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To Hell with Caitlin Flanagan

To Hell with All ThatRegular readers will, perhaps, recall that I have praised New Yorker and Atlantic contributor Caitlin Flanagan in the past. I don’t know if I’ll be doing that anymore. I think it might be time for us to see other people—actually, judging from some of the blurbs her new book, To Hell with All That, has collected, it appears that she’s already been stepping out on me with the likes of Susanna Hoff Sommers and P.J. O’Rourke. (What, Maureen Dowd didn’t get her advance copy? Or is the elite media only big enough for one redheaded, Irish-American essayist who enjoys ragging feminists while reaping the benefits of feminism?)

What, you may ask, has brought about this change of heart? Well, first there was the absolutely devastating profile in Elle. In this piece by Laurie Abraham, Flanagan comes off as a loopily hypocritical woman who is unaware of—or unwilling to consider—the ways in which her own considerable privilege puts her in a rather precarious position when it comes to judging the lives and choices of others. Consider this, for example:

After a while, thankfully, the conversation turns from dead rodents to hot food. We’ve gotten here because though Flanagan moons over the domestic arts in her writing, she also jauntily reports that in her married life, she has never so much as changed a sheet or been asked to sew on a button, nor could she tell you the price of a single item in her refrigerator. (She also tells me that she's not a “big doer of laundry.”) I ask her why she glorifies housewifery when she shuns its tasks. “For the ’50s housewife, the standards in a sense were a lot lower. You know she’s putting the roast into the oven or whatever,” she offers. “Modern standards of housekeeping are deplorably low—when you go into these houses, they do not eat hot food.” Her voice drops, as if she's telling a devastating secret. “They do not eat hot food!” she repeats in staccato. “Things are getting nuked. They’re eating subpar, rotten food, but then you go to a dinner party at their house and you think Paul Bocuse has been there.” She sounds genuinely disgusted.
For the next few minutes, Flanagan expounds on home-cooked meals, saying how much she missed them when she was sharing an apartment just out of college, working some “dopey job” in Washington, DC. “I felt so lonely, and so sad, and so unwelcome, and I just think it's really great when, if someone’s out all day and working, and working, and working—and some days he might be late,” she adds, the “he” being her husband, Rob, whose last name Flanagan does not like to reveal but who, as has been written elsewhere, is a Mattel executive who produced Barbie in the Nutcracker and Barbie of Swan Lake. “I always have his dinner out. It’s not fancy. But someone had a hot meal waiting for him. Someone loved him. Someone thought he was out all day dealing with business. It’s like you come through that door, Yeah, a hot meal,” she says dreamily.

Elsewhere, Flanagan is pretty clear about the fact that she’s not much for cooking. So we are left to wonder just what “I always have his dinner out” means. Does it mean that she always makes sure that the cook or housekeeper or whoever actually prepares the meal has, indeed, done her job? Or maybe the housekeeper puts the food in the oven and Flanagan does, truly, take it out? I’m not just troubled by the suspicion that Flanagan doesn’t quite practice what she preaches. I am troubled by the zeal with which she judges women who are, perhaps, less dedicated to providing hot meals for their husbands—particularly when few women can count on paid help when they’re deciding how to put food on the table.

Abraham breaks it down:

Flanagan bemoans the extravaganzas that have become children’s birthday parties but still throws lavish hoo-has for her boys; she opines that there isn’t “a nanny in the world who has not received a measure of love that a child would rather have bestowed on his mother,” then hires one herself; she pokes fun at “professional-class” women’s anticlutter fetish, then hires a personal organizer for weekly visits. I don’t begrudge Flanagan her luxuries, but she’s so oppressed by them. It’s ironic, because there is nothing that honks off Flanagan more than privileged women who play the victim—that is, privileged women who whine about balancing work and family life. “If you want to make an upper-middle-class woman squeal in indignation, tell her she can’t have something,” Flanagan writes.
“You seem to ridicule women who are struggling to balance work and family,” I tell her, kicking off one of what would be many circular exchanges with her.
“No, that’s a profoundly important issue on a personal level.”
“But you just told me the personal is political,” I say. (Explaining how feminism was once noble but had outlived its usefulness, Flanagan’s exact words were: “The feminist movement had this notion that the personal is political. I thought that was a brilliant formulation.”)
“I just think if someone's making a six-figure salary, I just don’t care about them anymore,” Flanagan concludes—which is pretty funny, considering that the six-figure gals have to be her most natural demographic—or maybe it’s the gals with six-figure husbands. They're the ones who don’t have jobs (Flanagan likes to say she doesn’t have a “real job”) but do have full-time nannies.
Then again, isn’t Flanagan really a working mother, as that term is commonly understood? When I try to get her to acknowledge her uncanny resemblance to one, you'd think I was trying to get her to admit that she's a stripper.
“Aren’t you a working mother?” I ask.
“All mothers are working mothers,” Flanagan replies.
“Working mother outside the home, I mean.”
“No, I’m never outside the home when I work,” she replies. (Geez, I fell right into that one.)
“But you do have an office in the house? You’re not typing in the kitchen, right?”
“When the boys were really little I did. I sat at the kitchen table. I sat right there and worked.” And so on.
I ask her whether she still has regular child care. “I don't want to get into the specifics of that,” she says, “because it’s so personal, but I would say there’s a lot more cleaning help at this point. I have help with the kids sometimes, babysitting.”

