Anti-feminist's essays appeal to this feminist


Caitlin Flanagan is the anti-feminist feminists hate to love. We can't believe we agree with her.

The essayist, first for Atlantic Monthly and now for The New Yorker, causes us to laugh at ourselves, if somewhat ruefully, putting to lie the accusation that women's libbers have no sense of humor.

Now she has put her essays together in a book titled To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife (Little, Brown).

In it, this cross between Maureen Dowd and Phyllis Schlafly goes after the divided mind of the modern working mother with an acupuncturist's needle: She skewers us so well, we don't feel the pain.

"Over and over, I found myself writing about a paradox that became more obvious with each assignment I took: as women have achieved ever more power in the world -- power of a kind my mother and her friends from nursing school could never have imagined -- they have become increasingly attracted to the privileges and niceties of traditional womanhood," she writes in her introduction.

Flanagan is herself a paradox. A failed novelist, she became a stay-at-home mother with a nanny.

She idealizes her mother's devotion to her husband and children, but her mother was a working nurse during all of Flanagan's growing up.

She desires nothing more than to be "the center of a world where I am depended on, and considered irreplaceable, by the people who love me," but only vaulting ambition could have landed her gigs at Atlantic Monthly and New Yorker.

And yet she is funny as all get out. And extremely likable in her often self-deprecating humor. This is Flanagan in "The Virgin Bride," an essay in which she is at her best:

"To stage a white wedding as the form was originally conceived requires a woman young enough that her very age suggests a measure of innocence, the still-married parents who have harbored her up to this point, and a young man of like religious affiliation who is willing to assume responsibility for her keep.

"Trying to pull off this piece of theater in light of the divorce culture, the women's movement, the sexual revolution, and the acceptability of mixed and later marriages threatens to make a complete mockery of the thing.

"It is like trying to stage a nativity pageant without a baby and a donkey: you can do it, but you are going to need one hell of a manger."

In her essay on sexless marriages, Flanagan admits her "good, old-fashioned feminist outrage" at the notion that a woman might have to put out in order to get a new refrigerator.

But she feels bad for the husband, too.

"Pity the poor married man hoping to get a bit of comfort from the wife at day's end. He must somehow seduce a woman who is economically independent of him, bone tired, philosophically disinclined to have sex unless she is jolly well in the mood, numbingly familiar with his every sexual maneuver and still doing a slow burn over his failure to wipe down the countertops and fold the dishtowel after cooking the kids' dinner.

"He can hardly be blamed for opting instead to check his e-mail, catch a few minutes of `SportsCenter' and call it a night."

And so she takes us on a rollicking ride through the many contradictions in the life of the modern working mother, feminist or not.

But the book stalls and then fails when the author makes her visit to "Cancerland," a bleak destination named and made heartbreakingly vivid by Marjorie Williams' collection of essays, Woman at the Washington Zoo.

Flanagan might agree, during one of her mood swings into being acidly self-critical, that Williams did the motherless children thing better.

But the book is less what it purports to be -- comparing the rituals and experiences that shaped the 1950s housewife with those that the modern woman faces -- than a simple collection of essays that reveal a conflicted woman. Flanagan is a social conservative with liberal leanings; a career woman whose inner housewife threatens to emerge and take control; and an ambitious professional who wants to be the center of her family's universe.

In short, Flanagan is one of us.

To hear audio clips of selected Susan Reimer columns, go to

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