Friedan's. But given the paucity of heroes available to us, and the punishing wringer of veneration, vilification and reclamation through which we put them, it's a relief to have the level-headed Coontz providing perspective and taking Friedan's work and legacy for what it was: stirring, strange, complicated and crucial.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Social historian Coontz (Marriage, a History) analyzes the impact of Betty Friedan's groundbreaking 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, on the generation of white, middle-class women electrified by Friedan's argument that beneath the surface contentment, most housewives harbored a deep well of insecurity, self-doubt, and unhappiness. The Feminine Mystique didn't call for women to bash men, pursue careers, or fight for legal and political rights, says Coontz; it simply urged women to pursue an education and prepare for a meaningful life after their children left home. Coontz contends that Friedan's great achievement was lifting so many women out of despair even if her book ignored the problems of working women, especially blacks, and tapped into concerns people were already mulling over. Friedan synthesized and made accessible scholarly research and personalized it with the stories of individual housewives. Friedan's self-representation as an apolitical suburban housewife, says Coontz, glossed over her 1930s and '40s leftist political activism so as not to be blacklisted or discredited because of prior associations. This perceptive, engrossing, albeit specialized book provides welcome context and background to a still controversial bestseller that changed how women viewed themselves. (Jan.)
From the Publisher

Kirkus Reviews
“A sharp revisiting of the generation that was floored by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), and how the book is still relevant today…. A valuable education for women and men.”

Daniel Horowitz, author of Betty Friedan and the Making of The Feminine Mystique
It Changed My Life was the title of the book Betty Friedan wrote after her transformative 1963 The Feminine Mystique. And change she did the lives of American women. Now in her biography of a classic, Stephanie Coontz imaginatively explores the impact of Friedan’s book. Weaving a rich fabric from what women said in letters and interviews, from articles in popular magazines, current scholarship, and her own astute reading of the 1963 work, Coontz compellingly reveals how generations of women—from the flappers of the 1920s to the bloggers and helicopter moms of today—have responded to the challenges modern women face.”
 
Christie Hefner, former chairman and chief executive officer of Playboy Enterprises and longest serving female C.E.O. of a U.S. public company
“As was written about The Feminine Mystique, A Strange Stirring is ‘a journalistic tour de force, combining scholarship, investigative reporting and a compelling personal voice.’ Stephanie Coontz has made a significant contribution to our understanding of the most transformative movement of our lifetimes. Much of what Coontz reports regarding the prevailing ethos of the 1950s as a time of conformity, cultural conservatism and social repressiveness will be fascinating and eye-opening for younger readers. This book is a must read for men as well as for women. And the transformational desire for a work/family balance in life is now reflected not just by gender, but by generation, as both men and women ‘need to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings,’ as Friedan wrote almost a half a century ago.”
 
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love 
“Stephanie Coontz is not just one of the most important historians in America, she is also a personal hero of mine and a brilliant writer. This book—like all her books before it—has been a marvel and education for me to behold. I am awed by the scope of this research, of this thinking, and I am struck once more by how much there is learned (and taught) about the slow, stubborn advancement of women in America over the last one hundred years. I will keep A Strange Stirring in the forefront of my bookshelf forever.”
 

Library Journal
“Coontz recaptures the impact of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique when it was published in 1963. Although Friedan claimed credit for initiating the modern feminist movement, Coontz places the book more dispassionately in its historical context as one of many factors working against entrenched gender roles. Still, Coontz demonstrates persuasively that women readers from many backgrounds found relief—some called it life-saving—in knowing that they were not crazy and not alone in their need to find some work independent of their family roles.”


Donna L. Franklin, author of Ensuring Inequality: The Structural Transformation of the African-American Family
“This book offers a nuanced perspective on the women’s movement by ending the invisibility of African-American women.”
 
Nancy F. Cott, Trumbull Professor of American History, Harvard University
“Stephanie Coontz’s new book takes you on an engrossing and enlightening tour of the past, with wisdom and meaning for the future.”
 
John Bradshaw, author of Reclaiming Virtue and the #1 New York Times bestsellers, Homecoming and Creating Love
“Stephanie Coontz continues to amaze me. In her new book, A Strange Stirring, she chronicles the untold story of some of America’s greatest pioneers. This is a must read for all who care about our country’s growth and maturity. We owe the women described here the same gratitude and respect given to Lewis and Clark and the others who carved out this great nation.”
 
Bitch Magazine
“As the author of several books that challenge the accepted historical narrative of ‘traditional’ families and institutions…Coontz soberly checks facts, corrects misinformation, and fills in holes in the record. Most important, she shows how assumptions and misinformation about the past are used not only to paint a distorted picture of how things used to be, but to justify insidious policies and legislation like the Defense of Marriage Act. In her latest work…Coontz focuses on a book we’ve come to take for granted, arguing that it deserves a closer look…. [S]he not only explores the actual content of The Feminine Mystique (going well beyond the usual proclamations about its controversiality and importance), but insists that readers (and, presumably, feminists) figure out how to reconcile our idealized version of history with information that complicates it.”
 
