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And I wonder:  will Betty Friedan’s classic The Feminine Mystique (1963) EVER be out of date?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.

A Catch-Up Post: Gail Godwin’s The Odd Woman & Anthony Powell’s What’s Become of Waring

odd woman godwinOddI’m behind on writing about my reading, so this is a two-in-one. I recently reread Gail Godwin’s The Odd Woman, a brilliant novel about an English professor with an untenured job at a midwestern university,  and a first read of Anthony Powell’s What’s Become of Waring, a satire of the publishing industry.

1.  Gail Godwin, a Southern-born writer who won the Award from the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1981, has been nominated three times for the National Book Award.  She should have won for her brilliant novel, A Mother and Two Daughters, a women’s classic which has never quite gotten its dues.

The Odd Woman, published in 1974, in many ways lays the groundwork  for A Mother and Two Daughters. The Odd Woman explores a woman’s academic and personal life: Godwin, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and taught at Vassar and Columbia before becoming a full-time writer, knows about balance.  Her sympathetic portrayal of a bookish heroine, Jane Clifford, a visiting English professor whose teaching contract is soon to expire, is utterly realistic. But what can Jane do?  Hers is the plight of thousands of instructors with Ph.Ds.

Born in the South, Jane is an odd woman at the midwestern college, single and in her thirties. 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.  Her flamboyant best friend, Gerda, who publishes a radical feminist newspaper in her basement in Chicago, is impatient with Jane’s reserve and loneliness.  And Jane’s married lover Gabriel, an  ineffectual art history professor who lives in the next state and does endless research  (he is like Casaubon in Middlemarch, Jane eventually realizes) but never completes his book about the Pre-Raphaelites, is so timid that he insists she have a separate hotel room on a trip to  New York in case one of his colleagues figures out he is having an affair . And Gerda says that is typical of Jane, to fall in love with a guy with his head in the clouds who hides even in huge New York City.

Jane is in a state of stasis.    Can Jane change? She is terrified of change.  Reading is her life. She was happiest while holed up one winter 12 hours a day in a university library writing her dissertation on George Eliot.  Everything seemed white that winter, everything seemed pure.   What does that say about her? Jane wonders.  Even her relationship with Gabriel started with a  letter. Then her grandmother’s death and a visit to her mother, who has for years been happily married to an unintellectual construction contractor, forces her to examine the shape of her life and that of her mother and grandmother, wh0 raised her to be strong. Preparing to teach George Gissing’s novel about single women, The Odd Women, for a women’s studies class, also puts her life in context.  One of the reasons I enjoy this novel is that I love Gissing.   Every word Godwin writes is brilliant, even Jane’s notes on this classic.

Slowly and thoughtfully, she underscored “COMPROMISE-REBELLION AGAINST ONE’S OWN COMPROMISE-DEATH.”  Then she wrote quickly in the margin, beside Monica’s fate:  “Theme of literally dozens of 19th century novels–the ‘Emma Bovary’ syndrome.  Literature’s graveyard positively choked with women who chose–rather, let themselves be chosen by–this syndrome; also with their ‘cousins’–who ‘get in trouble’ (commit adultery, have sex without marriage, think of committing adultery, or having sex without marriage) and thus, according to the literary convention of the time, must die.

This is a great book, especially for fans of 19th century novels.

What's Become of Waring powell 51v7mwyiol-_sy344_bo1204203200_2  As a teacher at a prep school in the 1980s in a city I didn’t know, I divided my free time between running 10K races (there went Saturday morning) and browsing at bookstores (often on the same day, in the same clothes).  I’d never heard of Anthony Powell when I found a 12-volume paperback set of A Dance to the Music of Time at a used bookstore in Maryland.  I bought it for the charming covers, and read the whole thing addictively over the course of a week, laughing aloud at Powell’s wit.  I’ve gone back to it many times.

Although I had never come across Powell’s other novels, I recently added  What’s Become of Waring to my never-ending TBR list when it was mentioned in D.J. Taylor’s brilliant history of English literary culture, The Prose Factory:  Literary Life in England Since 1918 (which I wrote about here).  Waring is  a satire of the publishing industry, from the point of view of a detached narrator who works as an editor for a small publishing firm.

I started chortling on the first page of Waring.  It opens at a wedding.

As the parson was approaching the end of his discourse something flicked through the air and landed in my hat resting brim upwards on the pew beside me.  On examination the object turned out to be a page torn from the service paper, folded several times and inscribed in pencil: Put all your money under the seat or I’ll drill a hole through you. It was signed, Red-Handed Mike above a skull-and-crossbones.

It turns out to be his old friend Eustace Bromwich, back from traveling in the Near East.   We learn that the narrator used to work in advertising but is now at the publisher Judkins & Judkins.  The witty repartee never stops.

“Whom do you prefer?  Judkins? Or Judkins?”

“Judkins, emphatically.”

