The Problem That Had No Name

The Problem That Had No Name

A Strange Stirring:
The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s
by Stephanie Coontz
Basic Books, 2011, 248 pp.

IN THE past few decades, the concept of “work-life balance” has assumed a prominent place in our cultural lexicon. The proper ratio is almost always seen as elusive, utopian, the province of Scandinavians. Taken literally, the term is a little odd—after all, work is a subset of life, not its opposite. But of course, “life” is understood to encompass everything outside the office—hobbies; friends; and, especially, home and family.

In the postwar United States, for a healthy slice of the female middle class, the problem took a starkly different form. In their lives, the distinction between work and life blurred—the domain of home and family was also their worksite. And the job of a housewife, though it certainly involved labor, had become less onerous than in the past. The wonders of washing machines and kitchen gadgets and supermarkets expedited chores, while the country’s new prosperity made these conveniences widely available. Longer life spans also meant that women had many years when childrearing would no longer occupy their time. The American housewife was free to play bridge with friends, redecorate her living room, experiment with new recipes, attend to her husband and children, and guarantee that her kitchen truly gleamed.

Framed as a privilege, it sounds rather pleasant. That, in a nutshell, was the problem.

In a previous era, women’s need for sex had been denied and suppressed. Now, female sexuality was embraced—provided it was limited to marriage. The idyllic image of the postwar American family included a vital sex life between husband and wife. But the fetters hadn’t disappeared; they had relocated. Now it was work outside the home that was particularly frowned upon as unnatural, unfeminine. “Career women” were vilified and pitied. And yet, for some reason, a substantial fraction of housewives were mysteriously discontent.

Betty Friedan’s iconic 1963 book The Feminine Mystique submitted a powerful explanation: work was a basic human need, for women as well as for men. Her book demonstrated that many women had too little work—and too little life. It turns out that the game is not zero-sum; the two can feed on each other. Friedan showed that a work drive was as natural and undeniable as a sex drive.

I RECENTLY read The Feminine Mystique for the first time. As a woman born well after its publication, I considered myself in some sense its beneficiary. Reading it was a little like finally meeting a benefactor, and I was pleased to discover that I liked my benefactor. It had more intellectual heft and less stridency than I expected to find in a best-selling polemic. The tone throughout is reasonable and matter-of-fact, even, somehow, when Friedan likens housewives to Holocaust victi...

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