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And I wonder:  will Betty Friedan’s classic The Feminine Mystique (1963) EVER be out of date?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

Lois Gould’s Not Responsible for Personal Articles

Lois Gould

Lois Gould

I am always delighted to discover a splendid out-of-print book like Lois Gould’s fascinating collection of essays,  Not Responsible for Personal Articles (1978).

Lois Gould (1931-2002) was a popular literary writer of the twentieth century.  She is best known for her first novel, Such Good Friends, though I am haunted by her edgy novel,  A Sea-Change (which I posted about at my old blog here.)  She was also the original writer of the “Hers” columns for The New York Times.

Not Responsible for Personal articles Lois Gould 51gcfMN7gWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I am thrilled by Not Responsible for Personal Articles (1978).  Most of the pieces were published  in The New York Times, New York magazine, McCall’s, and Cosmopolitan.  Some  are feminist essays, others are light humor pieces, others are journalistic pieces, and there is an agonizing personal essay about being the victim of violence.  Reading this book is like reading Joan Didion and Nora Ephron crossed with humor writers Cornelia Otis Skinner and  Jean Kerr.   (And, by the way, this book is out of print, but you can find it for a penny online.)

In most of the essays, Gould keeps her tone light while musing on feminist issues.  She writes about the difficulties of passing the ERA, of a jarring Norman Lear sitcom, All That Glitters, in which men and women trade gender roles, the difficulties of making a list of the ten most influential women (everybody mentions the First Ladies and then gets stuck), and why she does not support porn (it is defined by and marketed by men even when it is aimed at women).

Gould has a sense of humor, but she also knows how to make a  point.  In “All Hair the Conquering Heroine,” she writes about the daughters of feminists who are more enamoured of Farah Fawcett-Major’s hair than of a future career. Gould, the mother of two sons who are required to help clean the house and cook, assumed that even nine-year-old girls would be feminists. But it turns out they watch “Charlie’s Angels” and aspire to be cocktail waitresses with blond highlights or file clerks with raven curls.

Gould writes,

The cause seems to be a sudden and widespread cultural confusion about the difference–if any–between a role model and a hair model.  As I understand it, a role model is an adult person of your own gender whom you admire and want to be like:  a President, an astronaut, a nuclear physicist, a private eye.  Whereas a hair model is a stunning, raven-haired President; a luscious, red-headed astronaut; a blond bombshell of a nuclear physicist; a frost-streaked poster pin-up of a private eye.

She uses the Socratic method to persuade the girls to admit they would rather be the active Kate Jackson or Jaclyn  Smith than Farah Fawcett-Major, who has the best hair, but plays the “dumb” beauty and has the smallest role.

One of my favorite pieces in the collection is “Women Have Stopped Taking Dictation,” a clever essay on fashion.  Gould writes about the eclecticism of women’s styles since the advent of Second Wave feminism.

“This spring fashion dictates…”  Remember that voice?  It had the ring of silken authority, if not the ring of truth.

Gould believes that women are no longer  “taking dictation” from designers.   She points out that the Cinderella days are over, and “people who wear glass slippers can’t run for Congress.” Women still like clothes, but they’re more eclectic in choosing their styles now.   In New York she sees fashion models in furs and ripped-up jeans, and  high-powered women dress in pastel knits at parties so as not to intimidate men.  And it is no longer the little black dress:  women experiment with peasant skirts, saris, you name it.  The mini-skirt is still there, but some women prefer the longer, more age-appropriate dresses.  There is something for everybody.  (N.B.  Fashion has had a resurgence, alas.  Karen of Kaggsysbookishramblings reminds me in a comment here that the young today once again listen to the designers.)

I had my own fashion revelation in the early ’70s.   Bored with the lesbian teacher I lived with from age 16 to shortly after my eighteenth birthday (I was the second high school student  she had lured into her house), I whimsically bought a long floral-print dress and a very girlish pink raincoat.  I was hanging on to my heterosexual female identity by a thread, or threads.  That sudden longing for pink (not usually my color) and the long dress expressed my desperation to show my plumage.   It was an amalgam of my Jane Austen dreams to wear a long sweeping dress. I turned 18,  found a job, and moved into a rented room.

Gould also writes about fashion in “Guilty As Charged.”  She admits she was 20 minutes late for her own wedding because she was shopping for ‘something new” and “something blue” at Bloomingdale’s.  A hardcore Bloomingdale’s addict, she cannot imagine how a married friend who pretended to be shopping at Bloomingdale’s twice a week while having an affair “even made it [out of Bloomingdale’s] to the first assignation.”  How could she resist all those wonderful displays and free samples and the model rooms?

in “Uncivil Liberties,” Gould discusses the case of Penthouse publisher Larry Flyn sentenced to a jail term. for publishing a girly magazine.   One friend says, “That’s wonderful”; another tries to persuade her that it is a civil liberties issue and his First Amendment rights have been violated.   Her other friend, a lawyer who “escorted both Lady Chatterley and Fanny Hill to their triumphant American debuts,” just laughs at what he calls First Amendment junkies.  And then she realizes with relief that nobody can force her to sign a petition supporting Flynt, whose work is absolutely repulsive to her.

One of the last essays, “Letter to a Robber,” terrifyingly records the violence in their home after her son opened the door of their Manhattan apartment to a robber.  The robber tied up Gould and her two sons and made them lie down on the floor while he threatened them with a gun. Gould stayed very calm and passive and kept herself and two children alive. The burglar did not hurt them.   In Gould’s novel Sea Change, the heroine endures violence from a burglar in her home.  I had not realized the scene was taken from life.

What a wonderful book!  There is a flaw, though.  I must warn you that the first 20 pages, in which she deals with changing gender roles and etiquette, will seem dated. We no longer obsess about who opens the door or pulls out a chair.  Do we?

But the rest of the book is filled with gems.

I only wish there was more.  Where is the sequel?  Where are the rest of her columns?

I want more!