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.
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.
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!