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I had dropped out of college for a while and was working at a place called the Child Study and Treatment Center. I was an attendant counselor for schizophrenic and autistic kids. And I went out for coffee and I walked back in and everybody was watching the news and they said, Kennedy, President Kennedy and some Texas guy had been shot. And it was so unreal to me that I just sort of said, oh well we can do without the Texas guy. And then realized what I had just said, you know, I mean it was just not, it was just totally foreign. It's amazing. I would have been four and I remember because I got home from school and I opened the door and my mom was crying. And of course I was like a big thing and I said, what happened mom or something and she said a good friend died and you ran back to the television. Wow.
So it's really, why was that such a watershed moment for this country and because I think in many ways 1964 in the concept that we're having of it began then. Well, you know, we'd gone through World War II where we used to people dying and we were pretty enured to the U.S. intervening and foreign places and but I don't think that we were at all prepared that our own people, our own leaders, our own white guys could get shot. And there was a lot of idealism. Even people who were critics of Kennedy felt basically idealistic about him and so there was just a tremendous sorrow and shock, sorrow and shock. If you had to sort of look at America on November 22nd just before Oswald pulls the trigger and survey the landscape of the country, what would you see? What kind of country was America culturally socially?
Ah, gosh, there's so much involved in there. I can tell you what I saw among my generation of activists and people who were just coming of age in that period and that was that we had come out of World War II. Our parents had huge great memories of what the government had done during the Depression to help them. We had the heroism of World War II. We didn't see the dark side of it yet and so there was a tremendous sense that the government could do wonderful good, wonderful things and that was reinforced by our memories of Eisenhower sending troops in to stop the violence in Little Rock. And at the same time we were just beginning to learn all these horrible things that our government was doing, the interventions in El Salvador, in Vietnam, the support for the French colonialist effort even though we were supposed to be the defenders of freedom. And there was a tremendous sense of idealism co-existing with a dawning sense of outrage.
And if you think about it as a kind of a, there's a consensus going on in America in a way like that. There's a, you know, mad men has helped us kind of come up with a stereotypical TV soap opera kind of view of it, but there's some truth to all of those things too. Help me understand the kind of black and white Aussie and Harriet quality that we don't think I've asked the sixties, but was really consistent with that. Well, we came out of World War II, the most prosperous nation in the world. And there was this tremendous sense that we had defeated fascism and very few people remembered, you know, uncomfortable parts of that, like the fact that we had supported, you know, had not gone up against the dictators in Spain and many other places.
And so there was a sense that, gosh, you know, we can have it all. We can be the most prosperous nation in the world, the best nation in the world. Things are good. There was this unpleasant reality of the civil rights violations that were going on, but very few people saw them. This was the era of mass television. It wasn't like niche markets the way we have today. There were only three channels and you saw relentlessly on those three channels, these sitcoms, which, you know, we now think of as representative of what traditional families were like. But in fact, they were aspirational, traditional, you know, families that had a male breadwinner and a female homemaker who could vacuum the floor with these new appliances and pearls and high heels, like Donna Reed, that's not the way people had lived. You watch those TV shows to show what you might be able to do if you lived right. And Ozzy and Harriet, you know, the kids, if you live like this, maybe you'll have these
comfortable houses, you'll have these, you'll have a better life than your parents or grandparents could ever dream, and the kids will come bounding to the dinner table every night, just willing to hear your nuggets of wisdom. So people were like, yes, you know, let's buy those products, let's live like that. And there was certain belief, even among people, I've talked to African American women who said that they watched those TV shows and said, what's wrong with my mom, that she doesn't live like that? It was the next generation's version of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing in white kind hails during the depression, except that then people knew those were escapists. This was an extended ad for a new way of life that was open to the rising middle class. And how did your mom fit into this? My mom was a perfect example of the kind of women who read Betty Friedan and suddenly her eyes opened.
She had been an activist and anti-racist activist during the 1930s. My dad was a union organizer. She had been a very adventurous young woman in the 30s. She worked in the shipyards during World War II and was very proud of herself and very resentful when they were fired as soon as the first boatload of GI's came home. But it was time to start a family. And she settled down to starting a family and eventually got bored with it but had been so kind of brainwashed by the women's magazines and the TV shows that even this woman who had been very kind of bohemian and radical in her youth began to feel that there was something wrong with her for not being totally happy. And she was unhappy. The first time I learned this about her was in 1964. I was away at school. I was active in the civil rights movement and the free speech movement. And we had these weekly telephone calls, you know, no text or emails in those days.
