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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Long Distance Mom: Mystique Revisited
February 2, 2011 - 8:11pm

If you’ve been snowed in and have a little time on your hands -- as I do in Chicago — then I bet you’ve either read or heard about Stephanie Coontz’s new book, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.

I love reading or hearing good book reviews because they offer the illusion that you have actually read the book, or at least the best parts of it. Apparently, I am not alone in this feeling. Coontz confirms that a statistically significant number of women who thought they had read Betty Friedan’s well-known 1963 treatise — The Feminine Mystique, actually had not. These women had simply lived through the political zeitgeist that deconstructed the illusions behind being a beautiful, domestic ‘goddess’ so they assumed that they must have read it.

Like Coontz and many of the women she surveyed, I admit to not having read Friedan’s book -- although I did buy Coontz’s. Friedan seemed too historic for me when I was a college student in the 1980s and 90s. I thought that I was beyond needing a feminist awakening because admirable women of an earlier generation had already accomplished it for me. I only needed to demonstrate my scholarly ‘brilliance’ in order to be treated as worthy of respect by my (mostly) male professors.

But now -- in my middle-aged professorship -- I’m a little more interested in revisiting Friedan’s concept of the feminine mystique and the historical era that demanded change. How much have women’s lives really improved? Is the guilt and exhaustion that I feel from my full-time career and part-time mothering experience really an improvement?

Coontz, a sociologist who specializes in family and marriage research, provides some interesting and compelling data in her book. "Yes" most women responded in surveys, we are happier and better off with both careers and mothering duties. In fact, men and women are happier in marriages when both parents work and share domestic life. Generally, men are ‘getting it.’ Their sex life improves at home if they help out more with housework and parenting. (This was an actual 2006 survey question for heterosexual couples.) And divorce rates are down since the 1970s.

What’s the bad news?

Not surprisingly, in the United States it’s connected to working too hard, or what sociologists Phyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling define as the “career mystique.” Men and women both feel the pressure to demonstrate that they must give their ‘all’ to their jobs, and that family obligations should not interfere. Coontz reports that almost 25% of all American men work more than fifty hours per week. (Compared to 7.3% of Swedish men; 3.5% in the Netherlands). We get much less vacation time and (unlike 134 industrialized countries) have no laws limiting the workweek. Only 50% of all U.S. workers qualify for the twelve weeks of unpaid leave that the Family Medical Leave Act guarantees.

I did not receive twelve weeks of leave when either of my two children were born. I was a grad student with my first child, and an Assistant Professor at a university that did not have a leave policy with my second. (That’s changed now…) I felt the tenure pressure (i.e. career mystique) of my job, and timed my daughter to arrive in the summer so as not to interfere with my teaching. Five weeks after her birth I was back at school with a three-course load and going home to nurse between classes. My (then) husband stayed home with an infant and one year old because childcare was so expensive that it did not make much sense for him to take a low-paying job while attempting to finish his dissertation. The pressures brought my marriage down, but I received tenure right on time.

The Feminine Mystique helped to challenge the unfair (and boring) illusions about female domestic life and sexuality (although we still live with Victoria’s Secret ads…). Now we need to challenge this career mystique, particularly in the U.S., and we need men to help us with it. According to Coontz and the Families and Work Institute, the number of men reporting work-family conflict has “soared” since the 1970’s, from 35 to 59 percent reporting discontent. (Women’s reporting of discontent has only bloomed from 41 to 45 percent.) This discontent relates to wanting to have more time to spend with family and home without risk of losing a job.

“We still haven’t figured out how to combine a loving family life with a rewarding work life,” says Coontz. “But The Femininie Mystique reminds us of the price women pay when we retreat from trying to resolve these dilemmas or fail to involve men in our attempts.”

No retreat. No surrender. Come on boys and girls, let’s make some noise….


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