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Originally published Thursday, February 24, 2011 at 7:04 PM

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Book review

'A Strange Stirring': Stephanie Coontz weighs the impact of Betty Friedan's 'The Feminine Mystique'

In "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s," Evergreen State College professor and author Stephanie Coontz chronicles the far-reaching effect of the classic feminist text by Betty Friedan.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Stephanie Coontz

The author of "A Strange Stirring" will discuss her book at 6:30 p.m. next Friday at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

Every era in modern America has its own soundtrack. (Let us not dwell on just how Justin Bieber will figure into this.) I think there's a book for every era too, and Betty Friedan's 1963 best-seller, "The Feminine Mystique," is the one for the women's movement rising out of the '60s.

In "A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s" (Basic Books, 248 pp., $25.95), historian Stephanie Coontz captures the book's far-reaching effect. She wisely doesn't dwell on the craft of "The Feminine Mystique," which she notes from the start is dry and sometimes outdated. Nor was Friedan, who died in 2006, a shining example of enlightenment; for all her intelligence and liberalism, she could be classist and racist. (And, sexist even.) Rather, the point here is how the book made women feel, and how its revelations changed our history.

Friedan threw a bomb over the fence when she told American women that it wasn't their fault that they felt trapped, isolated and disappointed with their lives. It's hard to grasp this today, but that actually was a radical notion at the time. We've been sold a bill of goods, went Friedan's clarion call. We're supposed to be happy playing the bit part assigned to us in postwar America. Friedan declared that until a woman was seen (and saw herself) as an individual with her own life of the mind, and her own outside-of-the-home interests, she was going to remain marginalized. And in too many cases, miserable. If guilt could be weighed like scrap metal, she hauled away tons of rusty junk with this book.

Coontz, a professor at The Evergreen State College, does what she does best: Along with interviews of nearly 200 people, she steadily deconstructs myth. Friedan has always been both damned and praised. Coontz asserts she was wrongly painted as a man-hater who urged domestic mutiny. She has also been inaccurately portrayed (and self promoted) as the lonely leader of second-wave American feminism. In fact, there were other activists and writers already blazing the trail by the start of the 1960s.

This book enriches Coontz's impressive body of work on American family life. "Strange Stirring" is not in the class of her excellent 2008 book "Marriage, a History," but that is not surprising. That work will stand as the definitive atlas to the marital world for a long time. 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.

Here she covers a lot of ground quickly. She sets Friedan's work off in relief against women's history in America and the evolution of the feminist movement. She shares moving responses from women who felt like ungrateful failures until they read "The Feminine Mystique." She examines the role of work in the lives of African-American women — something Friedan neglected and for which she has been rightly criticized.

"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.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland. She blogs at www.typelikethewind.com.

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