I began two novels in Heidelberg. Both of them had male narrators. I just assumed that nobody would be interested in a woman’s point of view. Besides, I didn’t want to risk being called all the things women writers (even good women writers) are called: “clever, witty, bright, touching, but lacks scope.”
I wanted to write about the whole world, I wanted to write War and Peace—or nothing. No “lady writer” subjects for me. I was going to have battles and bullfights and jungle safaris. Only I didn’t know a damn thing about battles and bullfights and jungle safaris (and neither do most men). I languished in utter frustration, thinking that the subjects I knew about were “trivial” and “feminine”—while the subjects I knew nothing of were “profound” and “masculine.” No matter what I did, I felt I was bound to fail. Either I would fail by writing or fail by not writing. I was paralyzed.
—Erica Jong, Fear of Flying
Their ideas were intolerable, but their penises were silky.
—Erica Jong, Fear of Flying
Fear of Flying made me a tween women’s libber back in 1986. Or at least it kept me from putting away my childhood obsession with feminism. I was between sixth and seventh grades, and had just come home from my first summer at overnight camp. I’d learned the hard way at weekly dances that twelve-year-old boys didn’t go for my non-Guess gypsy wardrobe, my habit of carrying a book everywhere, and my compulsion to say exactly what I thought. It’s not that I imagined boys would be attracted by my love of the Brontë sisters and the ERA—I just didn’t realize those things would be romantic deal-breakers. I came home in August thinking I needed new clothes and less weird hobbies.
My hippie father, always worried that I was going to betray my upbringing and conform on him, came to the rescue with Erica Jong. “This is a very important book about being a woman,” he told me. “There’s some sexual stuff in it that’s maybe inappropriate for you—I guess you could skim those parts—but the chapters about her mother are really moving.” All I had to hear was that it was dirty.
I started the book immediately.
I was an obsessive reader, especially of books by women. However, my favorites were often by men. From Huckleberry Finn to Portnoy’s Complaint, they usually had more excitement, more guts than those by women. I’d rewrite them in my head, giving Holden Caulfield a girlfriend who could match him in wit and discontent.
Fear of Flying was different, and not just because of the zipless fucking. The novel’s heroine, Isadora Wing, is smart, gorgeous, and a little zaftig. A born New Yorker, she buys fancy shoes and publishes books of poetry. And as sanguine literary symbols go, Isadora’s flood of menstrual blood is an answer to Portnoy’s poor abused liver. What really stuck, however, was that Isadora cared more about writing than men, possessions, anything. Sure, she may have been taking time away from her desk to screw her way through Europe with a randy shrink, but I was sure she was doing it as much for the material as the experience. Maybe my love of Jane Eyre didn’t doom me to Jane’s own half-life fate.
I wanted more in-print Isadoras, opining, ranting women from my mother’s generation who’d refused to learn to type, because they wanted to write books instead of taking dictation. They were there, though hard to find, and often only in brittle pocket paperbacks whose clandestine size confirmed that their authors were telling secrets: Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1977); Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex Prom-Queen (1972) and Burning Questions (1978); Sara Davidson’s Loose Change (1977); Crazy Salad (1972), by Nora Ephron; The Female Eunuch (1970), by Germaine Greer; and Jong’s sequel to Fear of Flying, called How to Save Your Own Life (1977).
Fast-paced and poppy, they contended with themes—balancing ambition and love, family and work—as relevant today (unfortunately) as they were then. In an era when it was chronically square for smart women to give a shit about designer labels/wedding planning/personal grooming, they did not ever suggest that a woman’s problems should be solved by more shopping. (When Isadora Wing buys a pair of sexy gladiator-style sandals, she purchases them on a post-therapy stroll through Manhattan, while thinking about life, art, love, sex, writing, and politics.) Their characters’ navel-gazing tends to lead to change, rather than just more refined navel-gazing.
Best sellers in the ’70s, at the height of the Women’s Movement, these books tell a common story (which often mirrored their authors’ own). A smart girl grows from being a happy, naïve child, to a repressed teenager, to an unhappy, silent young woman. The ’50s are horrible, the ’60s better, though confusing and exhausting. Then the world changes in the ’70s, when our heroine discovers that she’s not alone—other women are thinking and feeling the same thing. She divorces her first spouse, and then (a) goes back to school, (b) becomes a famous writer, (c) dabbles in lesbianism, (d) winds up alone in an apartment in Manhattan, or (e) all of the above.
