FEATURES | winter 2004
Back to the Kitchen,
Benjamin Schwarz, an editor at The Atlantic, asked the stay-at-home mother of two to try her hand at writing for the magazine’s reviews section. His wife was in a writing group with Flanagan — the two had become close friends — and, having heard her hold forth on motherhood, homemaking and the like at various dinner parties, Schwarz knew that he wanted to publish her.
Flanagan quickly made her name in The Atlantic as a contrarian critic of modern domestic life. In a handful of essays, she sniped at various facets of middle-class adult culture (the wedding industry and sexless marriages) and lauded others (Martha Stewart and Dr. Laura).
Her style evolved to become “biting and witty,” or “bold,” according to fellow journalists — though, from another point of view, one could describe it as shrill, smug and condescending.
Indeed, Flanagan’s vocation as “provocatrice,” as The New York Observer dubbed her last June, catapulted her into the limelight: Within just a few years of writing professionally, Flanagan was twice nominated for a National Magazine Award in the reviews and criticism category.
Earlier this year, however, Flanagan scored a position as staff writer at The New Yorker. The announcement of her appointment was made shortly after Flanagan published her final piece in The Atlantic, a sprawling, 10,000-plusword cover story titled “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement: Dispatches from the nanny wars.”
In that essay, two years in the works, Flanagan argued that “liberated,” upper-middle-class women have built their careers on the backs of the poor immigrant women who provide so much in-home child care in this country.
In her estimation, estimation, while moms in designer suits run off to office jobs that fuel their feminist-inspired narcissism, tiny loved ones are being raised by women from far-flung places, who have come to America only to pull down less than minimum wage from their stingy female employers, toil without job security or pensions and suffer various forms of emotional and physical abuse at their hands as well.
Not long after this polemic appeared, Flanagan openly declared her pet peeves to The New York Observer: “feminism and homophobia.”
Huh? Instead of asking what coherent philosophy could possibly be behind such a statement, the media cognoscenti continued their embrace of The New New Thing — Caitlin Flanagan.
But first back to that Atlantic story. A little reporting would have gone a long way to help Flanagan’s argument that nannies are suffering at the hands of feminists. But there wasn’t much there.
Wouldn’t it have been natural to talk to actual nannies for a lengthy article ostensibly devoted to their well-being? Instead, her conclusions are drawn from personal experience, speculation and reactionary reading of a smattering of books dealing with work and motherhood — only one of which, Domestica by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, actually deals directly with the treatment and work of nannies.
In an interview on the Tavis Smiley radio show, Flanagan played up her plea, buried in the back end of her opus, for improved treatment of domestic workers hired by professional women, and made the worthy case that employers should pay their nannies Social Security and a livable wage.
Yet, as Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in an email discussion with Flanagan and the writer Sara Mosle in Slate magazine, “if [Flanagan’s] piece was about how employers should pay their nannies’ Social Security taxes, then my reading skills are in serious decline.”
There was no way to see an article containing the statement “when a mother works, something is lost” as anything but an attack on working mothers. Scores of moms took notice.
As The Observer reported, The Atlantic received “an extraordinary number of letters” in response to the piece. To be sure, Flanagan’s piece contained a chilling, vindictive and scornful message: Women of a certain class who choose to work are selfish, overextended whiners who care more about their fragile egos than their children, whose formative years are witnessed not by their mothers, but by their paid-for surrogates.
Flanagan is a self-described anti-feminist, one who “was virtuously willing to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her children,” so it’s not surprising to read her beating up on professional working moms. In her first piece for The New Yorker, she described feeling deserted by her own Feminist Mystique-reading mother at age 12 when her mom took it upon herself to find gainful employment outside the home.
“I was miserable,” writes Flanagan. “To my thinking, my mother’s change of heart constituted child abandonment, plain and simple.”
Despite the fact that “almost as soon as my mother began working, she cheered up,” Flanagan could only see that she’d been “dumped by Mom.”
But wait … Isn’t Flanagan a working mom? Apparently, she doesn’t think so.
In an interview posted on The Atlantic’s website about her “nanny wars” piece, Flanagan mentioned a conversation about evening business meetings she’d had with a working mother — “one with a real job, not a writer!” she said.
This bending of the truth — whether she likes it or not, Flanagan is a working mother — is characteristic of Flanagan’s work in general, and key to her successful rise. By rejecting her place in the booming class of women struggling to balance work and family, identifying herself instead only as a wife and mother with a hobby (be it one that comes with a lucrative contract and a readership of over a million people), Flanagan has aligned herself on the side of tradition.
She has staked her career on accusing the women’s movement of ruining relations between women and their children, not to mention women and men. With her memories of baking cookies and the smell of cinnamon wafting through her more nostalgic passages of prose, she seems to say that life could be easy if we all just surrendered to motherhood and apple pie.
In fact, the heart of Flanagan’s nanny wars essay does not really concern nannies at all — she uses those women as a pretext to launch a scathing attack on feminism.
Railing on the women’s movement going back to Alix Kates Shulman’s “A Marriage Agreement” and continuing up to present, Flanagan accuses feminists of causing “middle-class American women” to go “from not wanting to oppress other women to viewing that oppression as a central part of their own liberation.”
Based on her own analysis, Caitlin Flanagan doesn’t appear to have much of an idea of what feminism is. I’m quite certain that if the huge class of women Flanagan wants to accuse of being feminists were actually practicing members of the women’s movement, we’d have universal day care, access to social services of all kinds for the immigrant women and children Flanagan purports to care about, and so much federally mandated family leave for mothers and fathers that home care for infants would be unnecessary.
What Flanagan has dismissed as a genre of whining is what many of us would like to see more of, in The New Yorker and The Atlantic, for instance: women and men writing about the challenges they face as they try to balance careers and home lives.
Our professions are part of our identities; we define ourselves more and more by our work as well as our families. We are living in a moment where all kinds of relationships are in flux — those between men and women, women and women, parents and their children. Reinforcing rigid, antiquated stereotypes to dictate how we should behave is pointless, not to mention wrong.
In so many of her pieces, Flanagan addresses the way that women and men are relating these days, or the way she sees them to be. But in her many-thousand-word essay about child-rearing, men play only a phantom role.
In Flanagan’s own relationship, her husband (whom she will not identify beyond the details that he attended Princeton and works in the entertainment industry) is the “head of the household,” a station which we are supposed to interpret as “breadwinner.” (Flanagan notes that her husband has never changed a sheet — and neither has she!) Her husband is actually a Mattel executive who has produced such classics as Barbie in the Nutcracker and written for Captain Simian & the Space Monkeys.
If Caitlin Flanagan were penning goofy missives on some obscure website, or promoting her theories via right-wing talk radio, I wouldn’t be writing this piece. We could dismiss her as a loony, tune her out at will and forget about it. But Flanagan, the proud “anti-feminist,” is a writer at The New Yorker, a magazine noted for serious journalism.
Its editor, David Remnick, has routinely published important pieces by brilliant women, including Samantha Power, Katherine Boo and Katha Pollitt. The New Yorker is a major literary platform. Feminism, one of the most progressive and important movements in history, deserves better from it.
I’m not proposing that Flanagan isn’t a good writer with a unique voice, because she is. But her true talent lies less in her flair with words than in her willingness to attack women she considers feminists — and to deliver retrograde prose about what it is to be a woman and a mother. That’s not talent, it’s a gimmick.
Hillary Frey is an editor at The Nation where she writes regularly about music and politics for the magazine’s website.
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