Publishers Weekly
“This perceptive [and] engrossing…book provides welcome context and background to a still controversial bestseller that changed how women viewed themselves.”


Booklist
“Coupling meticulous research with first-person interviews, Coontz challenges a number of Friedan’s assumptions and exaggerations while also revisiting the climate in which the work appeared and giving voice to women for whom The Feminine Mystique was nothing short of a lifesaver…. As women continue to struggle with the effort to balance life and work, Coontz argues that The Feminine Mystique remains as relevant today as when it first appeared. In tracing the roots of current discontents, which Coontz dubs the ‘Supermom Mystique,’ her book is no less required reading than Friedan’s trailblazer.”
 

The Daily Beast, “This Week’s Hot Reads”
“A thoughtful reappraisal of Betty Friedan’s 1960s classic – and a meditation on the ever-evolving role of women in American society.”


Christine Whelan, HuffingtonPost
“[An] excellent new social history of the impact of Betty Friedan’s landmark book on American women…. Coontz is the rare social historian who knows how to weave meticulous research into a compelling narrative of our not-too-distant past…. A Strange Stirring is, in many ways, better than the original. Today the problem has been named, and A Strange Stirring offers poignant personal reactions, accessible history and present-day comparisons to give voice to the modern quest for gender equality.”


BUST
“[E]xcellent, eminently readable…. Coontz’s ‘demystifying’ of both the era and Friedan is an erudite, even-handed look at the explosive feminist undercurrents of the era.”


Louis Menand, The New Yorker
“[A] useful revisiting of Friedan’s book.”


New York Times Book Review
“[A] timely contribution to the conversation about what constitutes progress for women (and for which women) in these days of mommy wars and mama grizzlies…. By considering The Feminine Mystique as one sturdy strand in the complex arguments we’re engaged in to this day, Coontz does Friedan the tremendous favor of pulling her down from heaven and up from hell…. [I]t’s a relief to have the level-headed Coontz providing perspective and taking Friedan’s work and legacy for what it was: stirring, strange, complicated and crucial.”


Salon.com
A Strange Stirring gives voice to women whose lives were transformed by Friedan’s book, but most compellingly, it sets the historical record straight as far as its impact on families.”


Wall Street Journal
“[S]ocial historian Stephanie Coontz…takes a fresh look at The Feminine Mystique by examining its effect on the book’s original readers…. Ms. Coontz usefully debunks some of the myths that have grown up around The Feminine Mystique and Friedan…. [A]n illuminating analysis of the book that helped launch the movement that freed women to participate more fully in American society.”


Bookforum.com
“Coontz reconciles Friedan’s flawed text with its seemingly outsized influence, and deftly depicts the social context for the dramatic testimonials uncovered in Coontz’s research, the revelatory proto-feminist experiences shared by women of her mother’s generation…. [Coontz’s] clear-eyed review of the social data and cultural contradictions of the time…comprise a fascinating and important study. A Strange Stirring…is a book of rigor and undeceiving, one worthy of Friedan’s tradition.”

The Buffalo News
“For some of us, this is a jolting ‘remember when;’ for others, a slice of history forgotten all too soon. For all of us, there remains relevance.”

Bookpage

“Packed with fascinating statistics and research on 20th-century American social history, including the effect of ‘liberation’ on middle-class, working-class and African-American women, Coontz shines new light on a landmark work.”
 
Seattle Times
“This book enriches Coontz’s impressive body of work on American family life…. She continues to deftly make history a personal science, persuading readers to ponder those societal yokes we’ve taken up to wear around our own necks…. A Strange Stirring reveals the power of two writers; both are able to see beyond the conventional view and the untold history, and enable the reader to look ahead with new eyes and new questions.”

Ladies Home Journal
“A fascinating examination of Friedan’s much-misunderstood classic, A Strange Stirring should be required reading for any young woman today who believes that she’s ‘not a feminist.’ Not only does Stephanie movingly recount how revelatory The Feminine Mystique was to the millions of discontented housewives who read it, but she also details – with examples that had me shaking my head in stupefaction – the unbridled sexism that characterized life circa 1963.”

Michelle Goldberg, The New Republic
“Coontz recounts the catalytic effect that The Feminine Mystique had on a great many women. Her book is full of stories of desperate, suffering people who realized they weren’t crazy only when they picked up Friedan’s bestseller…. But The Feminine Mystique is not just an artifact of a benighted era. It still contains important lessons about one of the most important questions of all, which is how to create a meaningful, autonomous life.”
 
Women’s Review of Books
“Nearly fifty years after The Feminine Mystique exploded onto the scene, Stephanie Coontz measures Friedan’s outsized reputation against a revealing body of research gleaned from archival sources, oral interviews, and surveys she conducted with nearly 200 women. The result is a brisk, even-handed account of the book’s literary achievements, political limitations, and enduring legacy…. Coontz sheds new light on Friedan’s savvy as both a writer and an activist. But Coontz is as intent on demystifying The Feminine Mystique and stripping away the exaggerated and false claims surrounding it as she is on recounting its merits.”

Dissent
“[Coontz’s] slim volume makes an illuminating companion to the book it examines…. [The] book is engaging, readable, and brief…. [A] worthwhile review of the changes wrought by the past half-century.”
 