This archetypal story is, I admit, representative of only the most visible chroniclers of 1970s feminism: white, educated, Jewish (or maybe Catholic), frustrated, in need of a good job as much as a good lover—typical Feminine Mystique territory. Because I happen to be from this demographic, I relate to these stories first. However, I’d be perpetuating mainstream feminism’s oft-criticized narrow perspective if I didn’t also recommend: Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), Rita Mae Brown’s trailblazing novel about Molly Bolt, a lesbian ragamuffin who goes around seducing every woman she can find; Ntozake Shange’s play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, When the Rainbow is Enuf was a smash hit on Broadway in 1976—shocking for an all-black, all-female “choreopoem” with lines such as “i found god in myself / and i loved her / …fiercely.” Some feminist writers used (pace Audre Lorde) the master’s tools—genres such as satire, sci-fi, and crime—to dismantle the master’s house:1 respectively, Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979) and subsequent books; Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York (1972) and David Meyer Is a Mother (1976); Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1975).
These works share assumptions about gender and sexual roles, many of which now feel—thank God—as antiquated as hoopskirts. Being a woman makes you an inherent victim of oppression and sexism. Most men couldn’t find a clitoris if it glowed in the dark. Babies are great, but have one and your own life effectively ends. Marijuana is a gateway drug to liberation. If you haven’t ever been raped, it is due to sheer luck. Lesbianism is a viable option for all women, especially in a world where men are so insensible to their wives. Some of the assumptions are not so retrograde, though they’ve become less popular since the height of the Women’s Movement. Female friendships are ports in a storm. Complacency is unhealthy. The Personal is Political. True change doesn’t come without struggle.
Obsessive study of the authors’ jacket photos reassured me that these women were having a good time, in spite (or because of) their revolutionary struggle. Raven-haired or tawny-curled, smiling toothy free-spirit grins, wearing collared shirts that looked expensive, they traveled through Italy, hung out with holy poets and famous mystics, wrote great novels. They had better things to do than date Portnoy or Holden Caulfield. Caftan clad, men optional, these writers—like their heroines—pushed away the conventions of hearth and home so that I could read them in adolescent freedom.
As a reader, as a young woman, I wanted to follow them anywhere, and, in various ways, I did: going to Barnard (Jong’s alma mater), writing Ephron-esque personal essays about gender politics, standing up to the various male teachers, bosses, and wolf-whistlers who got in my way. Half my lifetime later, I decided to re-read these books. In the midst of my own first novel, about contemporary women, I wanted some ballast.
In the great literature of the past you either get married and live happily ever after, or you die. But the fact is, neither is what actually happens… Suppose Antigone lived. An Antigone who goes on being Antigone year after year would be not only ludicrous but a bore. The cave and the rope are essential.
The Women’s Room
By turns heartbreaking, shocking, and hilarious, The Women’s Room is probably the most famous feminist novel after Fear of Flying. French’s heroine, Mira, starts out as a prototypical 1950s “good wife,” but one cursed with intelligence—the kind that makes her more target than success in her suburban world of cocktail shakers and picket-fence confessions. Mira’s story is a conduit for those of her fellow housewives, most of whom go insane in some way. Her own husband, Norm, eventually leaves her with two teenage sons. Somehow, Mira makes it to Harvard’s doctoral program in English literature, amid the turmoil of 1968.
Though she is a half generation older than Isadora Wing, Mira plunges right into the counterculture. Mira becomes a brilliant scholar, and a better mother—transforming her sons from carbon copies of their father into sensitive, liberal young men. But first, she finally has orgasms, with no self-recrimination about whether they were vaginal or clitoral, no Freud bossing her from beyond the grave. Post–sexual awakening, she falls in love for the first time. All of these transformations are told parallel to those of her women friends, companions in Mira’s journey to feminism.
Of course, the revolutionary hope of the ’60s doesn’t last. As the Weathermen split off from SDS, and National Guardsmen shoot Kent State student protesters in cold blood, Mira’s lover expects her to follow his career and bear his children. Her Harvard cohorts fall victim to academia’s Old Boys Club. Val, the woman to whom Mira is closest, dies in the line of her separatist feminist duty.
