Monday, June 4, 2012
Thank You, Betty Friedan
Once upon a time ago my friend Sara sent me an email that went something like this:
So I checked out the first season of Mad Men from the library and watched it last week. All I have to say about that is, "Thank you, Betty Friedan!"
That is precisely how I feel about the first-ever Pulitzer winner for fiction, His Family, by Ernest Poole.
Roger Gale is a crotchety widow living in New York City in 1914. He has three adult daughters who give him trouble in varying degrees. The First World War has not yet started, women do not yet have the right to vote, and at one point he and his son-in-law are driving in a car, "and Roger, with his heart in his mouth and his eye upon the speedometer, saw it creep to sixty-three." Way to live on the edge, gentlemen!
Poor people - especially poor women and their propensity to breed - make Roger uncomfortable. His youngest daughter - especially her lip-rouge and wonky ideas about getting married but not having children - also make him uncomfortable. In fact, women in general seem to make him uncomfortable, throughout the book he is most at ease when conversing with men. For the majority of the book I felt like Roger was a spineless, narrow-minded old man. Every time it became apparent that he needed to have a Serious Discussion with one of his daughters, he put it off and put it off and put it off, almost as if he were afraid of them. They are "meddlesome women" after all, always up to no good! Only at the end of the book, armed with some life-changing knowledge, is he finally able to pluck up the courage to have timely, serious, and honest discussions with his daughters. Or, as I said to my cats after reading his big speech, "He finally grew a pair!"
The interesting thing about the trio of daughters is that they provide a spectrum of feminism for the reader to ponder and judge. Edith is the eldest. Married early to likeable Bruce, she became a regular baby factory and yet she is roundly criticized on all sides for disappearing too much into her family. Her role as mother to her five children defines her completely, and trumps every other element of her life, including her relationship with her husband, her father, and her sisters. She did what was expected of a woman at the time, but she didn't do it correctly.
The youngest daughter, Laura, is basically the 1914 version of Paris Hilton. Spoiled, vapid, and generally rage-inspiring, she opts to marry a flashy young man in an extravagant "marriage experiment" which comes to a predictable and properly scandalous conclusion. (Sex! Sex, I say!) Both Edith and Laura are selfish. Edith wants all she can get for her small brood, and Laura wants all she can get for herself - the worse of the two kinds of selfishness. Here's Laura, also getting married, but partly because she makes light of the commitment that marriage truly is, partly because it's obvious that she's in it for the sex, and mostly because she refuses to have children (talk about the ULTIMATE selfish maneuver, bucking the biological imperative of reproduction so blatantly!), she is also doing things incorrectly.
And then there's Deborah. In the middle, she is the source of reason and stability, not only for her own family, but also for the poor families whose lives she helps through the work of her public schools. I admit that I was surprised to find a heroine like her in a novel from 1918. She is smart, logical, compassionate, fiercely independent and exceptionally hardworking. But I suppose someone had to have redeeming qualities, otherwise why would anyone ever read this book?
One of her primary struggles is not unlike the struggles that women have today: to marry or not to marry? To have children or not to have children? And if the answer to both questions is yes, how do those yeses affect the noble career to which she has dedicated her life? Ultimately Deborah also gets married, but it's a little ridiculous how long it takes a woman of her intelligence and emotional capacity to recognize that her suitor is a prince among men and that she should marry him immediately and get down to the business of living happily ever after. Her vacillation and wishy-washiness is so exasperating that for most of the book it feels like she is also doing things incorrectly. Until the end of course, when she makes the right decision at (very) long last and we all breathe a sigh of relief.
Both Edith and Laura are punished for their brands of selfishness, but Deborah is punished for being too selfless. Although she seems to come out the best in the end, I closed the book thinking, "Women. We just cannot do *anything* right! Must be our small brains, delicate sensibilities, and vaginas getting in the way. Sheesh."
Other items hinted at in this book that are subtle and surprising: capitol punishment, eugenics, solar power, and euthanasia - which apparently was no biggie back then, and has since become a majorly BFD.
All told, this was a good book. Being totally unfamiliar with the other popular books published in 1917 I can't say whether it was the best choice for the Pulitzer, but it stands the test of time as a good read.
Up next: The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington, one of only three authors to win the award twice. We'll see if he's worth the hype.