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The New Mystiques

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Stephanie Coontz

Fifty years ago Betty Friedan shocked the nation with a best-selling book claiming that American women had been making themselves miserable by trying to live up to a myth —  that a normal woman wanted nothing more than to be a model housekeeper and attentive wife. Friedan named this myth “the feminine mystique.”

In a period when women actually told pollsters that “being subordinate to men is part of being feminine,” Friedan’s message that women and men had the same talents and the same need to grow as human beings was radical and liberating. Thousands of housewives realized that the source of their unhappiness was not a personal failure but a social injustice.

We’ve come a long way since then. Today 97 percent of Americans agree that women and men should have equal rights, and 75 percent reject the idea that men should specialize in breadwinning and women in homemaking.

Yet despite the progress we’ve made in overturning discriminatory attitudes and laws, two corollaries of the old feminine mystique live on. One is the assumption that a “serious” employee has no family obligations that will compete with work because there is someone at home to take care of the rest of life. Even though 70 percent of American children now live in households where every adult is employed, the United States has yet to adopt the family and work reconciliation policies that are standard in the rest of the industrial world. This creates huge work-family stresses for both men and women as they try to live up to their new egalitarian values.

The second is the flip side of the feminine mystique: the assumption that a normal man has no interest in care-giving or any other activity traditionally thought of as “feminine.” This masculine mystique still leads to bullying and ostracism of boys who engage in “girlie” activities such as studying hard or behaving well in school. And men who take an active role in childcare and housework face a heightened risk of being harassed at work and passed over for promotion.

Two other gender mystiques have arisen in recent years. One is the “hottie mystique.” Although young women no longer feel the need to play dumb or pretend to be bad at sports, as the old feminine mystique mandated, they feel more pressure than in the past – and at a younger age – to flaunt a highly sexualized image.

A second mystique kicks in not at marriage, as the happy housewife ideology did, but at childbirth. This “motherhood mystique” insists that women need to make every second of their child’s life a teachable moment, leading homemakers and working mothers alike to feel inadequate – even though both sets of mothers now spend more time with their children than their stay-at-home grandmothers did in 1965 at the height of the male breadwinner family.

Stephanie Coontz is the director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families and author of A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.

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