January 14th, 2011

_A Strange Stirring_, Stephanie Coontz (kindle)

Subtitled: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s

Published by Basic Books. This is a "trade" press, not an academic publisher. This work does not use numbers in the text/notes at the end of the chapter/text. Instead, Coontz includes bibliographic essays. I'm ambivalent (if not trivalent, or quadrivalent, or whatever) about the utility of this kind of citation/sourcing for other readers. For me, this book was the last straw. Books which cite in this manner will have to fight extra hard for me to spend time on them, because my recent history with this style has been profoundly negative.

Regular readers of this blog probably aren't reading this; if you landed here via google you should know that (a) I used to be a huge fan of this author and (b) I was shocked at the contents of a book review of this text in Bitch magazine (which I also love). It was hard to imagine that the reviewer had made errors and eye-popping to imagine that Coontz had said what the reviewer said she said; I figured I'd just read the book and document the results -- AFTER reading FM.

The first error in this book is a serious one that reappears in various forms throughout the book. I call it the Sesame Street error. It is true: Sesame Street has little to offer the adult viewer (not nothing -- just not much) and not a lot in the way of an adult audience (again, non-zero). While it is possible to critique Sesame Street's value for adults, it doesn't make a lot of sense to do so. Similarly, FM has little to offer anyone other than (upper) middle class white women who could have gone to college in the postwar period (whether they did or not, the audience is women who _could_ have gone) and their more open minded and empathetic family members. Critiquing what FM has to offer anyone else (black women, working class women, women of the 1980s and later) is stupid? Unfair? Wrong.

The second error can be thought of in terms of a very famous speech by the man who was president in the early 1960s: Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country (a quote in turn, oddly enough, from a man enormously popular with the counterculture). Human life, in all its many wonderful aspects, is a constant tension between each of us as individuals getting what each of us as individuals wants and needs -- and us as a collective working together to accomplish something to the benefit of us as a collective. There are two ways to get around this tension: complete self-abnegation, and a complete renunciation of responsibility to anyone else for anything. Generally speaking, humans don't much care for either one as a "solution" -- we'd rather have the tension.

The audience of FM, while it had access to a lot of resources, lived in a world which defined health as acceptance of a niche assigned based on reified categories such as gender and race, which required them to deny their own wants and needs. They were under enormous pressure to comply. FM gave them a detailed rhetorical structure to defend an incremental response to this pressure: find something that you think is important and worth doing and do it, and then defend yourself by pointing out these problems with society when society attacks you for taking these actions. FM is polemic. It is not a scholarly analysis or discussion. Whenever Coontz complains about failure to attribute or failure to cover or failure to analyze, she is saying that Friedan should have included something _that would have caused FM to fail in its stated goal_.

There are numerous instances of this. Some of the failure to attribute accusations are just stupid: Friedan attributes everyone important in the Preface in a way that was completely appropriate to the kind of book she wrote in the time that she wrote it, with the exception of Vance Packard. (that was a huge lapse, which Coontz spent little time on.) Some of the failure to attribute accusations are horrifying. Friedan cites Komarovsky all over the place, but concludes that she's as bad as all the rest of the people participating in the FM, because _Komarovsky is_. Friedan supplies supporting evidence and it is compelling. I don't understand _why_ Coontz can't see the toxicity of Komarovsky accepting the mental health construct of "adjustment"; possibly because Coontz was never, herself, personally subjected to the mental health construct of "adjustment" (Coontz should be very grateful to her mother for this, and I suspect she is). Some of the failure to attribute accusations misunderstand Friedan's work (a polemic) as something which it is not (an academic work). Friedan took a huge risk mentioning de Beauvoir at all; if she'd gone into detail in the text or citation/notes structure, she would have lost her audience. Some would have gotten lost in the philosophical depth. Some would have dismissed it as not relevant in the US. Some would have concluded Friedan was politically a pariah.

The goal of FM was worthy; Coontz notes that many other women were considering writing books in this area at exactly the same time. The means which Friedan assembled to reach this goal were perfectly effective. The very worst error in the book, in some ways, is an instance of Coontz being politically tone deaf to the era in which FM was created and worked its wonderful wiles. By suggesting that Friedan could use a description and analysis of African-American family structure to convince (upper) middle class white women to go back to work, Coontz successfully trivializes the severity of racial discrimination even among liberals in the country at the time. Coontz read at least two books that spent a lot of time analyzing what it meant to be a Jewish woman born in 1920 and politically active in the postwar years. Friedan was herself subject to significant discrimination, as were Catholic women (and Friedan did some piling onto the Catholics herself, altho she coded it as attacks on the natural childbirth and breastfeeding movements of the time). Friedan was successfully navigating the social hierarchies of the time, able by some miracle to communicate in a way that women above her in the hierarchy could accept and take action on. No one, NOT EVEN JESUS COME BACK TO EARTH HERSELF could have convinced white people in 1963 to take advice from black people on how to structure their family life.

There are a lot more problems with this book, but after pointing out that somebody -- and it wasn't the dog -- just took a dump on the living room rug, it seems wrong to complain about the kids failing to put their dirty clothing in the hamper. I will close with one final observation. Coontz takes instances of clear hyperbole in Friedan and treats them as literal statements. That's okay; I'm fine with being overly literal. That's my pathology, too. But an author cannot do that, and then dismiss Chapter 12 as "clearly hyperbole" to the "serious reader". It's _not_ clearly hyperbole. Any serious reader of Friedan in 2011 is going to wonder what the fuck is going on here. Friedan provides some explanation when she describes women's magazine editors as discovering that women could more readily identify with people who had lost a limb or gone blind than they could with people who had jobs or engaged in politics. Perhaps Friedan was just offering up her contribution to that genre: okay, here's yet another way to frame sticking educated women in the suburbs and telling them they're not allow to do anything they want to, but must instead do things that bore the crap out of them and are clearly pointless and unappreciated. Nevertheless, the frames we pick tell a lot about ourselves, and it's worth thinking about why an American Jew thought it was worthwhile bringing Nazi concentration camps into the discussion. It's even _more_ worthwhile asking questions like, why didn't anyone say anything at the time? Or even in the 1980s, when the book was still actively being assigned in class? Could this chapter in fact be a big chunk of why the book has been sort of furtively pushed aside? What was going on in American culture with our perceptions of Jews, Nazi Germany and so forth that made it okay then to trivialize concentration camps in this way -- and what got us to stop?

Because the answers to _these_ questions lie in the way identity politics and the third wave have come to fully replace second wave feminism. That's an important story: in it are things like how AIDS and the response to AIDS changed the way society as a whole treats homosexuality, the replacement of suspicion of Jews and Catholics with the suspicion of Muslims and immigrants, a series of dramatic changes in the timing of reproduction, and a thousand other changes in the social hierarchy and our collective attitude whether we should even _have_ a social hierarchy at all. FM is crying out for a nuanced response that compares the world of Friedan to the world of Coontz and to our experienced world today. And it really, really, really did not get it here.

I did, in fact, finish the book, altho it was a near run thing (my count hit 46). There are interesting sections, such as the survey responses (and other) to FM, and the description of the women's movement after the publication of FM (which is necessarily quite superficial, just like the description of the women's suffrage movement was in FM).

I remain solidly unconvinced that either this book or FM is worth reading. If you are only going to read one, I would urge you to read FM: it has interest historically, and it also has interest as an extremely effective form of polemic in a very difficult context that had much more staying power than I think anyone expected, and reached a much broader audience than could possibly have been expected. FM is not worth reading for its original purpose -- that world is gone.