The book concludes in the late ’70s. Walking alone along the Maine coastline, poncho-clad (is there a garment more redolent of loneliness?), Mira now has a teaching job at a small college. She chooses to be alone with literature, rather than locked in a frilly-curtained cage with screaming kids and a bottle of rye for company. Oh, I forgot to mention: Mira’s field? Fairy tales, of course. French leaves it up to the reader to decide if this end is Mira’s happily-ever-after.
Burning Questions, by Alix Kates Shulman, is another feminist fairy tale, though the author’s alter ego, Zane IndiAnna, gets no glass slipper, prince, or pumpkin. Instead, she helps to crown a sheep Miss America, outside the pageant in Atlantic City.2 Zane is a former beatnik who, as a teenager in the late ’50s, comes to New York City to experience everything. Lacking a college degree, and with no particular ambition other than to be where the action is, Zane falls into an OK marriage. Two kids later, she’s spending her afternoons with her similarly gobsmacked friend Kitty at the Washington Square Park playground. Like Mira, Zane loves her children, but wants to do more than push them on the swings. Kitty calls late one night. “Turn on People’s Radio,” she says. “Some women are talking and they sound like us. Only instead of just two of them, there seems to be a whole group. And instead of just talking, they want to do something.”
Thus begins Zane’s new life. She becomes one of the original radical feminists, writing the manifesto for a charter consciousness-raising group,3 and planning actions out of a cell in the Village. Even as she identifies with revolutionaries such as Emma Goldman and Rosa Luxemburg, Zane is coy, explaining that she should only “earn the name [i.e., revolutionary] by performing significant and heroic acts.”
Whatever. The novel peaks with the famous Women’s March, on August 26, 1970, and Zane is right there in the middle. Maybe she’s not throwing any Molotov cocktails, but it wasn’t that kind of day. Zane’s voice has an enlisted soldier’s fervor:
I came up on the subway with the children and a stroller a half hour early; an hour later it seemed as if all the women of New York City were determined to march triumphant down Fifth Avenue. The women who had smiled sweetly on MacDougal Street when I first saw them, the women who worked uptown, mothers with babies on their backs and toddlers in strollers, pretty young women in summer dresses. They came from work, from school, from home, from out of town, in groups, in families, by themselves.
For all her sophisticated politics, Zane’s innocent joy here is stunning. I’d love to believe—let alone be brave enough to write—that marching down Fifth Avenue might begin to change the world. Her bittersweet acceptance that liberation’s personal cost is high (her marriage collapses) is ameliorated when she begins teaching women’s studies at the New School. Finally, Zane has come full circle, an authority in the Village’s high church—on her own terms. Sure, she’s lonely, but with “other women coming up behind… to keep the pilot light lit,” she’s no longer alone.
However much I admire Zane’s asceticism in the abstract, I could never be her. I like my comforts too much to give them up completely for the cause. And I’m way too sarcastic about the rhetoric of revolution. Which is why I thank God for Nora Ephron. Most people know Ephron these days for directing Sleepless in Seattle, but in the ’70s, she wrote about the burgeoning feminist movement for Esquire and New York. In a voice somewhere between Dorothy Parker and Rob Reiner (Ephron’s future collaborator on When Harry Met Sally), Ephron was open about her conflicting responsibilities as an activist and journalist.
Crazy Salad is a collection of Ephron’s pieces written about, and during, the Women’s Movement. Her subjects, from Deep Throat to self-performed abortions to the Pillsbury Bake-Off, were equally exotic to me when I read them for the first time, at about the same age that I read Fear of Flying.
Ephron’s great gift was that she was unafraid to laugh at herself, or at other feminists. Her insights can be like a sliver of fresh-cut lemon peel. I wish I had written this dissection of the time Ephron spent editing a feminist section of the Ladies’ Home Journal:4
The moment I treasured most occurred when the first draft of the article on sex was read aloud. The article was a conversation by five feminists. The first woman to speak began, I thought, quite reasonably. “I find,” she said, “that as I have grown more aware of who I am, I have grown more in touch with my sexuality.” The second woman—and you must remember that this was supposed to be a conversation—then said, “I have never had any sensitivity in my vagina.” It seemed to me that the only possible remark a third person might contribute was “Coffee, tea, or milk?”
