Interviews May 2006

A Woman's Place?

Caitlin Flanagan, America's feistiest stay-at-home mom, shares her thoughts on gerbils, gay marriage, and Robert Graves

I’ve heard that your book’s subtitle was originally going to be “How Feminism Shortchanged a Generation.” Why didn’t you end up going with that? Did it get vetoed because it was too politically incorrect?

We did think about that subtitle. It wasn’t the sales notion that steered me away from it. It was the fact that a subtitle like that suggested the book was polemical, a tract. The press would love it to be a tract. But anyone who actually reads the book says, “Oh, that’s not what it is at all.” It’s intensely personal, it’s at times memoiristic, at times sharp-witted. But it’s not a book that offers any definitive answers or any definitive signposts to anybody else. So I decided I wanted to have a much softer subtitle.

The subtitle you went with instead—“Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife”—has a very different ring to it. It brings in the idea of ambiguity.

When I first came to The Atlantic, Ben [Schwarz, the Atlantic book editor] and I were both fascinated by Martha Stewart. The notion that someone could make housekeeping glamorous intrigued us. That it could be sentimentalized was clear—Capra had done that years before. But that it could be made glamorous, that cleaning and ironing and looking after chickens—the chores that once defined the middle class or working class female experience—could be set into the context of a society woman’s daily round, that was astonishing to us. I was also a great admirer of her style—although I don’t think Ben likes her taste, her aesthetic, as much as I do. We knew not only that we wanted to write about her specifically, but that we also wanted to address in the magazine the intensely held feelings so many professional class American women have about housekeeping. The way some women love Martha Stewart so much, and the way others hate her in this weird, deeply personal way. And that is where the notion of loving and loathing the inner housewife came into being.

On a side note, one of the reasons that Ben, [his wife,] Tina, and I dawdled so much in our late twenties is that we spent a huge amount of time flopping around in their living room, drinking cups of coffee and talking about Martha Stewart and the Donner party. Evening would close in, and Ben and I would wheedle Tina into cooking, and we would have cocktails—there was a Campari and soda phase, we were young—and we would continue our analysis. Eventually, Tina—the one we had intentionally slowed down by making her cook—got together enough pluck and postage to send off her novel and became, overnight, a celebrated novelist. Ben was then forced, as a point of pride, to take one of the jobs he was always being offered. They moved back east, which left me on a couch in Los Angeles, doing a monologue about Martha Stewart and waiting for a cocktail that never arrived. Eventually Ben called me from his new office in Boston and told me to start typing.

You mentioned the great literary classics earlier. I’ve always been intrigued by your choice of book reviews. You tend to write about books like Martha Stewart Weddings or White House Nanny or The Settlement Cook Book—books that ordinarily wouldn’t be classified as literature. Considering that you’re a former high school English teacher, how does that kind of literary analysis compare with writing about James Joyce or Balzac?

Every serious bit of writing I’ve ever done—since my college days—has centered on the daily lives of women. So I tend to read a lot of cookbooks and etiquette guides and yearbooks and journals and Junior League newsletters. Private life, domestic life, household life—that’s what I love. Give me a quiet morning and a copy of a 1957 Junior League newsletter, and I’m in heaven.

That reminds me of a quote of yours that I read in an L.A. Times article. You pointed out that if you’d written a novel, as you once planned to do, people would be in a position to say, “I like this book,” or, “I don’t like this book.” But because you’ve written about yourself, people feel they’re in a position to say, “I don’t like her.”

Many of the criticisms have come in the form of ad hominem attacks, and that is to be expected. If I wrote a book about France, the reviewer’s job would be to write about my thoughts on France. What’s interesting to me is how much of the reviewers’ own lives they feel compelled to share in their essays, and how much unhappiness they report. In a review that appeared in an entertainment magazine a female reviewer suddenly blurted out that she had been forced, for the sake of her career, to put her children in day care and then to claw out at me for the choices I have made. It was a bizarre revelation, but it spoke to how personally she took the book, how much she needed not just to review it, but to engage with me about her own life.

I know the editor of that particular book review—a very nice man. He is someone who has created a fine books section in an unlikely place, and he obviously should have told his reviewer, “You can trash this book to the end of the universe, but discussing your childcare arrangements in a very short review is unprofessional and weakens your attack.” But he didn’t. Why not? For the same reason that the book only gets assigned to female reviewers. Men don’t want to get in the middle of these catfights, and who can blame them?

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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