This month, we’re reading Stephanie Coontz’s book A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women and the Dawn of the 1960s. I’d like to share a little bit about how I came to choose this book, and what I’ve learned so far in reading it.
Stephanie Coontz is a social historical whose book titles I’ve always been intrigued by, but this is the first of hers I’ve read. (I think it must have been mentioned in another book, but now I can’t remember which one.) I haven’t read The Feminine Mystique, either; the library editions are 400+ pages, and I’m afraid I’ll find it outdated, the way I was underwhelmed by Catcher in the Rye in high school, despite the splash it made when it was published originally. Coontz’s book comes in at just a shade over 200 pages, and it was published in 2011, so it includes the historian’s view of the past several decades, and her writing style is clear and accessible.
Several pages into Chapter 1, “The Unliberated 1960s,” I said out loud to my husband, “There is a different horrifying fact on every page of this book.” For example:
- In 1962, many states still had “head and master” laws, affirming that the wife was subject to her husband.
- In 1963, in many states, a wife had “no legal rights to any part of her husband’s earnings or property during the existence of the marriage, aside from a right to be properly supported” – but if you were unlucky enough to live in Kansas, “adequate support” did not necessarily include running water in the kitchen.
- As late as 1972, a wife could not rent or buy a home on her own unless her husband signed the papers.
- Some states required a woman to obtain court approval before opening a business in her own name.
- When a woman married, courts ruled, she “loses her domicile and acquires that of her husband, no matter where she resides, or what she believes or intends.”
- Women were obliged to take their husbands’ surname, and in many states, she could not return to her maiden name after a divorce unless she had proven he was “at fault.”
- In 1963 and 1964, newspapers divided “Help Wanted” sections into Female and Male. Ads for female employees often contained phrases like “Attractive, please!”
- It was “perfectly legal” to ask prospective female employees about their family plans and make hiring decisions based on their answers.
- Many airline companies requires stewardesses to quit work upon marriage.
- In 1963, Massachusetts “flatly prohibited” the sale of contraceptives, and made it a misdemeanor for anyone, even a married couple, to use birth control.
- The law did not recognize that a woman could be raped by her husband. South Dakota was the first state to make spousal rape a crime, in 1975; North Carolina did not do so until 1993.
- Until 1981, Pennsylvania had a law against a husband beating his wife after 10pm or on Sunday, but not the rest of the time. The police in some places used the “stitch rule,” only arresting a husband for domestic violence if the wife’s injuries required a certain number of stitches.
Are you a feminist yet?
If you think you won’t have time to read A Strange Stirring by next week, you can read Betty Friedan’s 1960 article in Good Housekeeping, “Women Are People, Too!” (This seems like an obvious statement to most of us nowadays, but back then it very much needed to be said – and it was the first time some people had heard it.)
I’m looking forward to discussing A Strange Stirring on Wednesday, November 12, at 7pm at the Fox Branch Library. Copies of the book are available for checkout at the circulation desk. See original post about this book group meeting.