The Past Was a Different Country: A Strange Stirring

By an odd coincidence, it’s almost a year since I wrote about Nackles, a 1960s fantasy short story by Donald Westlake about the birth of Santa’s player on the other side. The point of the post was how the story obviously sprang from an alien culture where an abused wife has no options but to stay in the marriage and suffer.
The coincidence is that I just read A STRANGE STIRRING: The FEMININE MYSTIQUE and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, in which Stephanie Coontz drives home the same point about what a different (and worse) world it was.
In some states, police could only arrest an abuser if they caught him in the act. Other police departments had a “stitch rule”—it was only worth arresting the man if the woman had stitches afterward (abused husbands weren’t taken seriously enough to be on the radar as far as I know). Not only was it legal to refuse to hire a woman because of her gender, some state laws still legally affirmed the husband’s authority to tell his wife she couldn’t work, couldn’t go back to school, couldn’t read the wrong books (and society affirmed it a lot too). Some states ruled that a woman had no say in how her husband spent his money, as long as he provided adequate support. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled that not hooking up the kitchen for running water (even though the family could afford) didn’t fall short of “adequate support.”
Only four states allowed a woman to claim a legal address separate from her spouse. If the husband decided the family should move, the woman had to move with him or she could be charged with deserting her spouse. Women could not keep their maiden name in most states—one rationale, believe it or not, was that it would be harder to stop unmarried couples posing as spouses to shack up at motels (because “John Smith and Jane Doe” wouldn’t automatically prove they were single [and this is a shift in itself. Back then even a lot of single adults didn’t want to let the neighbors see they were doing it, so they’d go to motels for anonymity]).
And overwhelmingly, the media told women this was the way it should be. They were made to be wives and mothers. They didn’t need and shouldn’t want any identification or role beyond that. Hell, they were living in paradise: modern technology made housework easier than their mothers, and modern openness made sexual pleasure more common than for their Victorian grandmothers. So what could possibly be the problem?
The Feminine Mystique, for a lot of woman of that era, was a game-changer. It was a book that said yes, there was a problem. That just because everyone told you your life was perfect and the bad parts were your own fault (you were smothering your kids, questioning your husband’s authority, not molding yourself to his expectations) didn’t mean they were right. That you did have the right to be something other than Mrs. His Wife.
While some accounts (including Friedan’s) portray the book as birthing second-wave feminism, Coontz shows that’s a distortion. There were criticisms and questions about the status quo in the media, though they were in the minority. A lot of women did work outside the home (maids, housekeepers, waitresses, for example). There was a feminist movement. Friedan borrowed from other writers and researchers without giving credit.
That said, Coontz also shows that the book really penetrated into the consciousness of millions of middle-class women in a way the era’s feminism wasn’t. I agree with her many of the changes in women’s roles would have happened without it, but the certainly made a big contribution.
As someone who writes regularly about Undead Sexist Cliches, it’s still a shock to remember how widespread and accepted they were in this era. Much like Nackles, it’s an unsettling reminder how alien that era looks now, even though it’s within my own lifetime. And how much good feminism has done.
A Strange Stirring is also an excellent book and I highly recommend it.


Filed under Politics, Reading, Undead sexist cliches

2 responses to “The Past Was a Different Country: A Strange Stirring

  1. Pingback: Body hair, hating men and other undead sexist cliches | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Sexists behaving badly (as usual) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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