So we had a weekly phone call and she started telling me about this book that she was reading, The Feminine Misty. And how indignant it made her and how it opened her eyes and then all of the stuff poured out of her. I had thought she was a totally happy homemaker. I'd been impressed by the fact that she took gallow wine bottles, you know, how they were shaped like pictures and drew pictures on them and used them for vases in our room. She said, oh my God, she said, I was going crazy and I thought there was something wrong with me. And this book made her see it differently. Wow. I'm going to go check in and see if that works. Okay. Fantastic. Just depending. Where is it? No. Close. Okay. Thanks.
Is that downstairs? Maybe it is downstairs. Yeah, it is downstairs. Well, it wasn't activism yet, but it was just like a stranger talking to me. I was involved in the civil rights movement. I was very critical of the roles that were assigned to women in those days. I didn't want to be just a housewife. I didn't feel like I should act like Donna Reed. I was not going to be like my mom's generation, but, you know, you didn't, in those days, we saw it. I think the young women who agreed with me, we saw it as our mom's problem. Our mom's fault for being like that. Joe Freeman once said that we had this three sex theory. There were men. There were women.
And then there was me. And so you didn't feel solidarity with other women. You felt kind of a thinly veiled contempt for them if I'm being totally honest. You know, why did you buy into this? We, you know, if you were strong, you wouldn't need to do this. You get this today. And the post feminists who say, oh, well, I can do anything I want. It was only later that we began to find out that, you know, thinking these roles were wrong, didn't help you get the jobs and be listened to by the guys. But at the time, it was sort of like, wow, this is a piece of my mom I never knew. And it seemed weird to me. She became a feminist long before it occurred to me. That's great. What did she, in her, in her trapped world, what did she dress like? What did she drive? What did her life consist of? Well, she was a homemaker in Salt Lake City. And she dressed like... Salt Lake City. Yeah. Not exactly the most wildly out there town. She and my dad were remained active in causes.
They were involved in the civil rights movement. She volunteered for the American Civil Liberties Union. So she still had some of the same politics, but she was very much, you know, subsumed also in her role as a woman who didn't really think of herself as having an active initiative initiating role in the world. She also had an unhappy marriage. My dad was a wonderful dad to me, and he was so actually one of the most interesting things and I found this out for many other women. He was tremendously supportive of his daughter's independence. He would just, you know, say to me, go out there do this, but not his wife. He explained it as wife to be home, making dinner while his daughter went out and changed the world. Classic. Right? What was it that Betty Pradam saw and what was it that she said that made that book such a bomb?
I mean, books can be huge in the way they can change a culture in that one way. Well, when you go back and read the feminine mistake today, it's almost like a great big duh, you know, there's almost 400 pages that don't really talk about the legal reforms that were needed or rape or reproductive rights. They say over and over again, women are people too. And that was a very radical thing to say. Because one of the main leading psychiatrists of the day, best-selling author, said the worst thing a society can do is treat its citizens primarily as people instead of primarily as male and female. And to treat a woman as female in those days meant labeling her as dependent, narcissistic, slightly masochistic. That was considered to be a healthy trait in a woman in those days. No need to search for meaning. Helen Deutsch, one of a long line of women who made a career out of telling other women not to have careers, explained that the normal woman renounces all aspirations, not out of coercion like in the old days, but because she understands it's her only route to fulfillment.
Is to find herself through the achievements of her husband and her children. Of course, she meant her male children. So when Betty Friedan said, no, that's not all that there is to a woman. And you're not abnormal and sick and sexually and intellectually maladjusted if you want something more out of life. There were thousands of women who said, oh my gosh, I talked to several women who told me that half with you that book, they flushed their tranquilizers down the toilet. Literally. Literally, that they had been buying into the idea that their discontent was a personal problem. And what Friedan did for them was say, it's not a personal problem. It's a social injustice. And you're perfectly normal. In fact, a really normal woman would be unhappy with this. And they went, ah, at least that's what my mom did. What was the mystique, what was the definition for her? The feminine mystique as these women, as my mother's generation experienced it, was the
idea that women don't need to seek meaning in life. They find all of their meaning through their service to others, their love for others. And that's what makes them very, very happy. And so this ideology which purported to idealize women's nurturing, but infantilize them at the same time. And it was different than the feminine mystique of the 19th century, in a funny way. Because in the 19th century, women were told that your crowning glory is the home, but they were also told that they were due veneration and self-sacrifice as mothers. And men were expected to bow to this all the time. Boys in World War I carried their mother's pictures and wrote these incredibly sentimental poems to their mothers.