The rest of the article is pretty much more of the same. This really was rather devastating for me to read. It was like discovering that one of my friends gives money to the NRA, hassles women in front of abortion clinics, and voted for Bush—twice. (Note to friends: If any part of this description does, in fact, fit you, please: just don’t tell me.)

Joan Walsh’s review of To Hell with All That for Salon is less shocking, perhaps, but no more flattering. Walsh is particularly disturbed by Flanagan’s description of her struggle with cancer, and with her use of this illness to denounce feminism and extol the virtues of “traditional” marriage:

A short paragraph explaining that her husband took care of the boys and carried her to the doctor when she was sick is interrupted with what feels like a non sequitur. “If that’s a traditional marriage, I'll take it.” She explains her reasoning thusly:
“If a marriage is like a bank account, filled not only with affection but also with a commitment to the other person’s well-being as much as to one's own, I suppose my balance was high. I suppose that all the days I had made a home for my husband, and all the times I had ended my writing days early so that he could work late or come home to a hot dinner and not to a scene of domestic chaos—all of that, as much as the desire and intensity that originally brought us together, were stores in my account.”

What conclusions are we supposed to draw from this? That a woman who doesn’t devote herself to “making a home” for her husband shouldn’t expect his care and support? That self-sacrifice is a kind of emotional insurance policy? That love is an entirely quid pro quo affair? If that’s a traditional marriage, I don’t want it.

This is all quite appalling, but it’s also somewhat dubious, coming from a woman who has had domestic help consistently at least since the birth of her children. Unless Flanagan is employing some sort of feudal logic—whereby, as lady of the manor, she takes both responsibility and credit for overseeing the servants—her husband should be in emotional debt not to her, but to the nannies and babysitters and housekeepers who have done much of the actual labor involved in producing hot dinners and quelling domestic chaos. At this point, it becomes impossible to read an essay like “How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement” as anything other than a tortured, disingenuous exercise in self-analysis.

Walsh suggests that Flanagan is confused, and she admits to being confused about herself. Certainly, confusion is what fuels the so-called “Mommy Wars”—confused logic, confused emotions, confused judgment, and confused guilt. Walsh also writes that Second Wave feminism was born, at least in part, by the fact that staying at home felt bad for a lot of women, and the current conflict about the proper role of women is the result, at least in part, of the fact that leaving home feels bad for a lot of women. So, what we have is women attempting to create social policy out of their own unique experiences. What we have is a burgeoning population of essayists, each of whom is—more often than not—trying to tell other women that they should be doing what she’s doing.

A lot of women have little choice in what they are doing. A lot of women aren’t able to give up the corner office to stay at home with the kids because a.) they do not have, nor have they ever had, the corner office, and b.) if they stay at home with the kids no one will be bringing home the paycheck required to clothe, feed, and house the kids. Even if we set this aside, even if we restrict ourselves to worrying about women with Ivy League degrees and six-figure salaries, I think we have enough evidence at this point to question the value of social policy by anecdote. The percentage of the female population who are in a position to learn much of anything from Flanagan’s example is so small as to be meaningless if not for the fact that this same population has considerable media access and a will to use it.

If like-minded women want to club together to congratulate themselves on their feminine virtues and motherly righteousness, well, it’s a free country. And I can’t imagine that these women are going to stop committing their self-satisfaction to paper anytime soon. What I am sure about, though, is that I’m about done reading.

ON A RELATED NOTE Over at my other blog—the one about being babies and such—I have a few things to say about Sandra Tsing Loh’s Atlantic Monthly review of Mommy Wars.

April 17, 2006 | Permalink

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