Long, long ago, in a time of microwave dinners and sexless marriages, there lived a princess who had the most beautiful family the world had ever seen. But the princess’s life was far from wonderful. She lived as a servant to Feminism, a jealous, scheming witch who kept her hidden deep in a forbidding forest away from her babies, guarded by the enormous dragon (we’ll call her Betty) and surrounded by an enchanted glass ceiling. However, in a twist of fate, the discovery of a magic vacuum leads the princess on a journey that will unravel a web of feminist deception, bring peace to the feuding kingdoms of Husbands and Wives, and ultimately lead her to love with the help of 1950’s social mores, the least intimidating of dragons!
This was the book I expected from Caitlin Flanagan.
I had, of course, read her infamous piece in The Atlantic Monthly, “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement: Dispatches from the Nanny Wars”, with its declaration that “When a mother works, something is lost. Children crave their mothers. They always have and they always will.” I had read her interview in Elle Magazine with Laurie Abraham, a mother of two who, enroute to her interview with Flanagan, learned from the sitter that her daughters’ pet gerbil had died. When Abraham asked Flanagan if she continued to stand by the “something is lost” comment, Flanagan observed, “The gerbil’s dead and you’re here.” She doesn’t pull her punches.
I also had seen her on The Colbert Report where she stood by her statement that the pre-feminist 1950s and 60s were the “eternal golden age” even though, as Colbert pointed out, wives were totally economically dependent on their sometimes less than charming mates, and if they did not “put out” or were otherwise uncooperative, their husbands could have them lobotomized. I had heard her on NPR where she shouted over the interviewer and seemed hell bent on promoting the Republican Party (even though she still considers herself a Democrat). And I had read that one of the original subtitles bandied about for her book had been “How Feminism Short-Changed a Generation.” I figured I had a pretty good handle on what Flanagan — or at least Flanagan’s public persona — was all about. And so when Caitlin Flanagan’s To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife, with its bold yellow jacket arrived on my doorstep, Sandra Tsing-Loh’s blurb warning, “batten down the hatches, paleofeminists,” I expected that I might want to don a flak jacket before cracking the book’s spine.
But, surprisingly, I didn’t hate the book. In several instances, I found myself smiling and nodding. My margin notes tended to read “interesting point” or “well-put” rather than “yuck” or “what the. . . ?” as they had when I reviewed Darla Shine’s similarly themed Happy Housewives.
Flanagan writes wonderful prose and is bitingly funny. Of the farce that is the Martha Stewartesque, aspirational wedding, she writes: “The irony is that many Stewart-inspired events are occasions from which members of the true WASP ascendancy — frugal, abhorrent of excess — would flee as fast as their skinny little legs would carry them.” Coming from a long line of skinny-legged puritans, I found this highly amusing. Of Alix Kates Shulman’s feminist Marriage Contract, she writes, “In his 1971 antifeminist manifesto The Prisoner of Sex, [Norman] Mailer considered the agreement at some length, concluding that “he would not be married to such a woman.” The potential of a document to serve as a lifetime protection policy against marriage to Norman Mailer makes me half want to hold onto my own copy, just to be on the safe side.” Well said. Flanagan would be an ideal companion at a dinner party — full of wit, charm, and the ability to hold forth on a variety of hot topics.
Of course, the book is peppered with controversial Flanagisms: pull-quotes for reviews, I suspect. In “The Wifely Duty,” her piece on marital sex, she, a self-described supporter of abortion rights, suddenly veers right, proclaiming “The reason that abortion rights hold such a sanctified position in American political life is that they are a critical component of the yuppie program for maximum personal sexual pleasure.” In “A Necessary Person,” in discussing the changes in Mary Poppins from book to screen, she writes about the part in the book where the young child, upset that his nanny might leave, says that she is the only person he wants in the world. “His outburst would be doubly wounding to the modern mother; her child would be suffering and she would be reminded of the love she had forfeited to an employee.” Love she had forfeited — not an easy statement to digest. I started to read the book, highlighter in hand, flagging all of the outrageous statements and logic leaps. But as Flanagan herself wrote in her article “What Price Valor”, her review in The Atlantic of Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book Creating a Life: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Having a Baby and a Career, “We might track down all the book’s contradictions and try to make sense of them, but that way lies madness. Better to get a bead on [the author’s] . . . general topic of inquiry.” And so I put down my highlighter and simply read the book.
Overall, the tone of the book has changed from her earlier collection of essays. Whereas the Atlantic articles on which the book is based tend to be externally focused and come across as wildly judgemental, in the book, she has turned the focus inward. As in her essays, she writes about the myriad of contradictions that modern women face, but she highlights the contradictions in her life rather than simply wagging her finger at those around her. She writes about the pull between the desire to be there for one’s children and the need to have a life outside of motherhood by discussing her own feeling of ambivalence when she was at home full-time with her twin boys. In “Executive Child”, she writes about the trend towards intensive parenting yet admits, “I throw birthday parties with guest lists and budgets that approximate those of a wedding rehearsal dinner.”