In the post-war period, that became very unfashionable. It was sort of like you were supposed to stay in the home and not demand any reverence for being in the home. You're sort of like, you'd be a fly in the wall only one who serves coffee. So it was a very, very debilitating, constraining image of one. And what's so interesting is that, for Dan Helms, point out the fact that compared to first wave feminism, women have lost ground. That's kind of what you're getting at in a way. That's an emotional kind of thing where men have a kind of different view of their mothers. But in terms of raw statistics like college graduates and things like that, things are women have lost ground. Well, for Dan didn't address all women. She left out a lot of women who were coming into play in action in those days, African-American women, working class women, young activists like myself. But what she addressed was a set of women who were caught between two worlds.
That is, women who had a little more education than was average for those days. Women hadn't graduated from high school still, or aspired to a little more education. And if you aspired to education in the early 20th century, you were already radical. This was a period when gynecologist and pundits actually said, this is a direct quote, that a woman who spends too much time studying is diverting her blood from a rudoist or a brain. And she will have to form children in a bad life. So if you want to go to college back in the early 20th century, you were already kind of a radical feminist. And in those days, women who went to college dropped out at lower rates than men. And they usually did go on to have careers afterwards. In the post-war era, suddenly it became respectable to send your daughters to college. But it didn't become respectable for them to do anything with their education other than apply it to their work as a wife and mother to understand their husbands work better. So you sent your son to college to get a good job.
You sent your daughter to college to get a good husband. And so this set of women were just caught between these conflicting messages, yes, you should go to college. Yes, you should study just enough to help your husband. But they've minute that you are interested in anything more than that, you're abnormal. And they had read enough at college to know that they were indeed abnormal. And that's the women that she spoke to. And it's a little too straight on, you're very spontaneous, so it's great. In February, we came across a couple of articles for Dan wrote for TV Guide, which were fascinating. She just looked at American television and analyzed the women, the American woman that she saw there. What did she see? Well, what she saw is women in ads continually being portrayed as obsessed with their looks anxious about whether they could hold a man dying to get married, and all of their insecurities being played on in the ads.
Women being totally left out of the dramas of the era except as backdrops to them. And then in the sitcoms, you got a very interesting thing. It was the only place where men were portrayed as incompetent, but they were portrayed as incompetent. This is not a feminist invention, the idea of the bumbling dad. It's an anti-feminist invention. It was part of the idea that women had to be in the home not only because they were incapable of doing things outside the home, but because men couldn't make their way across a kitchen if it weren't for the woman there. And so you would get all of these TV shows like I Love Lucy was a perfect example. She always wanted to get out of the home and then she would get out and she would completely mess things up. Remember on the cookie line, you know, oh my goodness. And then the other side of it would be that the guys were just lost if the woman left the house for even a few hours. You know, she'd come home and the place would be a shambles, everybody would be starving. So this is what people saw when they watched television and for Dan was outraged by it.
