Second-wave feminism is old enough that scholars and critics can now write books about rereading the books -- the "classics" -- that animated the movement. (One wonders: What feminist texts from the early 21st century might thinkers be rereading in 2051?) In A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (Basic Books, 2012), the path-breaking family historian Stephanie Coontz assesses the importance of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan's 1963 investigation of the painful discontent experienced daily by many American suburban housewives. Coontz argues that although The Feminine Mystique didn't single-handedly create second-wave feminism, it did have a singularly galvanizing effect on its readers. Friedan's book made women feel like they weren't alone, like they weren't going crazy, like there might be some future for them other than another night at the stove and more tranquilizers.
At the end of A Strange Stirring, Coontz notes how much has changed since 1963. Many of the ideas that Friedan labored to rebut -- such as "femininity can be destroyed by education" -- have largely disappeared from American culture. But Coontz also identifies new "mystiques" that hold back women. There's the working mom mystique, for example: Mothers, Coontz argues, continue to be discriminated against in the workplace. Employers persist in believing that mothers will be more distracted and less committed employees.