The Anti-Feminist Mystique

The cardinal rule to leading a happy life is that you must never, under any circumstances, Google yourself.” Newly minted New Yorker staff writer Caitlin Flanagan-provocatrice, chronicler of contemporary domestic life, self-described anti-feminist-was speaking on the phone from her home in Los Angeles.

She was discussing what she has learned in the aftermath of her controversial March cover story in The Atlantic Monthly , “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement,” a sprawling, 12,000-word polemic in the guise of an observational essay. In her signature prose-biting and witty, full of a writerly flair hard to find in discussions of “women’s issues”-Ms. Flanagan argued that upper-middle-class women have achieved their goal of having both a career and a family more often than not by employing-or, she maintained, exploiting-other women lower on the class ladder: nannies, on whom they don’t always bestow the same benefits they demand for themselves, like Social Security and maternity leave.

Tapping into the turgid well of upper-middle-class women’s guilt, the piece drew “an extraordinary number of letters,” according to Julia Rothwax, a spokeswoman for The Atlantic . It set off a debate among women writers who still proudly wear the “feminist” mantle: Ellen Willis and Lynne Sharon Schwartz, among others, raged against Ms. Flanagan in The Atlantic ‘s letters column, while book groups, bloggers and dinner-party conversations from Scarsdale to Santa Monica have busily dissected in the piece.

But it’s the plum New Yorker gig that really riles Ms. Flanagan’s critics. “Why the hell did The New Yorker hire this person who’s utterly not serious and turn her loose on a serious social issue?” asked Ann Crittenden, a writer for The American Prospect and author of The Price of Motherhood . “It’s a really big issue bothering a lot of people.” Ms. Crittenden added, “She’s got a shtick: attacking other women. Catfight sells. Nasty, ad hominem, bitchy attacks on other women sell magazines. She’s made her name by this stuff.”

The vitriol kept coming, just as Ms. Flanagan was edging out the door of The Atlantic , on her way to The New Yorker . For his part, New Yorker editor David Remnick said he was excited to have Ms. Flanagan “joining in on the conversation” on family issues. “Caitlin’s got a very sharp mind and has that rare thing-real wit,” he said. Ms. Flanagan is at work on her first piece for The New Yorker , which is expected to run this summer.

Ms. Flanagan has only been publishing regularly for three years, ever since her friend Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic Monthly ‘s literary and national editor, signed her on as a book critic soon after he joined the magazine in 2000. “She did kind of come out of nowhere,” said Reagan Arthur, a senior editor at Little, Brown who last year bought the book Ms. Flanagan is currently working on, Housewife Heaven , a nonfiction treatment of the evolution of the housewife. The book is scheduled for publication in the fall of 2005. (Ms. Flanagan’s agent is Jennifer Rudolph Walsh at William Morris.)

Ms. Flanagan’s first feature-length piece for The Atlantic , called “The Wedding Merchants,” looked wryly at the decadence of American weddings. After that she quickly put herself on the map with more book-based essays on domestic issues that few mainstream cultural magazines tended to explore-the difference between a housewife and a stay-at-home mom, essays on the appeal of Dr. Laura and Martha Stewart. She caused something of a stir with her piece on sexless marriages among successful professionals (“The Wifely Duty,” January/February 2003), in which she expressed tempered nostalgia for a time when “A housewife understood that in addition to ironing her husband’s shirts and cooking the Sunday roast, she was-with some regularity-going to have relations with the man of the house.” She also gleefully poked fun at the New York professional elite: “During two strange days in New York last winter,” she wrote, “three married people–one after another–confessed to me either that they had stopped having sex or that they knew a married person who had stopped having sex. Like a sensible person, I booked an early flight home and chalked the whole thing up to the magic and mystery that is New York.”

Then came the nanny story. Two years in the works, it is her longest essay and by far her most problematic. In it, Ms. Flanagan confessed that not only did she stay home after her twin boys were born, but she also employed a nanny to help care for them, and someone else to do domestic chores-in fact, she confessed that she has never even changed a sheet since she got married. Then she wrapped it all up with a zinger: “When a mother works, something is lost.” And added, “If you want to make an upper-middle-class woman squeal in indignation, tell her she can’t have something. If she works, she can’t have as deep and connected a relationship with her child as she would if she stayed home and raised him.”

This did not go over well in many quarters. A common reaction was: Who is this privileged woman to suggest that because I go to work, which I have to do out of necessity, I am not connected to my children? And since when is hiring a nanny necessarily exploitation? Or, as one blogger wrote, “How to Make a Caitlin Flanagan / Take: / One jigger of [anti-gay activist] Anita Bryant / One jigger of [actress and children's advocate] Jane Russell / One jigger of [right-wing firebrand] Ann Coulter / A dash of pretentious language (for faux sophistication and New Yorker credentials) / One quart of self-entitlement, an expendable income / Mix. Serves establishment.”