The kicker: this bit comes in the middle of “Truth and Consequences,” a piece about the journalistic ethics of reporting (or even speaking) with any negativity about the Women’s Movement. “I am a writer and a feminist,” she writes earlier in the essay, “and the two seem to be constantly in conflict.” As much as brutal truth—à la The Women’s Room—was necessary for feminism to take hold, Ephron’s mordant eye helped to make sure it maintained some self-criticism.
Sara Davidson thanks Ephron in the introduction to Loose Change, her nonfiction account of three smart Jewish girls’ paths through the ’60s. Her gaze, however, is more sentimental than Ephron’s. She’s a hippie, and it shows. Loose Change’s subjects first meet in their freshman year at Berkeley, class of ’65. Tasha is a gorgeous California blond, weak for poetic men; anorgasmic Susie gets radicalized as an undergraduate; Davidson herself is the third subject, a budding “new” journalist who can’t help getting over-involved with her subjects. These women are not just affected by the ’60s. They are the ’60s. It is hard to keep track of the men each of them beds, how much time they spend on Sufi retreats, taking hallucinogens, in hot tubs, learning how to fix their own cars and sew their own clothes, crying, divorcing, and downing sedatives.
As with Mira’s gang in The Women’s Room, the Loose Change-ers are a consciousness-raising group on the page. Their individuality matters less than their collective experience. While Sara reports on trends in the counterculture, Susie marries a Berkeley activist and has a baby, and Tasha runs an art gallery in New York. “She drove out to Venice to work with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War,” Davison writes of Susie, who’s moved to L.A. after a stint in the Southwest. “She felt at home in the storefront with the old, familiar posters, the longhairs and the ringing phones.” Or here is Tasha, learning how to meditate, meeting people who “talked about cuckoo things like kundalini, an invisible force that was supposed to lie sleeping, coiled like a snake at the base of the spine, but which you could rouse by contorting your body and panting.”
Let’s not leave out Sara, stuck in a bad marriage, searching for a way to leave behind her anxieties and terrors: “Noel and I continued to meet in restaurants and talk about God and love and each time I told myself, this is the last. And then I went to see him at the Institute of Ability where he was staying in an attic painted yellow. ‘Very Leo,’ he said.”
I knew these women. They floated through my girlhood, cupping mugs of mint tea at our kitchen table while reminiscing with my mother, or taking us out to the Russian Tea Room for lunch when we visited New York. They talked openly about men and sex, sided with me when I fought with my mom, had apartments full of photographs and trinkets from travels, and sexy lingerie hanging on the bathroom towel rack. I always imagined my life would look like theirs: free yet difficult, with lots of choices and romances.
Even after Davidson describes Tasha spending most of the book immersed “in a dark journey, [sinking] into regions below the reach of sunlight, warmth, or air”—the most death-of-the-’60s phrase I’ve ever heard—it’s almost disappointing that the friends’ problems are solved when they stop needing men so much. Tasha, Susie, and Sara mature into less wigged-out women: a well-known writer, a doctor specializing in the then-new idea of women-friendly gynecology, and a forerunner ’80s yuppie with a kind husband and nice apartment on the Upper East Side. It’s a bittersweet ending, but one that holds the same promise as The Women’s Room, Crazy Salad, and the rest. Maybe it won’t be so tough for the next generation.
These authors were not universally praised after writing their books. Erica Jong’s protagonist Isadora Wing was famously referred to as a “mammoth pudenda” by Paul Theroux in the New Statesman. In the New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s review of The Women’s Room was, in large part, about the novel’s male characters, concluding that it “is a book that women are going to read to relieve the stories of their lives. I only wish that it contained some small comfort for men.” Anatole Broyard (again in the New York Times) assessed Nora Ephron’s dateability along with Crazy Salad’s prose. “She might model for a kind of contemporary pin-up who would please and relieve quite a few of the men I know,” he wrote. To lift Ephron’s own words, from her Crazy Salad essay on Deep Throat: “The men I was with pretended they did not know me, and then, when I persisted in addressing my mutterings to them, they assured me I was overreacting… But I refused to calm down.”
When women wrote the notices, the books got reviewed rather than their authors. “The bias of The Women’s Room is part of the novel,” Anne Tyler explained in the New York Times Book Review. “It’s almost the whole point.” Erica Jong herself wrote a nuanced essay about Loose Change, citing its romanticism and solipsism as an appropriate elegy for the ’60s. “Why do our most passionate revolutionaries (whether leftist, black or feminist) eventually give up the hope of changing America’s ways and turn instead to yogic meditation?” she asked.
