Saturday, June 18, 2011

Housewives, Prom Queens, & How to Be a Woman of the 1960s and 1970s

Nora Johnson
I recently ran across Nora Johnson's excellent 1988 New York Times article, "Housewives and Prom Queens, 25 Years Later." She reread several women's novels from the 1960s and '70s, saying that she "finds [her] history in novels."

I know what she means. 

Among the 19 novels she reviewed were Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, Sue Kaufman's Diary of a Mad Housewife, Lois Gould's Such Good Friends, Lisa Alther's Kinflicks, Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, Marilyn French's The Women's Room, and Alix Kates Shulman's Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen.

These women's novels, both the good and the bad, the classics and the dated, are historical records of the Second Wave of feminism. Being a housewife could drive you crazy; getting out of the house could save you.  If you didn't conform to societal standards, the received wisdom was that your husband and children would be unhappy.  Simone Beauvoir's The Second Sex and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique encouraged women to be independent, to work and fulfill themselves.  The anti-war movement also inspired women to question authority.

The feminist novels explored sexuality as well as everyday life.  These authors wrote as explicitly about sex as Henry Miller and Philip Roth.

I am surprised by how many of these books I have read.  In the '70s, I read mostly 19th-century novels, but also enjoyed popular novels of the time.  Some of my favorite women's books were:

  1. Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook.  Anna Wulf, the heroine, cannot integrate the many facets of her life as an unmarried independent woman and writer in a society that expects women to marry and sublimate their ambitions. She records in five (?) notebooks her history in South Africa, her masochistic affairs with married men, years in the Communist party, etc.
  2. Marge Piercy's Dance the Eagle to Sleep.  Teenagers in a future society rebel against the draft and the system.  I love many of Piercy's books, but don't dare look back at this.
  3. Erica Jong's Fear of Flying.  A steamy, funny novel about Isadora Wing, a psychiatrist's wife who accompanies him to Vienna for a conference (though she is afraid of flying) and encounters a Laingian analyst who sexually changes her life.  
  4. Sue Kaufman's Diary of a Mad Housewife.  The heroine, Bettina Balser, keeps a funny, sad diary about her life as a dissatisfied New York wife and mother.  She has an affair with a playwright, who is also unsupportive.  I absolutely loved this book.  NPR used to have a local nightly show in which the three classical music DJs took turns reading books aloud: Diary of a Mad Housewife was one of the novels.  
Lessing's and Kaufman's have stood the test of time:  I'm not sure about the others.

Nora Johnson, herself an excellent novelist and memoirist, the author of The World of Henry Orient, Uncharted Places, and Coast to Coast:  A Family Romance, also intelligently differentiates between "women's novels" and "feminist novels."  She writes,

''Womens' novels'' accept the ''society'' as it is. Confessional, domestic, they deal with traditional women's matters - love, marriage, children, the emotional life. The feminist novel cuts deeper, burns with mysterious pain that is sometimes transmitted into black humor.
 Since I lived the life of a housewife-heroine myself during those turbulent years, caring for small children in a suburban house, my response to this feminist fiction was primal and only half-critical; I listened for cries that matched mine, novelty and hope (however illusory) in the dark night. Now, a decade or so later, some of my old favorites seem dull and polemical, and others that eluded me then have widened, deepened, and now seem very fine.
 I'll have to reread one or two of these.

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