In a sweetly musty used-book-store, I recently bought a few thick, oversize issues of Good Housekeeping and Ladies' Home Journal. Dating from the early 1950s, they were full of ads for Del Monte fruit cocktail (serving suggestion: use it to top a loaf of canned ham, for something “really different!”), Lustroware plastic wastebaskets (“Love its elegant beauty”), and articles worrying that comic books “create child criminals” and warning mothers that “Nobody likes a young smart aleck.”
I'm helpless to resist this kind of thing: These magazines join my stack of tattered, darkly cheerful lifestyle guides from the '50s, '60s, and '70s that outline secretarial skills, stain removal, and other traditionally womanly arts. And every morning when I turn on my computer, I'm greeted by a scanned page from a startling 1975 book called Moving Through Pregnancy. The text alongside a photo of a very pregnant woman pushing an unwieldy vacuum cleaner reads, in part, “With all due respect for the liberation of women, someone has to clean the house and do all kinds of boring chores.”
I love how incongruous these retro images are with my life. As they grow increasingly dated, they've become a kind of ecstatic kitsch I can revel in, even as I reject what they once mandated. Flipping through the ads for reproduction vintage dresses, burlesque costumes, and retro-inspired housewares in any number of recent feminist-flavored magazines, it's clear I'm not alone in this.
The third-wave (and predominantly white and middle-class) women who share my enthusiasm for these retro images didn't live through the years when fruit cocktail and canned ham were dinnertime buddies, or when wives freshened their lipstick just in time to greet their husbands at the door, perfect drink in hand. But we've developed a strong feeling for what that time looked like. It's a composite picture gleaned from episodes of Mad Men and I Love Lucy, from Anne Taintor fridge magnets and thrift-store flotsam—along with family stories, photo albums, and whatever official history we may have absorbed along the way. But when we try to define it, whole eras—made up of strings of individual years with their own specific characters—inevitably get collapsed into a generalized past.
Feminists may not yearn, as political conservatives seem to, for an idyllic time when everyone was happy with their traditional societal roles, but we're certainly not immune to nostalgia. No matter our age or generation, we're familiar with wistful stories about the struggles that preceded us, and we cling to our own personal glory days. Sources of nostalgia can be contradictory: The same third-wavers who lust after the aesthetic trappings of prefeminist years—think cat-eye glasses and curve-hugging office attire, à la Joan Holloway—also tend to be a little envious of their predecessors in the heyday of second-wave feminism, whose struggles can look thrillingly straightforward when compared with the muddied, disillusioning politics of our own time. Of course, to romanticize those eras with such ease involves oversimplifying them. But even if our hankering for the radical political climate of the late '60s and early '70s is more principled than our passion for, say, crinolines, the lines between them are not always clear. Both become part of the same picture of the past, which could be captioned simply “What came before.”
“There are political consequences to remembering things that never happened and forgetting things that did,” Ariel Levy wrote in a November 2009 issue of the New Yorker, reflecting on the persistent myth that “women's libbers” burned their bras during the historic protest at the 1968 Miss America pageant; “It's as if feminism were plagued by a kind of false-memory syndrome.” The memories Levy refers to come from folks all over the ideological spectrum, and while different people will always have their own experiences of the same time and place, in most cases, something either happened or it didn't. (In the case of the alleged bra-burning, it didn't.) When we're lucky, the truth is verifiable, but that doesn't mean the record is permanently corrected—“bra-burning” feminists, after all, remain the go-to scare image used by the mainstream media.
Historian Stephanie Coontz has dedicated her career to exploring and exploding precisely those kinds of fallacies, the ones that contribute to what Levy calls “our cultural memory disorder.” As the author of several books that challenge the accepted historical narrative of “traditional” families and institutions (among them 1992's The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap and 2005's Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage), 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 MarriageAct.
In her latest work, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, Coontz focuses on a book we've come to take for granted, arguing that it deserves a closer look. Coontz spends most of her book digging into how Betty Friedan came to write her landmark 1963 work and surveying the impact it has had on both individual women and American feminism, but her most telling insight is a sort of footnote to that story. In the many interviews she conducted with women who were the target audience for The Feminine Mystique when it was first published, Coontz discovered that many of them had not actually read it, despite being “initially sure” that they had. This was as much a surprise to the subjects as to their interviewer. “When they tried to explain the gap between what they 'remembered' and what I told them the book actually said,” Coontz writes, “they usually decided that the title had conjured up such a vivid image in their minds that over time they had come to believe they had read it.” The book's legendary status had eclipsed its actual content.
In some ways, this is a triumph: Friedan's salvo for women's liberation has been so effectively distilled and shared in the 47 years since its release that there's no need to actually sit down and read 350-plus pages. As long as we get the gist of it, do the specifics really matter?