What Jong probably couldn’t have imagined was that thirty years later, women—and women authors—would have so much trouble simply holding the ground they’d gained, both on the page and in reality. Jong herself remains a firebrand, chastising the new up-and-comers about their lack of political work, and criticizing Chick Lit as stories about the desire for “The Ring, The White Wedding, The Bugaboo Frog Stroller.” Now in her seventies, Marilyn French had trouble getting her latest novel, In the Name of Friendship—billed as a “companion piece” to The Women’s Room—published in the United States. She’d been told by one (woman) publisher to “go off and write something more like Bridget Jones’s Diary.”
Nora Ephron is writing nonfiction again, at least between movies. Her latest tart collection, I Feel Bad About My Neck (2006), takes on aging. Though it’s very funny, I wish she’d see that we need her to be her old self too, less Hollywood and more of an on-the-page mentor to those younger women who are still fighting.
Where did her anger go? Recently, Ephron blogged on the Huffington Post about visiting Las Vegas. She spends the first paragraph describing how much she loves Sin City, especially “a strip steak that I honestly thought was the finest steak of my life, and let me tell you, I eat a lot of steak.” Then she launches into a story about visiting her friend, the casino mogul Steve Wynn, and watching him accidentally put his elbow through a $139-million Picasso.
A few weeks after the piece’s publication, I had to go to Vegas myself. The plastic key to my Egyptian tomb room at the Luxor Hotel featured dancers (plastic, anorexic women with huge fake boobs, wearing only sherbet-hued tacky push-up bras, in gyrastic poses) from Fantasy, the hotel’s girlie show. I’m not anti-stripper or anti-porn, but every time I inserted the Fantasy girls into my door, I got teeth-gnashingly mad. Was Ephron blind? It was as if she’d seen the strippers and declared, “Let them eat steak!” There are bigger problems than this in the world, I know, and Ephron still writes with beautiful rage about current politics. Why didn’t she make the connection between her delicious meals, Wynn’s Picasso, and Vegas’s creepy sex trade? It’s all the same money.
“Before Roe v. Wade,” my mother said to me recently, “getting pregnant for women was like getting drafted for men. You were fucked.” She’d just signed the “I Had An Abortion” petition for Ms. magazine (in the fall 2006 issue), and I was impressed. None of the women my age who I knew had had abortions were raring to have their names printed for that accomplishment in a national publication. No one I know even reads Ms. I also don’t know how it feels to take a friend to some back-alley butcher, hoping she’ll make it through the night alive. My mother performed this favor for friends, several times. I am sure Ephron, Jong, French, Shulman, and Davidson did as well.
My generation’s feminist struggles are less dramatic. We worry about the conflicts between career and motherhood (and our government’s resistance to legislating solutions), equal pay for equal work, and glass ceilings. Though there are many women writing about these issues—Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (2005), Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It (2002), to name two pointed and witty examples—their books often focus on motherhood, rather than the general issues of contemporary women.
Then we have Chick Lit, whatever that phrase even means anymore. In February 2007, Maureen Dowd published a screed in the New York Times against books with pink covers, deriding them as either Chick Lit, or serious fiction wearing its ruffled clothes. She concluded, “The novel was once said to be a mirror of its times. In my local bookstore, it’s more like a makeup mirror.” Many readers and writers slammed Dowd. Pink covers aren’t necessarily bad, and, often, the author has no say in the shade of her book jacket anyway. Most writers are just happy to get their books into stores.
I guess that’s most of the problem. It’s difficult to imagine overtly feminist books selling millions of copies today, which is very depressing. Life is expensive, the world is conservative, and we all just want to get by.
Years ago, I asked a writing teacher (and veteran feminist) if my work was “political” enough. I’d just graduated from college, and was concerned because I kept writing short vignettes about my boyfriend, and whether or not we should get married. “You’re a woman writing—that’s already political,” she answered. Her words reminded me of my girlhood, when I felt sure in the knowledge that the revolution was out there, somewhere, and it would wait for me to find it when I was ready. I don’t think that anymore. Which is why it’s so important to pay attention to the pissed-off, loudmouthed massive pudendas who came before us.