“An angry man opens his mouth and shuts his eyes.”
Cato the Elder
Right up front, in the very first line of her introduction to A Bitch in the House, editor Cathi Hanauer states: “This book was born out of anger . . .”
That should have been warning enough. But I didn’t heed it, and now I’m sitting here, with the clock ticking down to my editorial deadline, trying to find a way to say that I really don’t like this book without sounding like a — well — umm, you know — bitch.
I’m also trying to find a way to say I don’t like this book without committing the mortal sin of being politically incorrect, naysaying Third Wave feminism, and giving readers the erroneous impression that I’m really a Phyllis Schlafly clone.
Don’t get me wrong. The Bitch in the House is not a bad book. Its writers are well educated, intelligent, competent, and eloquent (although their verbal communications skills must be a little lacking, based on the state of the interpersonal relationships they describe.) The volume is well edited and handsomely packaged. The twenty-six accounts offered (twenty-seven, counting Cathi Hanauer’s own in the introduction) all ring true. One can see one’s own experiences, and certainly those of one’s friends, reflected in various pieces.
So what’s not to like, you ask?
The arresting image on the book cover answers that question. It’s a lipsticked mouth that’s twisted in a snarl — or maybe a sneer. Is this what we — not just women, but humankind in general — really want to be like?
For decades, women have complained that men, for the most part, are impossible to get along with, selfish, insensitive to others’ needs, disinterested in family, too preoccupied with work and their own recreations to be pleasant company or an equal partner, excessively critical and demanding, unreasonable, prone to moodiness and fits of rage and antisocial behavior that pollute the home environment, and entirely self-absolving of any personal responsibility for all of the above breaches of civilized conduct.
As a woman who was born in the heyday of Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir, and Betty Friedan, and who grew up with Gloria Steinem as a guru, it troubles me to think that the ultimate effect of the feminist movement has been to ‘liberate’ women to be just as awful as the men they continue to complain about. Regrettably, the majority of the voices in this book come across as every bit as self-absorbed, self-justifying and intransigent as their unenlightened male counterparts.
Hanauer, in her introduction, states that this “is not an angry book.” On the contrary, there is a powerful reactivity in this book that makes the pages bristle with an ire that seems to have little cause or justification. Let’s be honest, sisters. Our fathers didn’t pre-arrange our marriages, nobody forced us to move in with boorish clods we’d just met, we attended the college of our choice, we picked our careers, we made our own decisions, and thanks to Roe v. Wade, no one compelled us to have a baby we didn’t want. Male patriarchal society has not kept us barefoot, pregnant and ignorant.
So why are the upwardly mobile, well-educated, successful, white collar professional women in this book so damn mad?
That’s the question the book raises and the essays generally fail to address on anything but a superficial, blame-game level. Abraham Lincoln remarked, “People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Too many of these women appear to be opting for a semi-permanent state of disgruntlement and self-absorption. With an impressive legacy of feminist literature, philosophy and cultural influences, it is a sad assessment that Third Wave feminists still have to discover for themselves that they don’t need a man to validate them and fantasies about the perfect relationship are just that — fantasies out of a pre-women’s movement era that combined half-baked romanticism with the necessity of finding a male for adequate financial support. At any rate, little progress seems to have been made, generation to generation, in terms of either attitudes or actualities. Equal pay is still not a reality for all too many, but equal infirmity is — women are now keeling over in record numbers from the classic stress disorders that claimed men in the past, namely heart attacks and strokes.
It is a sense of deep-seated political appropriateness (rather than correctness), which was forged in the social revolutions of the 60s and 70s, that caused this reviewer to ultimately dislike A Bitch in the House. In a world where an estimated 5% of the population possesses 95% of the wealth, it is frankly annoying to listen to the complaints of the privileged. It would appear that the grim media images from the Third World, the American inner cities, and the countries run by dictators and extremist religious sects have not made much of an impact on us. In light of the dire plight of countless women in other parts of the world — who are denied human and civil rights, forced to undergo genital mutilation, and executed at the whim of their males — as well as the ongoing unmitigated miseries of the poor both in this country and elsewhere, whining about upper middle class life in 21st century America seems at the very least trivial and self-indulgent, if not fatuous. Moreover, it reflects a shocking lack of appreciation of the advantages that others in the past struggled to make commonplace in our modern society.
The Bitch in the House mostly charts old territory covered ad nauseam over the course of the last three decades. Like too many feminist books, it makes little attempt to examine the experiences of anyone other than yuppie females, a curiously exclusionary phenomenon. It is obvious that even when one ostensibly has everything, it’s all too easy to suffer from a bad case of the ‘if onlies’ — ‘if only I had this or , if only something were different in the mix, then I’d be happy.’ With the world in the condition it is, these women give new meaning to the word solipsistic.
There are a handful of essays that offer a different slant and propose the idea that happiness emanates from the inside out, not the reverse, such as Natalie Kusz’s excellent “The Fat Lady Sings,” but the rest are predictable and ho-hum, back to timeworn gripes about bad boyfriends, money, sex, kids, marital misunderstandings, and the distribution of household and child-raising chores between partners. It really doesn’t appear to be the male of species so much at fault here as the intrinsic imperfections of life itself and the human tendency to cling to unrealistic expectations.
The bottom line is: at this moment in history, a somber one, to say the least, when there are so many serious global and national issues and egregious injustices to be addressed, does the American woman really want to be bitching (yes, bitching) about who does the dishes — and being proud of it, to boot? It is this reviewer’s sincerest hope that the answer will be no.