Caitlin Flanagan's book To Hell With All That is out and has been reviewed. I have not read the book but I have read the columns in it, and I have also written more than my fair share on the topic of La Flanagan's columns. This allows me to focus my biting sarcasm in this post to the statements of the reviewer, Pamela Paul, without rehashing the contents of the book.
Paul wants to give Flanagan a good review, I think, which is sort of hard once she has pointed out that Flanagan writes very well indeed. But needs must, and beggars can't be choosers and so on, and Paul finds this to say:
But here's what I think really bothers Flanagan's critics: No matter how vociferously they disagree with her on some things, they find themselves agreeing with much of what she writes. One suspects that were such readers to open Flanagan's essay collection, "To Hell With All That," without knowing its provenance, they would page through it eagerly, nodding and sighing and chuckling to themselves. Flanagan writes with intelligence, wit and brio. She's likable.
Flanagan's major points — that most women hate housework but want to be good at it anyway, that women say they want men to contribute an equal share in the domestic arena but don't want to sleep with the kind of men who do, that married people should have sex — are hardly revolutionary (or counterrevolutionary, for that matter). What makes Flanagan's book original and vital is that she is a realist, willing to acknowledge the essential gray areas in too often polarized positions. As it stands, sensitivities are so attuned to the slightest insult of any one of women's myriad work-life choices that Flanagan's simplest observations — for example, when a woman works something is lost — are taken as an indictment of working women. Yet any working mother can see the truth in such a statement: time spent working = less time with children = something lost. What's appalling is that pointing this out raises such ire.
Do you think that the book might be a sanitized version of the original pieces? It does sound as if Paul read something rather sanitized and tamed and not the original opinions of Flanagan, or that Paul decides to reframe what was being said so as to go with the story she has decided to tell? (A caveat is in order here: I suspect that I'm one of the wild internet hordes Paul's review describes as hating Flanagan's writings. You know, she reviled my mother and women like her in those writings, and I am only human in that I love my mother and the sacrifices she has made and I don't take it lightly when something that might be her life is ripped open for general ridicule by someone who doesn't bother to do actual research. Or that's how Flanagan reads to me.)
Let's have some fun with the second paragraph of the above quote:
Flanagan's major points — that most women hate housework but want to be good at it anyway, that women say they want men to contribute an equal share in the domestic arena but don't want to sleep with the kind of men who do, that married people should have sex — are hardly revolutionary (or counterrevolutionary, for that matter).
These are not the major points I found in Flanagan's Atlantic Monthly pieces. Her major point in those was that uppity working women are horrible people, selfish, nasty and bad mothers, and everything else is framed to support that point. I'm not sure why Paul thinks that women don't want to have sex with the kinds of men who contribute an equal share in the domestic arena. Nothing is quite as sexy as a bare-chested man wiping windows with the gentleness and care that might later be spent on wiping something else, and I know no studies which prove that men who share household chores don't get laid as often as the ones who just drop in to sleep for a few hours before venturing back into the stock market traffic.
Flanagan probably did argue that women can't find a feminist man sexy. But she never did just state that married people should have sex. That is a real distortion of the particular column which argued that the housewives of the fifties had more and better sex than today's working wives (with no proof of the assertion), and that the solution for better marital sex is to have wives stay at home and cook big dinners for their husbands:
It turns out that the "traditional" marriage, which we've all been so happy to annihilate, had some pretty good provisions for many of today's most stubborn marital problems, such as how to combine work and parenthood, and how to keep the springs of the marriage bed in good working order. What's interesting about the sex advice given to married women of earlier generations is that it proceeds from the assumption that in a marriage a happy sex life depends upon orderly and successful housekeeping. (Jan/Feb 2003)*
See, it's all part of the same main point: that feminism ruined family life and that the real villains are educated working women. Women like my mother, you know, just in case you forget my bias here.
Here is the crucial part of Paul's praise of Flanagan, and the part that has the most logical flaws:
As it stands, sensitivities are so attuned to the slightest insult of any one of women's myriad work-life choices that Flanagan's simplest observations — for example, when a woman works something is lost — are taken as an indictment of working women. Yet any working mother can see the truth in such a statement: time spent working = less time with children = something lost. What's appalling is that pointing this out raises such ire.