And they often, I think one of the things is that women in a drama, the only way they got to start and roll is if they died of a brain tumor. You know, I remember watching movies in those days, the big adventure movies. And vividly, I remember the fact that the only time the women got involved, I mean, they were pretty and they were being rescued by the guys. And invariably, they would break a heel or something and trip. And you would find yourself rooting to the guy, don't go back for them, she's going to get you caught. You know, and there was this kind of contempt for women that got internalized, you know, I don't want to be like them. Right. Right. What if for Dan called a problem that she identified and was there something sort of slightly ironic about her identifying these lost women in the same way that Phyllis Schlafly got
very ironic for her to be attacking any women? Well, Phyllis Schlafly had developed a career first as a union, as writing for a union, sorry, let me start that again. Phyllis Schlafly was a little different than the way she's been portrayed in the press. She was a brilliant psychology student who was a radical activist at Smith College. After graduating from college, she worked for the labor union newspapers. And after she lost her job there, after she had kids, she started to develop a job and develop a new career writing as a freelancer for the women's magazines. Now she always portrayed herself as somebody who was just another housewife, but that's not really true. On the other hand, she was able to, because of that experience writing for women's magazines, take these intellectual ideas and radical ideas that she had developed in her youth and transform them into almost a sort of self-help vocabulary of you feel miserable, but you're
not alone, it's not your own problem. And I can tell you why you feel miserable and what you can do to change it. And so it was a very effective way of talking to this group of women who knew that something was missing in their life, but weren't sure what, and thought perhaps, at one point for Dan says, a woman will look around and she'll think, maybe it's her husband's fault. Maybe her house isn't big enough. Maybe her kids, maybe she doesn't have enough kids, maybe she needs another child. She said, it none of it's that. It's that you're missing the opportunity to grow as a human being. And that's a normal desire and when it is thwarted, it's normal to feel bad about it. And so instead of allowing it to be thwarted, you should do something about it. And this very mild kind of, by today's standards, a very mild prescription just came as a revelation to so many women, including my own mom.
Did she invent a whole new genre of book? Some people have said that she wrote the first self-help book for women, but one of the women I interviewed who'd read it at the time said, yeah, but unlike today's self-help books, that was the last one we ever needed. Once we read that self-help book, we stopped reading books and we went out and did something else. That's great. I keep thinking it's important in this film to understand the black and white conformity of the world, that these earthquakes from cultures and politics have been brought into. You know, I'll understand that so gender inequality is going on prior to the book coming out. Oh, my goodness. When you talked to young people today, 1963 might as well be 1363, and was a totally different world.
If you wanted to get a job, you had to go to the help-wanted female ads. And it was perfectly legal to say, as a New York Times ad did, running in 1963, you must be really beautiful to get this job. It was perfectly legal to fire women when they got pregnant, or even when they married, to demand that they weigh a certain amount, not just flight attendants, but other people. There was no word for sexual harassment, and in fact it was very, very common. Some people think that homemakers had it better in those days. There were only eight states where a homemaker had any call at all upon the income earned by her husband during the marriage, even if she'd put him through school and enabled his career. And even in the community property states, the man had the final say. He decided where they lived. If she could get a job, if she could take out a credit card, you know, and it started so young, girls couldn't be crossing guards. Girls couldn't raise and lower the flag at school, you know, I don't know.
Maybe they'd get kudis on it. Maybe they were too weak. I don't know. Well, women's colleges? There were women's colleges, and there were people who tried to instill a new sense of confidence in women, or an old sense of confidence. But the overwhelming message was what the president of a Radcliffe would say to entering freshmen that you're going to grade a great education here that will prepare you to be a wonderful wife and mother, and you may be lucky enough to marry a Harvard man. And it started really young. I can remember being pulled aside by my fifth grade teacher, and he said to me, Stephanie, if you wouldn't use such big words, the boys would like you better. But I remember it as a kick in the stomach, because I thought the boys liked me, you know. And from then on, I didn't stop using big words, but from then on, I was really conscious of the fact that I was not in the mainstream. It seems like such a long way away from Ellen O'Roseball.
Yes, yes, I mean, it… I think I would say, somebody coming through, go ahead.
American Experience
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Interview with Stephanie Coontz, Historian, part 1 of 2
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WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
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It was the year of the Beatles and the Civil Rights Act; of the Gulf of Tonkin and Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign; the year that cities across the country erupted in violence and Americans tried to make sense of the Kennedy assassination. Based on The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964 by award-winning journalist Jon Margolis, this film follows some of the most prominent figures of the time -- Lyndon B. Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Barry Goldwater, Betty Friedan -- and brings out from the shadows the actions of ordinary Americans whose frustrations, ambitions and anxieties began to turn the country onto a new and different course.
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Politics and Government
American history, African Americans, civil rights, politics, Vietnam War, 1960s, counterculture
(c) 2014-2017 WGBH Educational Foundation
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Duration: 0:48:44
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Chicago: “American Experience; 1964; Interview with Stephanie Coontz, Historian, part 1 of 2,” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed April 21, 2024,
MLA: “American Experience; 1964; Interview with Stephanie Coontz, Historian, part 1 of 2.” WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. April 21, 2024. <>.
APA: American Experience; 1964; Interview with Stephanie Coontz, Historian, part 1 of 2. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from