This Round to Katie Roiphe

by Conor Friedersdorf

As I read Katie Roiphe's elegant essay "My Newborn Is Like a Narcotic," I thought back to my days in her classes at New York University, where I found her to be among the best professors on an exceptionally talented faculty. One course she taught focused on social commentary. The reading material included op-ed columnists, essayists and polemicists -- it may be the only graduate seminar in America whose course packet included Ann Coulter and Maureen Dowd (the bulk of my time in Prof. Roiphe's classes were spent reading authors like Rebecca West, Joan Didion and Mary McCarthy).

Professor Roiphe encouraged me to learn how polemic can improve a piece of writing. Just as a mother who otherwise refrains from spanking her toddler might do so for shock value to imprint the particular lesson that one doesn't run out into the street, Katie believed that even the most fair-minded writer must sometimes twist the rhetorical knife so that the distracted average reader, skimming along in multitasking mode, is jolted into actually engaging the argument at hand.

Though Prof. Roiphe's style isn't my own, I think it suits her wonderfully, admire most of her writing, and consider myself a more formidable writer for learning how to incorporate flashes of her style into my own work. I've also noted that she's used polemic more sparingly as her own career has progressed. In fact, I'd argue that she's long since tuned her arguments pitch perfect.

In her Double X piece, which begins with an extended reflection on the narcotic quality of being a newborn's mother and caring for her six week old son, I see writing almost devoid of that impulse, save a single mild paragraph:

One of the minor dishonesties of the feminist movement has been to underestimate the passion of this time, to try for a rational, politically expedient assessment. Historically, feminists have emphasized the difficulty, the drudgery of new motherhood. They have tried to analogize childcare to the work of men; and so for a long time, women have called motherhood a "vocation." The act of caring for a baby is demanding, and arduous, of course, but it is wilder and more narcotic than any kind of work I have ever done.

Alison Gopnik points out the factual truths in this paragraph. Being a piece that ran in the Slate family of publications -- a family that is IMHO among the best on the Web -- the piece carries a maximally provocative subhead, "Why won't feminists admit the pleasure of infants?"

So it passes that Prof. Roiphe's piece provokes a flurry of attacks that are oddly disconnected from the substance of what she actually wrote, an especially confusing spectacle to witness from critics who are normally careful professional writers and cultural observers who are well aware that Web publications take liberties with subheads, and that authors shouldn't generally be held responsible for them if one wants to argue about their actual, precisely chosen words. (This goes double for Freddie at the League of Ordinary Gentleman, a Roiphe critic who counts misleading Slate headlines as an actual personal pet peeve!)

Take uber-talented Mother Jones Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery, who called the piece "stupid as hell" on Twitter, and followed up by noting, "Nobody upset that KR claims magical bond, chemical or otherwise w/ her baby. Just bullshit claim that feminists can't feel same -- or that childless feminists resent/object to other womens' bonds with their progeny." But nowhere is the claim made that feminists "can't feel" or don't feel a bond with their babies!

Nor is the claim made that "childless feminists resent other women's bonds" -- in fact, childless feminists aren't even mentioned in the piece, except maybe in the following paragraph:

I remember visiting one of my closest friends on her maternity leave last summer. We sat on a wooden bench in her garden and drank iced coffees, and gazed at her second baby. She is a writer, and we talked about how the women writers we most admired had no children, or have had one child, at the absolute most, but never two. (Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen had no children; Mary McCarthy, Rebecca West, Joan Didion, and Janet Malcolm all had one.) My friend looked down at her newborn and her tiny eyelashes. She could entertain this conversation in an academic way, but as she adjusted the baby’s hat I could see how far removed it was from anything that mattered to her. Here, sitting in the garden, looking at the eyelashes, would you trade the baby for the possibility of writing The House of Mirth? You would not.

In other words, the aspects of the piece that supposedly upset Ms. Jeffrey aren't actually parts of Prof. Roiphe's piece!

In another widely cited criticism of the piece, Kate Harding one of Kate Harding's co-bloggers, who goes by the pseudonym "Sweet Machine," writes:

Who are all these feminists who hate infants and want to take away Roiphe’s ability to experience “The high of a love that obliterates everything. A need so consuming that it is threatening to everything you are and care about”? 

But nowhere does Prof. Roiphe argue that feminists hate infants -- she says that the feminist movement has produced literature that underestimates and misrepresents the passionate bond between newborn mothers and their children. The same post goes on to say, as if to paraphrase Professor Roiphe, "look, it’s not only Betty Friedan and her lying friends who hate babies: it’s also every great woman writer of the past 250 years." I again refer the reader to the excerpt above about Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm and others. Should the fair-minded personal really conclude from it that Katie Roiphe thinks all those women "hate babies"? On the contrary.

Prof. Roiphe is an exceptional writing talent, and her academic endeavors are largely concerned with advancing the understanding, appreciation and influence of exceptional women writers. You'd think that would make her a friend to feminists, but apparently offering the slightest critique of movement feminism is enough to provoke intemperate, factually inaccurate attacks that either willfully or negligently misrepresent the substance of the piece at issue. I can't help but be reminded of the way that certain folks on the right react anytime that movement conservatism is criticized. Let me assure the feminist left that they proceed in the same manner at their peril.