Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Stephanie Coontz gives lecture on women’s rights

By Chelsea Whitton

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Chelsea Whitton/Collegian

Women in today’s society may have the ability and right to assert their authority today in the workplace and at home, but things weren’t always so, as the 1960s made evident.

Stephanie Coontz, author, teacher and speaker on feminism, women’s rights and family dynamics gave a lecture titled, “Mad Men, Working Girls, and Depressed Housewives: The 1960s and The Feminine Mystique” on Thursday night, Feb. 10, to a packed Mahar Auditorium at the University of Massachusetts.

She also discussed topics from her new book for which she is touring, “A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.”

M.V. Lee Badgett, director of the Center for Public Policy and Administration, who planned the event, said Cootnz is “someone who is working to make the better place for women, kids and men.”
According to the event website for the lecture, “‘A Strange Stirring’ uses personal interviews, cultural and historical analysis and current scholarship to examine the impact of Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking 1963 best-seller.”

Coontz views American feminist Betty Friedan’s book, “The Feminine Mystique,” which served as cultural dynamite at the time as a book that, despite major flaws, appealed to masses of women and motivated them to evaluate their lives as mothers, wives and working women.

“Friedan’s book was so influential, women could remember where they were when they read it,” said Coontz.

“I greatly overestimated what Friedan did, but I greatly underestimated the price women were paying,” she said. “There were few options for women outside of the home in the ’60s.”

It wasn’t until 1968 that the help wanted section in The New York Times specifically for female jobs was abolished.

Coontz received her bachelor’s degree in American History from the University of California, Berkeley, and then later got her start in writing and evaluating the culture of women in America.

“I started in 1975 to write a book on women’s lives,” she said. “I was frustrated what had been done to women during the time and what women had done in spite of it.”

Coontz said that she went on to study family life rather than just women’s lives for the next 13 years. Though Coontz’ expertise is in family life of times past, she is also invested in studying and evaluating the roles of women in our ever-changing culture.

“There is a worldwide revolution,” said Coontz of modern-day issues that women still face. “Though there may be setbacks and obstacles, it is an unstoppable revolution, even in the underdeveloped world. Women’s rights are proceeding very unevenly.”

Coontz’ focus wasn’t only about societal issues women face. In the modern world, a demanding issue yet to be fully taken on is class, specifically, societal differences of those in the poor, working-class, middle-class and upper classes.

“We haven’t been talking about class,” said Coontz. “How much can we come together collectively?”

Professor Linda Smircich from the Isenberg School of Management was in attendance at the meeting.

“I think it is incredibly valuable to bring in historical perspective of the shape of society,” Smirchich said. “The issue of class demands more attention.”

Coontz also covered the issue of child caregiving and bonus differences between that of men and women.

“How much of this [workplace] is anti-caregiving?” she asked.

She even captured the sentiment of the times when she said she vividly remembers her elementary teacher telling her, “Stephanie, if you wouldn’t say such big words the boys would like you better.”

She said that from the ’40s and onward, both women and men saw women’s roles not as the smarts of the family, but rather as the caregivers and moral support of the family.

“It had become socially acceptable for women to get a college education before marriage only to get better husbands and to be better mothers,” Coontz said, also adding that in the ’50s and ’60s women were twice as likely to drop out of college than men.

“Now, young women in their 20s can and do earn more than men in metropolitan areas,” said Coontz.

Coontz said her book, which was published earlier this year, was also a learning experience for her.

“This book turned out to be the most hopeful and most encouraging,” said Coontz.

“I’ve never had such an emotional rollercoaster with a book,” Coontz said of Friedan’s book.

Also influenced by Friedan’s work was sophomore social thought and political economy major Michelle Polek.

“I consider myself a feminist,” she said. “The ‘Feminist Mystique’ is what launched my feminist identity.”

In Coontz’ opinion, the future only gets better for women’s rights.

“We can work together on these issues in a way we couldn’t before,” said Coontz.

Coontz has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Harper’s and Vogue, among many other publications. She is the author of five books pertaining to family life and women’s lives. She teaches history and family studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and is the Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families

The event was planned by the UMass Public Engagement Project, the Five College Public Policy Initiative. It was funded at UMass by the Center for Research on Families, the Center for Public Policy and Administration, the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, the Social and Demographic Research Institute (SADRI), the Department of History, the Department of Sociology and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Amherst College, Smith College and Mount Holyoke.

Chelsea Whitton can be reached at [email protected]

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