I love the first sentence: how it argues that Flanagan is not trying to flame sensitivities with her quite mean pieces, how it calls these mean pieces "slightest" insults, and how somehow it's not Flanagan who is indicting working women. Perhaps the book indeed was prettied up and Paul never read the originals. Let me provide a few quotes here for those of you who have not had the pleasure of reading La Flanagan:
"De-cluttering a household is a task that appeals strongly to today's professional woman. It's different from actual housework, because it doesn't have to be done every day...Scrubbing the toilet bowl is a bit of nastiness that can be fobbed off on anyone poor and luckless enough to qualify for no better employment..." (March 2002)*
"...this is a book from the perspective of "high-achieving women", and the main impression we get of the type is that they are going to get exactly what they want, and damn the expense or the human toll. These are women who have roared through the highest echelons of the country's blue-chip law firms, investment banks, and high tech companies....
Hewlett does her best to make us sympathetic toward such fiercely driven women, but the comments of a young male New Yorker—meant to reveal what cads high-achieving single men can be—backfire on her. He observes, "There's a whole bunch of them where I work. They're armed to the teeth with degrees—MBAs and the like—they're real aggressive, they love to take control, and they have this fierce hunger for success and for stuff. Everything they do and everything they want is expensive.""(June 2002)*
"the hotshot career women who can't manage to coax eligible men into the honeymoon suite."(November 2002)*
So much for the incredible sensitivity of the readers to the slightest insult.
And then to the next sentence in Paul's review:
Yet any working mother can see the truth in such a statement: time spent working = less time with children = something lost. What's appalling is that pointing this out raises such ire.
Appalling? Let's do a reversal of this statement:
Yet any working father can see the truth in such a statement: time spent working = less time with children = something lost. What's appalling is that pointing this out raises such ire.
We don't point this out, of course. We photoshop reality by starting with a nice family picture with the mummy and the daddy and the kids, all sitting in a cafe in some busy mall. Then we cut out the daddy, erase the people in the background and convert the cafe into a suburban living-room with the mummy now all alone with the children, solely responsible for their happiness, well-being and survival. Then we add a keyboard to the picture and a cell phone and dress the mummy in a Chanel suit and rip the picture so that she is now apart from the children who are suddenly crying. And why do they cry? Because of the heartless and selfish mummy, of course.
Now, this is appalling to me. So is the idea of us just swallowing the duality suggested in that last sentence: that any time away from the children is a loss. The idea is to start with a child in an orphanage, neglected, lying passively in a bed with rash all over, staring hopelessly into nothing. Then we quickly transpose this picture on top of the picture with the working mummy and point out how heinous she is. She shouldn't leave her children like that, lying all sick in a bed alone. But wait a minute! There are mothers who work because otherwise their children would starve! What to do? What to do?
Here's a solution! Make the numbly suffering rash-covered child a consequence of only those who don't have to work for money! Ignore the fact that if this myth was correct then all the children of all those poor women who have to work would also be staring into the corners while flies feast on their eyes. Let's ignore that Sophie's choice: whether to have your child starve or die of neglect. Let's just get the uppity mothers into obedience first.
And let's not point out that mummies who go to bathroom also cheat their children of time spent with them, or mummies who fall asleep or who go to the opera at night or who get their teeth fixed. All these things take time away from the children, and the ideal is to have the maternal eyeballs stare at the child 24/7. Or perhaps any womanly eyeballs will do, given how Paul seems to mix "mothers" and "women" rather freely in this review.
So I got a little carried away there, but the point is worth making. And I didn't even get to discussing what our mad rules about working do to families in general, and how we expect women to bear the whole burden of having children, including ending up with less retirement income and general financial security. But talking about these parts of the mothering experience doesn't sell magazines and that's why me and Caitlin don't bother with them, either. It's much more profitable to do uppity mummy wars. Sigh.
*You can link to the articles from which these quotes were taken by going to the back issues of the Atlantic Monthly . They are ordered by year and month, and Flanagan is always under the Book Reviews in the lists of contents.