Still Pertinent: Women’s Lit of the ’60s & ’70s

Women are marching for their rights. Wait, didn’t we do that decades ago?

And I wonder:  will Betty Friedan’s classic The Feminine Mystique (1963) EVER be out of date? Does it mean as much to women now as it did then?

I read it in my pink bedroom when I was 13 or 14.  I borrowed it from a friend’s mother, a  political activist. I had never read anything like it. “Far out,” as I occasionally said back then.  (No one ever said, “it blew my mind, ” except the Mod Squad.)   Friedan was inspired to do research  when her survey of Smith College classmates for their 15th anniversary reunion revealed they were unhappy housewives.  And so she wrote about history, the psychology, politics, the media, and the image of women in American society.  Although it may not have changed my life, it did change my ideas about possibilities.

It wasn’t just  sociological and political feminist books that influenced me then:  I was always a narrative person.  Popular literary fiction of the ’60s and ’70s had a great effect.  American women were writing literature about rebellious women experimenting with sex roles and sex.  Think Sue Kaufman’s The Diary of a Mad Housewife, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room.

Here is a list of some less well-known books of the time that have stood up surprisingly well.  And please let me know your own favorites!

1.  In Sheila Ballantyne’s brilliant out-of-print novel, Norma Jean the Termite Queen (1975), housework is driving the heroine, Norma Jean, crazy. Her husband, a professor, thinks her place is in the kitchen, and her three children are non-stop needy unless she parks them in front of cartoons.  She hasn’t been alone in six years, nor has she made any art.  Ballantyne’s bold style and attention-deficit shifting of Norma Jean’s consciousness make this immensely entertaining.


2.  Alix Kates Shulman is best known for Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, but my favorite is her controversial novel, Burning Questions (1978), which inspired three fascinating letters to the New York Times defending the book after a reviewer trashed it.

Told in the form of a memoir, this bildungsroman is the story of a woman from Indiana who moves to New York in the  ’50s s, then  marries a lawyer and lives in square Washington Square in the ’60s,  and  then rebels and joins the Women’s Liberation movement. Some of it is serious, some of it is comical.  And since it has been a long time since I’ve read this, I will leave you with a quote from the opening chapter.

What makes a rebel?

If you had seen the flags waving in front of each frame house set on its neat carpet of lawn on Endicott Road or any of the surrounding streets in Babylon, Indiana, on a Flag Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, V-J Day, or even a particularly fine Sunday after the War (World War II), you would never have guessed it possible that a fanatical radical was incubating there.

There is much humor, as well as an insightful description of the inspiration and confusion of the feminist movement.

3. Gail Godwin The Odd Woman (1974).  This small masterpiece explores a Southern woman’s personal and academic life in a time of unstable  jobs. Godwin’s sympathetic portrayal of a bookish heroine, Jane Clifford, a visiting English professor whose teaching contract  is soon to expire, is utterly realistic (Godwin herself has a Ph.D. and taught at the University of Iowa). But what can Jane do? Hers is the plight of thousands of instructors with Ph.Ds.  She  is an odd woman at the midwestern college, single and in her thirties, reading George Gissing’s The Odd Women. Her married friend Sonia, a tenured professor, is in her corner, but there are no openings at the college. And the rest of her close relationships are long-distance.

Such a great book, one of Godwin’s best.

4.  Lois Gould’s novel, A Sea Change (1976), is edgy, shocking, radical, and anti-male, and would never be published today.  This allegory about violence against women captures the  anger of radical Second Wave feminists (which, believe me, never translates well).  But I found it fascinating.

The protagonist, Jessie Waterman, a former model, lives in a brownstone in a dangerous neighborhood in New York with her sexist husband, Roy, who frequently refers to her as a “crazy cunt.” When a black man robs the apartment and rapes her with his gun, she decides ironically that they are intimate enough for her to refer to him as B.G.   Traumatized by violence, she moves with her daughter and stepmother to a summer home on Andrea Island, where Roy visits on weekends by helicopter. And when he goes away to Europe, Jessie is relieved to be free of him, and she and her best friend, Kate, become lovers.  How will they survive a hurricane and a male intruder?  Jessie plays (becomes?) the man.

You can read the entire post I wrote about this strange book at my old blog here.)

5.  The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford won the Pulitzer in 1970.  The masterly stories in this collection were published between 1944 and 1969. It was the era of the polymath, of a love of arcane multi-syllabic words. These perfectly-wrought stories, set in Europe, New England, and the West, are both subtle and shocking; her descriptions and dialogue are precise and pellucid. Does she go too far for our pseudo-sensitive smiley-face sensibilities? Are her New England spinsters too rich, mean, and snobbish for the modern reader? Is the shocking culture clash between Americans and Germans after Nuremberg too graphic? (It is a horrifying story.) Are the pretentious teachers with new master’s degrees too condescending? (Yes, they are, but that’s so realistic!) Is the obese philology student in Heidelberg too monstrous: she eats whole cakes, uses a sucker as a bookmark, and ominously talks about a dead thin twin. ( I’m fat, and not at all offended!) What about the cruise captain who exaggerates his racial prejudice (or does he?) to tease a liberal young woman described as “a natural victim”? (At the end, she is far from a victim.) These characters are vividly portrayed, realistic, and are sometimes as obnoxious as people we know in “real life.  You can read the rest of my blog here.

4 thoughts on “Still Pertinent: Women’s Lit of the ’60s & ’70s

  1. Thanks for these, Kate – off to read your old reviews. I hadn’t heard of any of these books, but I know what you mean about not being published nowadays. The industry is so rigid that unless a book fits into a specific category I don’t think it has a chance.

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  2. When I read Friedan’s book in the 1960’s I wondered what all the fuss was about. Of course housewives were unhappy! I remember discussions with my college friends in the early 1950’s the theme of which was “what is wrong with our mothers?” We knew they had the good life and should have been happy, but they weren’t. Unfortunately, at that time most of us bought into the belief it was the good life and tried to pursue it ourselves — but not for long, in most cases.

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    • Nancy, how funny! Yes, I’m sure these subjects were on strong women’s minds, but it was nice to have a book. I always attribute the popularization of these ideas to Second Wave feminist books, but you are right: it had to be more than that. People were thinking about it.

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