Ms. Flanagan appears to be reeling still. “The nasty things they write!” she said in her breathy, high-pitched voice. “They really hate me! There’s something ridiculous about it,” Ms. Flanagan said of her critics. “I’ll be all alone in my house and I’m reading this, and it starts to take on the weight of the Pentagon Papers!”

Bedlinen Brouhaha

Yet there is something a little disingenuous in Ms. Flanagan professing to be taken aback by the vehemence of her critics. After all, she had attacked some of them in print, including Ms. Crittenden, whose The Price of Motherhood Ms. Flanagan called “the Big Kahuna” and the Das Kapital of books on working motherhood. Ms. Flanagan was equally dismissive of A Mother’s Place: Choosing Work and Family Without Guilt or Blame , by Susan Chira, who is now foreign editor of The New York Times , and Life’s Work: Confessions of an Unbalanced Mom , by New York Times Magazine writer Lisa Belkin.

In her letter published in the May issue of The Atlantic , the writer and feminist Lynne Sharon Schwartz called Ms. Flanagan’s essay “narrow-minded and self-serving.” “Anyone who admits to never having changed a sheet should not presume to expound on those who have changed thousands,” Ms. Schwartz wrote, suggesting that Ms. Flanagan’s husband might pitch in with the linens as well. The debate turned even weirder when, in response, Ms. Flanagan wrote with a kind of wicked glee, “As for my husband’s changing sheets-why in the world would I want him to do that? He is the head of the household, and I treat him as such. But I’m not a feminist, so there’s no surprise there.”

Perhaps this bluster was all part of the anti-feminist mystique Ms. Flanagan appears to be cultivating. “The line that a lot of people have latched onto is her line about never having made a bed,” said Mr. Schwarz, who is now The Atlantic ‘s literary and national editor. “What’s interesting about that is Caitlin, for better or worse, is kind of proud of that,” he said. “That a lot of people are repelled by that image almost makes her want to advance it more.”

“You can’t put her in a box,” said Ms. Arthur, the Little, Brown editor. “She’s not identifiable, she’s not a right-wing reactionary nut. I think people have pulled a lot of pull quotes out of her long, thoughtful essays and paint her with that brush.” One gets the sense that Ms. Flanagan rather enjoys the misconceptions about her. Added Mr. Schwarz, “She’s a smart enough writer that she knows she has to create a persona. She’s both revealing and not, and it’s a combination that sort of entices readers.” Mr. Schwarz said he came to know Ms. Flanagan’s writing when she and his wife, Ms. Flanagan’s close friend Christina Schwarz, were working on fiction. “I knew that she was a talented writer, but also clearly that fiction wasn’t best serving her talent,” he said.

A Wit and a Wag

On the phone, Ms. Flanagan is at once a wit, a wag, a delight, and an utterly maddening interlocutor. She sets definitions and then slides out of them. She stirs up emotions and then accuses her critics of using emotion, not reason, to refute her arguments. Consider that line about her husband being the “head of the household.” What does she mean by that term, exactly?

“How old are you?” was Ms. Flanagan’s response. “What do you think I mean?” To the suggestion that the term implies that the man of the house gets a free pass from doing domestic chores, she responds demurely, “I mean by it whatever anyone would think that I meant,” adding, “if my husband pops a button, I sew it back on.”

So she doesn’t wash the sheets, but she does sew buttons. Does she like to sew buttons? “I do like to sew buttons. I think it’s very rewarding that you can take a garment that’s shabby and unwearable and in this quick way you can really transform it,” she said. “It’s an easy little gift for me to give him.” Yet this is from the same woman who in her 2003 essay on Erma Bombeck wrote that “I have been married a total of fourteen years to a total of two men, and never once have I been asked to iron a single item of either man’s clothing or to replace even one popped button, for which I suppose I have the women’s movement to thank. But I realize now, late in the game, that we’d be much better off if I had a few of those skills.”

But to accuse Ms. Flanagan of inconsistency misses the point entirely. Who cares that Ms. Flanagan apparently found the redemptive power of button-sewing some time between 2002 and 2004? Ms. Flanagan clearly relishes pushing buttons as much as she does sewing them.

“I used to teach high school. Feminists are very much like adolescents, they get hysterical so often!” Ms. Flanagan said at one point, with a taunting lilt in her voice. “What you need to do as a teacher and a writer is to stay very calm, not get upset, look at core of the argument.” Yes, but aren’t her arguments as driven by emotion, too? “Give me an example of something that has emotion at the heart!” Ms. Flanagan cried. She disavows that her piece sends the message that women should stay home. “I’ve never, ever, ever said women should not work and [instead should] stay home,” Ms. Flanagan said. “The only thing I told women they should do-everybody springs off into this feeling thing because feelings and emotions are easy to talk about-is pay Social Security taxes on their domestic workers.”