Well, yes, says Coontz, they matter a lot. In A Strange Stirring, she 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. She points out that while The Feminine Mystique is typically credited with sparking the women's liberation movement, in it, Friedan didn't actually urge women to organize or make any collective demands on society. Nor did she, as Coontz writes, “advocate that most women pursue full-time careers or even suggest that women ask their husbands to help them with childcare and housework if they went to school or took a job.” And nowhere in the book is there any “male-bashing”; according to Coontz, Friedan “actually placed more blame on women than on men for the prevalence of the mystique, which she called their 'mistaken choice.'”
What Friedan did write was still very radical for the time, and was greeted with more than a little outcry: On the most basic level, the book encouraged women to “pursue an education and develop a life plan” so they'd have skills and interests to fall back on after their children left home. But not everyone found Friedan's message redemptive, or even surprising. Her limited perspective—particularly her seeming obliviousness to women who never had the choice not to work—may have been a calculated way to make her book more acceptable to the mainstream, but it also created resentment among the people whose experiences it left out (namely, women who were not white and middle class). Among many feminists, the book's inherent race and class biases were unforgivable, and rendered it pretty much irrelevant.
Yet The Feminine Mystique did succeed in refuting one of the most widespread, pernicious myths of postwar American life: that housewives were fulfilled by their limited role. Countering this assumption meant correcting public memory, which was no small task since the culture at large seemed determined to forget about women's potential and feminism's early accomplishments (suffrage, anyone?). As Coontz puts it, Friedan knew she had to “remind women of what they had done in the past,” and The Feminine Mystique worked, on a fundamental level, to reacquaint them with their sense of possibility. But in doing so, Friedan relied on some myths and oversimplifications of her own. Sometimes her methods were flawed, bordering on unethical: Coontz notes Friedan's “exaggerations and sometimes selective use of evidence” (the way she excluded, for example, any mention of publicly successful women like Dorothy McCullough Lee, elected mayor of Portland, Oregon, in 1948) and points out that she didn't always acknowledge her sources and influences (chief among them Simone de Beauvoir and Mirra Komarovsky) or fully own up to the personal politics and experiences that informed her ideas.
Coontz may focus on the dawn of second-wave feminism with a unique intensity, but the women's-liberation movement and the conditions that gave rise to it have been described in very similar ways in several feminist histories published over the past decade. Ruth Rosen's 2000 book The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America kicks off with an account of what life was like “before the revolution,” intended (according to the jacket copy) to create “a 'you were there' sense of the past.” That same year, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards also began their third-wave statement of purpose, Manifesta, with an attempt to conjure “A Day Without Feminism”—one characterized by the same injustices and oppressions outlined by Rosen. In Susan Brownmiller's 1999 book In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, she, too, asks readers to “imagine” the world as it looked like in 1968, on the cusp of her personal feminist awakening, or, alternatively, to “summon it back into memory.” And Gail Collins's recent book When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present begins in a world where “Help Wanted” ads are divided by gender, where women are regularly fired for getting pregnant and can't get a credit card without their husbands' approval. Clearly, it's a story more than a few people care about getting right.
But history is rarely an objective thing. As Levy wrote in that New Yorker piece (which was, in part, a review of Collins's book), “Where we think we've been on our great womanly march forward often has less to do with the true coordinates than with our fears and desires.” True enough. In a July New York Times essay considering why the TV show Mad Men is so intensely captivating, Katie Roiphe describes those days of rigid roles and subjugation as ones full of untamed pleasures: affairs and three-martini lunches and delightful inappropriateness. “In the early '60s they smoldered against the repression of the '50s; and it may be that we smolder a little against the wilier and subtler repression of our own undoubtedly healthier, more upstanding times,” she wrote, arguing that we're drawn to the “large-scale messiness” of the characters' lives because they stand in such stark contrast to our own comparatively restrained times.
That's one theory, the result of many hours spent spellbound by a TV show that portrays a time before she was born. But Roiphe's approach points to something bigger than her subject: When it comes to the past, the only thing anyone seems able (or willing) to agree on is that their own version should be the official one. Roiphe's hunger for the distinct kind of “messiness” that she believes characterized the early '60s (in contrast with today's very different—but still quite messy—kind) is informed by her own life and longings, just as Coontz's drive to give romanticism a reality check has its own agenda. The same is true of the way dueling political parties manipulate their stories of bygone days toward their own ends. Sure, the past happened. But the particular facts involved often resonate less deeply than our interpretation of them.
At the end of A Strange Stirring, Coontz argues that for all its prescience, The Feminine Mystique was actually not “ahead of its time,” the generic acclaim so often used as shorthand to indicate a work's importance. “Books don't become best sellers because they are ahead of their time,” she explains. “They become best sellers when they tap into concerns that people are already mulling over, pull together ideas and data that have not yet spread beyond specialists and experts, and bring all these together in a way that is easy to understand and explain to others.” In that case, saying that Friedan's book was of its time rather than ahead of it is actually the highest form of praise—and not a bad thing for all of us to aim for, even as we keep an eye on the rear view.