Most notably, she has reworked the Serfdom piece. She has hived off the discussion of the early contributions of feminism into her essay “Housewife Confidential.” In “That’s My Woman,” her essay about the often uneasy relationship between a mother and her children’s nanny designed to highlight one’s moral and legal obligations to domestic employees, she focuses her discussion not on her observations of other mothers but on her relationship with her children’s former nanny. Gone is the hectoring tone and in its place is a more thoughtful exploration of a complicated relationship that is rarely discussed: “That I knew my boys would love her is why I hired her. That they did was unnerving me to the core.” Having recently had the experience of having a nanny help me out with my children for the better part of a year following my son’s birth, I have yet to read a more accurate portrayal of the mother/nanny relationship. The tone has shifted from one of “I would never do these things” or “although I do these things, I know better’ to ‘these are the contradictions in my life and they are worthy of exploration.” The use of the word “our” in the book’s subtitle is deliberate. She’s still pointing fingers but by including herself, the book has a softer edge.
In spite of Sandra Tsing-Loh’s blurb referring to paleofeminists and Christina Hoff Sommers’ blurb about the scornful “academic gender warriors,” the book is not anti-feminist. Flanagan recognizes that feminism is not some ideological monolith, speaking with a unified voice. She explains that she has a deep respect for early feminists such as the suffragettes, and for the “libbers” of the 1970s who, in her mind, fought for what they believed. She does have a bone to pick with Betty Friedan’s labelling of housewives as universally unhappy and her description of pre-feminist suburbia as “comfortable concentration camps.” She also takes issue with the way some feminist thinkers (like Linda Hirshman, whose book Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World is currently making the rounds) present childrearing and domestic work as low (associated “with the lowest caste,” Hirshman observed) and therefore ought to be delegated to someone else. This drives her biting comment that “some of the most significant achievements of the woman’s movement — specifically liberation from housework and child care — have been bought at the expense of poor women, often of poor brown skinned women, is a bitter irony that very few feminists will discuss directly, other than to murmur something about “universal day care” and then, on reflex, blame the Republicans.” She doesn’t blame feminism for the exploitation of domestic workers like she seems to in the Serfdom piece. Rather, she believes that the mistreatment of some foreign born domestic workers has been one of the side effects of women’s return to the workplace and ought to be addressed by feminist thinkers. I don’t disagree with her on that point.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t agree with Flanagan’s views. I think that very few mainstream feminists belittle domestic work. Although I am primarily an at-home mom (whatever that means), I am a feminist and have always felt included by feminism. NOW has a long-standing commitment to advancing mothers’ and caregivers’ economic rights and has pushed not only for the fair payment of social security benefits to paid caregivers but to unpaid at-home mothers as well. Feminist organizations including NOW have vocally supported immigrant rights groups and lobby for the protection of the very same domestic workers to whom Flanagan refers. And although the writings of certain more radical feminists like Linda Hirshman (which urge upper middle class, educated American women to pursue only “serious work” and leave what is often referred to as the “shit work” to their financially less advantaged sisters) do play nicely into Flanagan’s theory, I think that even Flanagan would concede that Hirshman does not speak for all feminists.
I think that the premise that this book was written after equal rights and equal opportunities “had been secured” is a flawed one; we’re not quite there yet. Flanagan also writes that to feminism, she owes “any number of the rights I take for granted such as my ability to establish credit in my own name, apply for a business loan, pilot an airplane, get an abortion, work construction, and sue the bejesus out of a male co-worker who gooses me in the coffee room. I’ve never had the occasion or the desire to do any of these things, but if the moment strikes, the way has been made straight for me.” It’s a flippant comment from an otherwise very deliberate writer (elsewhere in the book she discusses the etymology of the terms “housewife” and “at-home mother” and carefully looks at the sometimes treacherous language surrounding the practice of childrearing: “would I still be the one raising the babies — what an unsettling word — if I was out and about for so many hours?” she writes.) Her comment therefore comes across as not only dismissive (‘hmm, yes, today I fancy having an abortion before my tennis game’) but also insincere; Flanagan knows how important these issues are to women.
But the book is softer and more thoughtful than I expected it to be. Even the oft quoted “when a mother works, something is lost” line from the Serfdom piece has mellowed. In the book, Flanagan writes of the choice for mothers to stay at home or to seek paid employment, “whichever decision a woman makes, she will lose something of incalculable value.” In the book, the loss is clearly that of the mother, not her children; she no longer going for the jugular with her prose.
The book is a lot of things: an elegy, social commentary, a memoir, and a tribute to Flanagan’s mother. Flanagan beautifully captures a rare moment in American history where if you were white, middle class, married and had not been disabled by war, times were good, particularly when viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of childhood. She also makes some funny and astute observations about the hypocrisies within our society today. What the book is not, however, is a manifesto or a political call to action. It is not, as Tsing-Loh describes it, the book that “will prompt a new rallying cry, rolling pin in hand: Our bodice, ourselves!”
I expected the book to raise my feminist hackles. I expected to be provoked. I expected that the book, like Tsing-Loh’s comment, would end with an exclamation point. But in rewriting the essays, in trying to work the essays around a central theme, in trying to include herself as an object of criticism, Flanagan has lost something. The book, while more ideologically balanced, lacks her trademark sting.
And when I reached the end of the book’s concluding essay, I simply thought “to hell with all what?”