The Bitch in the House and womanly advice.

The Bitch in the House and womanly advice.

The Bitch in the House and womanly advice.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 29 2004 6:01 PM

Girl Talk

Why I'm tired of the cautionary advice of books like The Bitch in the House.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Forty years after The Feminine Mystique, professional women are flourishing; from Carly Fiorina to Sallie Krawcheck, they have even begun to make their mark on the upper echelons of all-male boardrooms. But when it comes to being a working wife and/or mother, well, that's another matter. "Every woman I know is mad at her husband, just mad mad mad at everything," a friend informs Cathi Hanauer, the editor of the best-selling anthology The Bitch in the House (subtitled 26 Women Tell the Truth About Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood, and Marriage), now out in paperback. After enjoying "an autonomous decade in my twenties indulging in all the things I had come to value," Hanauer reports that life dealt her a rude blow, in the form of domesticity. She has plenty of company: "Why … hadn't I been warned of this—the loss of identity, the potential claustrophobia, the feeling of being utterly trapped?" another essayist wonders after her marriage fails.

Certainly no woman in her late 20s these days can complain she wasn't warned. Instead, we—I'm 28—can complain that we've by now overdosed on cautionary tales about the travails that lie ahead. On the one hand, conservative commentators like Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead gloomily predict that all the "good men" will be gone by the time we're 30 and counsel that our eggs will be past their prime when we reach 35. (Better get cracking on that ring.) On the other hand, liberal-minded writers like Allison Pearson (author of I Don't Know How She Does It) and Hanauer's "bitches" encourage us to go ahead and make unconventional choices—but when push finally comes to shove, we better beware that living with a man is "claustrophobic," that marriage involves tedious negotiation, that children will impinge on our careers and sex lives, and that co-parenting is a wishful "myth." Just in case anybody failed to get the disillusioning message, Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels recently weighed in with The Mommy Myth, loudly protesting "the myth—shamelessly hawked by the media—that motherhood is eternally fulfilling and rewarding." Fretting over tabloid headlines ("Uma Thurman Gushes 'Motherhood is Sexy' "), they've somehow missed that "fulfilling" and "rewarding" are exactly what working motherhood doesn't seem, by most accounts, these days.

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I'm not bridling at these admonitions because they make me feel pressured to retreat to the old housewife role. We're not suffering, it seems to me, from the mood Susan Faludi diagnosed roughly a decade ago in Backlash, when she argued thatthe media were promoting a get-back-to-the-house mentality. In a sense, even recent articles about professional woman ditching work to raise kids sell a different, more defiant "I'm going to do whatever I want because I can" message. Women do do it all, Hanauer and her cohorts are saying, but it takes a toll that it doesn't take on men. In some cases, that's simply because men fail to pull their full weight around the house. (The blundering guys do try, but they muck it up time and again—forgetting to add coffee filters to the grocery list, giving the children a bath only when reminded to.) In other cases, the cause is more amorphous—something to do with the fact that a man doesn't wrestle the way a woman does with "His Identity as a Parent," as Kristin van Ogtrop puts it.

Is there any useful guidance to be found in this new wave of female anger? The "bitches" lament that the buoyant idealism of their youthful feminism has left them stranded. (Of course the anthology is more varied than I can convey—I'm just diagnosing a dominant theme.) But just what does their seething disenchantment have to offer—aside from a chance to vent with each other? "We women need to share our lives and dilemmas and frustrations … even if it means being called difficult or demanding or bitchy," Hanauer writes in a new afterword to the paperback.

The Bitch in the House doesn't pretend to supply solutions, only "consolation." There's "no advice at all," as Karen Karbo intelligently notes at the end of her essay. Yet the cumulative complaints—most of which concern vestigial social pressures to get married and be perfect mothers—betray a kind of self-perpetuating martyrdom ethos at work. The model of angelic wifeliness embodied by, say, India Bridge in Mrs. Bridge and Edna Pontellier in The Awakening has been replaced by the flaws-and-all model exemplified by Kate Reddy in Allison Pearson's novel. What hasn't changed is the heroic light in which we're supposed to view female feats, whether of fervent devotion or frantic multitasking; implicit in the subversive "bitch" label is a touch of self-congratulation. A mother may snap at her children, but she still has the moral high ground: someone (her husband or society) has failed her. Playing the self-sacrificing, micromanaging martyr is easier—and nobler—than being merely overworked and tired.

In fact, the assembled essayists are onto something interesting about female anger, but The Bitch in the House never quite pinpoints it, in part because the mission of such a collection is to air intimate, immediate grievances. What the contributors are circling around has to do with collaboration and choice. Compromise, a building block of contemporary marriage, is difficult for everyone. But it means something different to women than to men. One of the youngest "bitches" hints as much when she realizes she intentionally makes it hard for her boyfriend to do his share of the housework: "The answer, sadly, surprisingly, self-defeatingly, is that I want to be angry. Or at least, I choose to be angry … over the exhaustion of trying to change things, to figure it all out."

After a lifetime of hard-won autonomy, the everyday negotiations a woman encounters in a relationship are psychologically fraught in ways that they aren't for men—not because we're hardwired to care more about domestic niceties, as some of these essays imply, but because women feel caught in a double bind that men (much as they may lament a lost bachelorhood) seem to be spared. Even as women forge ahead in careers, they find themselves warding off the old roles when it comes to relationships, haunted by their mothers' example whatever they do. Women, newer to the act of juggling work and home, are quick to assume their freedoms are being eroded by the encroachment of familial responsibility. But as men become more involved fathers than ever before, Hanauer points out in her introduction, they have the luxury of feeling they're doing better than their dads did. It's a self-image that can encourage smugness, of course—but ideally, it can help cut down on the defensiveness that so often turns the many practical dilemmas of cohabitation into polarizing gender dramas.

Those dramas are great for building sisterly solidarity, and the frankness of these writers can be invigorating. Yet between the lines, I sometimes got the sense that they, too, wondered just how much "consolation" the "we women"-style commiserating provides us in the end. So it was heartening to discover the confession of one "bitch," Cynthia Kling, that she, for one, was fed up. "Women complain that men boss them around and tell them what to do, but what about all that female coercion? The oppressive solidarity of the smart-girl set?" Refreshingly, Kling tries something few of the women in this book do: She starts reading books about women from another era, setting imaginative ideals for herself. As for her female cohort, she tells us, "The first intelligent thing I did was to stop listening to them." 

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate’s culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at the New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother’s death, is now out in paperback.