Women in the World

03.27.12

Erica Jong Defends Feminist Revolution

Why has feminism become a dirty word? Erica Jong defends the feminist and sexual revolution against criticism from the next generation of women who just don’t get it.

When the movie The Way We Were (directed by Sidney Pollack and starring those wonders, Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford) came out in 1973, my then (now late) father-in-law, Howard Fast, hero of the House Un-American Activities Committee, who went to jail for being a commie though he left the party over the Stalin show trials—like everyone else—said, memorably: “That was the way we weren’t.” I felt the same way reading Hanna Rosin’s piece “The Sexual Freedom and Women’s Success” in The Wall Street Journal.

Of course I was delighted to be called a sex-goddess and bracketed with Dr. Ruth Westheimer, whom I adore, but when Rosin said the ’70s were all about the sexual revolution and that the sexual revolution was one of the props of women’s current success, I felt a chill run down my spine. “Dear Hanna—you just don’t get it,” I wanted to say. “If only you’d lived through some of the things I have—being trashed as the happy hooker of literature, being overlooked for professorships, prizes, and front-page reviews because it was assumed I was—’tis  pity—a whore, you might see things differently. And then, if having lived through that, the pundits now said you were rather tame, you might wonder whether women could ever be seen for what we are: sexual and intellectual, sweet and bitter, smart and sexy. But I am grateful to be a sex goddess all the same.”

Sex is important, naturally. When people stop being interested in sex, I’ll stop writing about it. Still, the late ’60’s and ’70s were about civil rights (we still don’t have them ,as the death of Trayvon Martin shows), violence against women (a continuing tragedy), and the hatred and lack of empathy for the poor (as Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us). We sought fairness for the disempowered, the down-trodden, the people who had been down so long it looked like up to them. This, alas, included middle-class women—when we still had a middle class. The fact that the so-called mainstream press reduced our valid struggles to sex, drugs, rock and roll, and bra burning (which, btw, never actually occurred) was their attempt to further disempower us. And they surely prevailed. The backlash has been bigger and more successful than any cultural revolution ever was.

We now awaken to see rampant GOP hatred of women, the retooling (so to speak) of the contraception wars, the celebration of Mad Men and the sad ’60s housewife, the disempowered Pan Am stewardess, the corseted Playboy Club Bunny (how cute was female slavery!), and S&M.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Shades of Grey is an American rewrite of L’Histoire d’O. Worse written, of course, never acknowledging its source, and pretty dull stuff except for the naughty bits. Compared with my first novel—which was about sex, identity, love, self-knowledge, looking back at the Holocaust, and the world’s unquenchable meanness—to name just a few things, Shades is for dummies.

But I digress. Hanna Rosin cannot even imagine the era of my youth, let alone give it is due. Yes, I know we all find it hard to imagine our parents’ eras. Thank the Goddess Mary McCarthy wrote The Group so I could understand the psychosexual habits of my mother’s generation—the class of ’33. Thank the nonexistent gods of Karl Marx that Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible so I could imagine the blacklist. Thank the Lares and Penates that Howard Fast wrote Spartacus for similar reasons. We are all Spartacus—still.

Hanna Rosin is a writer and mother who thinks she’s a feminist but who sadly doesn’t get it. My generation was not only maligned in book reviews and attacked in graduate school but we lived to see our adored and adorable daughters wonder why feminism had become a dirty word. Now they wonder less, I think.

As a young and even middle-aged writer, I used to attend pro-choice rallies with GOP women. No more. Will my daughter’s generation now believe that feminism, like democracy, has to be fought for over and over again? We cannot be complacent about birth control, abortion, the vote, or our daughters’ and granddaughters’ future. Just when things look rosiest for women, a new Rick Santorum will be waiting in the wings. And his wife recruited to put a new spin on his misogyny. Just when colleges graduate more women than men, and women are beginning to be paid a little more than a pittance, the press and publishers trot out female quislings to announce that the woman “problem” has been solved. Rubbish.

Women are not the richer sex. Women are not equal in society. We still have wombs and breasts and need health care different from men so we can still be manipulated. This is a struggle of a thousand years, two thousand years, five thousand years. And our worst enemies are those who say it isn’t. Men are not the problem. Sexism is. And some of the most effective sexists are women.

My generation was not only maligned in book reviews and attacked in graduate school but we lived to see our adored and adorable daughters wonder why feminism had become a
dirty word.

So Hanna Rosin, I mean you no harm. I believe that the new feminism is mentoring, and I will be happy to help you if you come calling. But please remember that feminism, like democracy, like fairness, like gourmet cooking and high fashion, is not the natural state of primates. We must assert them again and again—until all the apes are free, well fed, well dressed, and empowered.

It’s not love that does us in, nor is it men. It’s usually other women and their fantasy that some of us can have it all. Finishing the hat is never easy. And wearing it with flair is even harder. Some day we may get there. But that great-come-and-get-it day-is still shimmering in the mists of the gloaming. I have a dream we’ll get there eventually. But it’s a jinx to celebrate too soon.