But as Barbara Ehrenreich-whom Ms. Flanagan calls one of her heroes-wrote in an e-mail exchange with Ms. Flanagan and Sara Mosle in Slate in February, “If your 10,000 word piece was about how employers should pay their nannies’ Social Security taxes, then my reading skills are in serious decline.”

An Old-Fashioned Liberal

In fact, Ms. Flanagan (to her credit, some would say) seems to lack some of the central characteristics of punditry. For one thing, Ms. Flanagan certainly sees the gray areas. Indeed, further conversation with Ms. Flanagan seemed to temper her conclusion that a working mother “can’t have as deep and connected a relationship with her child.” “That’s debatable,” Ms. Flanagan said. And hiring a nanny? “I don’t think it’s necessarily exploitation,” she said. “I think it’s really honorable work.” What’s more, she added in a later conversation, “It’s a very good job. For immigrant women, the Central American women I know are rocketing up through the middle class like the Irish of the 19th century.”

Ms. Flanagan grew up in Berkeley in the 1960’s. Her mother, Jean Flanagan, was a housewife-Ms. Flanagan’s term-and her father, Thomas Flanagan, was a literature professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a critic who in mid-career also came out of nowhere and started writing celebrated historical novels about Ireland. The Year of the French , the first in what became a trilogy, won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction in 1979. Ms. Flanagan said she took her husband’s name, but decided to publish under her maiden name. “This was a tradition in our family, of being writers,” she said. “Because I write such strong pieces, it’s nice to have that privacy.” Her mother died in 2001 and her father in 2002, and one gets the sense that this double loss explains a lot of the raw passion for home that informs her writing. Speaking with The Observer , Ms. Flanagan recalled how her father used to wait out on the porch for her for hours when she drove home from college, and she told oneiric tales of eating apricots and taking naps with her mother in the long afternoons of her girlhood.

She called her parents “Berkeley radicals,” and said she basically agreed with them about most things. “Being a liberal is to stand for very good things,” she said. “Like working for Cesár Chávez,” whose boycotts her mother supported. “It didn’t used to be about ‘Gay people can get married because my friend is gay and he’s really cool!’ It wasn’t about ‘We really have to make sure you can be a mother and work without guilt!'” But don’t for a minute get the dangerous assumption from such envelope-pushing statements that Ms. Flanagan is opposed to gay marriage! In fact, she said was not: “The two things I hate most are feminism and homophobia.” She also said she supports legal abortion. Ms. Flanagan, it seems, is socially conservative in sensibility only. Not unlike David Brooks, she could also be called a liberal’s conservative, because her social conservatism is essentially about mocking liberal pieties, while still supporting many of the values that inform them.

Ms. Flanagan received a B.A. and M.A. in art history from the University of Virginia. In her 20’s she was married for five years to a man she met in college. “He is a very nice man and, as they say, we parted amicably,” she said. “We did not have children together, so we are no longer in touch.” Ms. Flanagan moved to L.A. in the late 80’s and taught English at the prestigious Harvard School (now Harvard–Westlake).

The headmaster of the school set Ms. Flanagan up on a blind date with the man she ultimately married in 1994. While she’s revealed in print that he went to Princeton, she declined to disclose his last name or the name of his company-saying first that he works “for a Fortune 500 company,” then confirming that he works “in the entertainment industry” as a producer, of children’s film and television.

Although Catholic, Ms. Flanagan said she’s raising her twin 6-year-old boys Presbyterian, her husband’s religion. “I still go to Catholic Church quite often in the week, and on Sundays we all go to the Presbyterian church,” she said. “It’s all one God.” Although her kids are now in school, Ms. Flanagan said she employed a nanny for “longer than I had anticipated, because we had serious illness in the family.” She declined to go into detail, but one gets the sense that her own domestic situation is perhaps far more complicated than she’s letting on her blithe prose.

Ultimately, Ms. Flanagan’s headlong hurtling into skirmishes with the feminist establishment and her contrarian delight in upsetting the mores of the East Coast media elite obscures what’s really at the core of her work: a longing for a kind of simplicity. Ms. Flanagan says her models are Pauline Kael and Joan Didion, both Californians who’ve written for The New Yorker , and she shares with them a particularly Western sensibility. Ms. Flanagan’s frontier is one in which sophisticated women living lives full of complexity and contradiction on some level long for the clarity of a world that, as Ms. Didion once wrote, “may or may not have existed ever but in any case existed no more.”