Psychotherapy Networker
“Engrossing…. Here, as in her previous books…Coontz does what she does best: differentiates between what we think we know about marriage and family life in previous generations and the historical reality. In this case, that means providing a fresh assessment of the impact that Friedan’s book had on women of different classes and racial backgrounds, even beyond its white, middle-class, target audience.”
 

Choice “Coontz has taken on the job of reevaluating Freidan’s groundbreaking work and explaining why, despite the flaws that modern commentators have emphasized, it remains important…. Coontz makes a solid case for the valuable aspects of Freidan’s analysis, especially her legitimization of the unhappiness experienced by educated post-WWII housewives.”

Library Journal
Coontz (history & family studies, Evergreen State Coll.; Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage) recaptures the impact of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique when it was published in 1963. Although Friedan claimed credit for initiating the modern feminist movement, Coontz places the book more dispassionately in its historical context as one of many factors working against entrenched gender roles. Still, Coontz demonstrates persuasively that women readers from many backgrounds found relief—some called it life-saving—in knowing that they were not crazy and not alone in their need to find some work independent of their family roles. Coontz bases her analysis on her survey of almost 200 men and women in addition to interviews, archival research, and oral histories. While she agrees that Friedan spoke mostly to women in affluent families, she asserts that working-class women of all races and African American mothers, both well-to-do and working class, would find some parts of Friedan's analysis on point. Almost 50 years after the book's initial publication, however, there has been little progress in making it easier for mothers—much less fathers—to meld work life and home life. VERDICT Recommended for general and serious readers interested in the history of women.—Cynthia Harrison, George Washington Univ., Washington, DC
Kirkus Reviews

A sharp revisiting of the generation that was floored by Betty Friedan'sThe Feminine Mystique (1963), and how the book is still relevant today.

In order to understand how Friedan's bestseller affected the World War II generation of women in America, Coontz (History, Family Studies/Evergreen State Coll.; Marriage, a History, 2006, etc.) delved into Friedan's archives at the Schlesinger Library, in Cambridge, Mass., as well as conducted surveys of her own. She taps into the incendiary reaction originally provoked by the book, and thereby is able to elucidate more clearly how the women's movement evolved over the succeeding decades. Having done their part for the war effort, the middle-class, mostly white women of Friedan's late-'50s/early-'60s study welcomed their men back and were safely ensconced in the home, aspiring to an ideal of wifeliness and motherhood perfectly calibrated by Madison Avenue and the popular magazines of the day. Although many of the women were the first in their families to attend college, many of them were "tricked" into believing that their greater purpose in life was to serve husbands and raise children, rather than pursue a career. Ultimately, they succumbed to what Friedan called a "nameless aching dissatisfaction." which was something like emotional paralysis and existential malaise. Psychologists and so-called experts often blamed the problem on the women themselves for their inability to conform, but Friedan diagnosed it presciently as the thwarting of "the need to grow and fulfill their potentialities as human beings." In fact, therewasa name for what was ailing American women of the era—sex discrimination—and Coontz examines it with a battery of facts and figures. She traces Friedan's research and some gaps in her argument—e.g., she largely ignored African-American and working-class women—and the creative spin she gave to her own background. Coontz concludes that we still have far to go in achieving Friedan's vision of equality between the sexes.

A valuable education for women and men. For readers looking for a thorough biography of Friedan, check out Judith Hennessee's Betty Friedan: Her Life (1999).

The Barnes & Noble Review

Since its publication in 1963, The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan has been credited with launching the contemporary women's movement and decried for tearing housewives from home. In 2007, the book even ended up on a conservative magazine's list of top-ten most harmful books, just under Hitler's Mein Kampf. Love it or hate it, there's no question the bestseller was revelatory for a certain segment of women -- largely white, educated, and middle-class -- who found that a life limited to marriage and motherhood wasn't as fulfilling as society told them it should be.

In A Strange Stirring, historian Stephanie Coontz examines how and why Friedan's book inspired such a passionate response from so many. Excerpting from interviews, oral histories, and letters Friedan received, Coontz captures the book's impact on real women: "I didn't know why I was so unhappy until I read The Feminine Mystique. Then something clicked"; "It left me breathless"; "I got my mind back."

Moving beyond personal testimonials, Coontz makes abundant use of statistics to dissect the post-war period as experienced by American women more broadly -- including African-American and working-class women, who were left out of Friedan's study. She also considers Friedan herself, critiquing her more exaggerated and oversimplified claims, praising her for those observations that remain relevant. Ever more central to the workforce, women today must now face many of the economic pressures that once bore down almost solely on men. As Coontz's enlightening book demonstrates, Friedan's core message about the need to balance meaningful work and family life endures.

--Erica Wetter

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465028429
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 3/6/2012
  • Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 369,554
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author


Stephanie Coontz is the Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families and teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. The author of Marriage: A History, The Way We Never Were, and The Way We Really Are, she writes about marriage and family issues in many national journals including the Washington Post, New York Times, Harper’s, Chicago Tribune, and Vogue. She lives in Olympia, Washington.
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