"...the success of the women's movement depended on imposing a certain narrative -- of boredom, of oppression, of despairing uselessness -- on an entire generation of women."
Signs of old-style feminism's demise continue to abound. Consider "Housewife Confidential," by Caitlin Flanagan, in the September Atlantic Monthly. This is an article that no prestigious journal would likely have published any time from 1965 to 1990 because it celebrates motherhood, praises Erma Bombeck, and demolishes feminist mythology in great style.
The "general idea" advanced by the Betty Friedan generation was "implied in countless nitwit books and articles and in a variety of movies," writes Flanagan. The idea was that housewives were prisoners, but that women gained liberation as shift-work riveters in World War II munitions factories. Then, after the war, they were "kidnapped by a bunch of rat-bastard men, deposited in Levittown, and told to mop." This mythology, says Flanagan, was largely the work of "professional-class feminists who never set foot on a factory floor."
Put another way, "the success of the women's movement depended on imposing a certain narrative -- of boredom, of oppression, of despairing uselessness -- on an entire generation of women." This narrative left people with "a skewed and rather offensive view" of those derided as housewives. Caitlin Flanagan, like many of her generation, was raised by a housewife.
"What I remember most clearly about those housewives," she says, "was not their ennui but, rather, their competence." They knew how to cook and mend, and how to cope with the endless series of crises, including the child who turns up with a fever just before the Christmas pageant. They also had time for political activism and philanthropy, which the author documents.
Flanagan, who grew up in Berkeley and is now raising children of her own, illustrates her theme by citing the late columnist Erma Bombeck, a woman who was told by a leading feminist that "lady, you are the problem." According to Flanagan, Bombeck "led a life of infinitely greater complexity, worth, and dignity than any of the modern mythologizers with their subdued and shrinking heroines could image."
Erma Bombeck grew up during the Depression and lost her father, a crane operator, when she was nine. Her mother, who had married at 14, lost the house and furniture. But the family prevailed, with Erma senior working in a factory. Long before Rosie the Riveter, it was possible for a woman to support her family through factory work. It was also possible, long before Take Our Daughters to Work Day, for a young girl to pursue a professional career.
Erma junior was a voracious reader and gained a job as a "copy girl" for the Dayton Journal-Herald. She completed her college degree then moved to become a full-fledged newspaperwoman. Her dream, however, was "to putter around the house, learn how to snap beans, put up curtains, and bake bread." She did, and raised children as well, and in the mid-1960s she began writing about her experiences. Within three weeks of her return to the Journal-Herald, her columns were being syndicated nationally.
She went on to write more than 4,000 of them, plus a string of successful books. Bombeck, says Flanagan, was a talented woman who "combined work and motherhood as gracefully as it is possible to do, championing working and at-home mothers with equal ardor."
Flanagan thinks Erma Bombeck's body-of-work would make a good topic for a women's-studies dissertation. That could prove problematic.
As they currently exist on campuses, women's studies programs are comprised primarily of feminist propaganda, based on the type of "nitwit books" that Flanagan so eloquently explodes. Her piece is a kind of motherhood study, about which most people are familiar, and which is now, thankfully, safe to publish in prestigious magazines such as the Atlantic.
One would like to see much more of this genre, because the lessons for today's women are valuable. Challenge prevailing orthodoxies, however politically correct. Beware those who praise working but perform little or no work themselves. Above all, distrust and defy those who offer "a skewed and rather offensive view" of the talented and hard working women who raised us.