The best-known writer at Judkins & Judkins is T. T. Waring, a best-selling travel writer whose addictive style and thrilling adventures keep the firm afloat.  The amusing Eustace, who has also traveled in the Far East, tells the narrator he despises Waring’s books,  but whether or not Waring is literary, his absent person  is the catalyst for the ensuing comedy of errors.   When it is reported that Waring has died, Judkins & Judkins is up a creek, because they don’t have his last manuscript in hand and were depending on it. They also want to publish a biography of Waring, but have never met Waring and don’t even know where he lived.   Then bold Roberta, a freelance writer who hopes to hustle the publication of a book of her journalism at Judkins & Judkins, admits she was briefly engaged to him in France. (And she does get her book.) Another friend of the narrator, Captain Hudson, who is a fan of Waring, is assigned to write Waring’s biography. The book proceeds at a rapidfire pace, as Powell explores problems of identity, spirtutalism, seances, plagiarism, selling out, romance, and travel.

The books is very, very witty and comical, and I like the Waughish aloofness of the narrator.  There’s something about books about books.

I thought of giving it away, but I’ll probably want to reread it.

A fun novel!

What to Read After Ferrante: Gail Godwin’s A Mother and Two Daughters

Gail Godwin

Gail Godwin

Women love Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, her hugely enjoyable pop-literary novels about a tumultuous friendship lasting from childhood through old age.

Many reviewers have asked, “What do I read after I’ve finished Ferrante?”

I have the answer.  If you like Ferrante…

Try Gail Godwin, a Southern writer who has been a finalist for the National Book Award for The Odd Woman (1975), Violet Clay (1980) and A Mother and Two Daughters (1983).  She is the author of 14 novels, two short story collections, three non-fiction books, and ten libretti.  Godwin is  both literary and popular:  she  knows how to tell a gripping story, and how to dig deep for psychological truths.  She worked as a journalist, earned a master’s from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, and taught at various universities.  Her beautifully-written  novels explore the difficult relationships between women and their families.  Her characters are well-read and sometimes intellectual: I look forward to their discussions about Nathanael Hawthorne, George Gissing, George Eliot, and Montaigne.

gail godwin a mother and two daughters 51xHfXMjvbL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_My favorite of her novels is A Mother and Two Daughters, the  story of three women  entangled by family ties and daily conflicts that make it hard to see one another clearly.  It is told  from alternating points of view and  in distinctive voices:  Nell Strickland, a happily married woman who lives with her husband, Leonard, a lawyer, in a house with a view of  the mountains  in North Carolina; Cate, her wildly rebellious daughter, is an English professor at a college in Iowa, who has been married twice and is ending an affair with the Resident Poet; and Lydia is the dullest, a 36-year-old housewife and mother of two who leaves her husband for two reasons:  (a) to take a lover and (b) to go back to school.

Nell is in the middle.  She can see the strengths of wild Cate, who doesn’t care what others think, and of traditional Lydia.  Seeing them at the same time can, however, be trying.

The three come back together after Leonard Strickland, their calm, intellectual, Montaigne-reading husband and father, dies of a heart attack while driving home from a party:  Nell has a broken rib.

After Lydia picks up Cate at the airport, they drop by the house.  They sit in the living room in the house where they grew up.  The description of the room tells so much about all three of the women.

The early-winter sunset was filling the room with shadows. So much family history had happened here.  Cate had petitioned to be allowed to drop out of convent school and go to public high school.  In this room, Lydia, hardly able to contain her triumph, had made hasty wedding plans so she could accompany Max to his new job in London.  every six months, Nell Strickland would declare the room off-limits the night before it was her turn to hostess the Book or Bridge Club.  In the southwest corner, next to the huge Magnavox console, their father would sit on Saturday afternoons, upright and motionless as a Pharaoh…as he gave himself up to his operas via earphones.

mother and two hardback gail godwin516P2u0ym5L._SX353_BO1,204,203,200_Life doesn’t stand still after the funeral.  Back at school, Cate is asked to take over a theater class after the drama teacher had “suddenly” to leave, i.e., was fired because he had made a gay pass at a student.  And so Cate meets Roger Jernigan, the father of one of her students,  known as the Pesticide King, who lives in a castle on the bluffs. Amazingly, they click.  They enjoy  their talk and are attracted.  He visits her flat in a condemned building, and she visits his castle on the bluffs.  Inevitably, Cate gets pregnant. She knows she cannot keep the child.  Ironically , her godmother, has just taken in a pregnant girl, obviously to take Cate’s place.

Godwin speaks about A Mother and Two Daughters  in an interview at

The nearest I can get to the theme is expressed by “Cate”, when her mother is about to host a meeting of the Book Club on The Scarlet Letter. She says that the main thing to remember about that book is that it asks a very crucial question: Can the individual spirit survive the society in which it has to live? Paradoxically, the more completely you develop your own character, the more useful you are to society. But you can’t just be a free spirit; you have to give and blend and become part of a whole that’s larger than yourself

Really a stunning book!  Treat yourself.