I first read Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying some time in the 1990s, way of out context from the time it was published. The novel recounts the adventures of Jong’s alter-ego Isadora Wing, who is on a quest to find meaning outside a deadening marriage. When the book was published in 1973, Jong was a relatively young 30-years old and the book, with its shocking-for-the-time embrace of the zipless f-ck and women’s (hetero) sexuality was a dramatic departure for mainstream understandings of feminism. Leading (male) literary figures at the time – like John Updike and Paul Theroux – said horrible, sexist things about the book, while Henry Miller declared it the “female equivalent” of his novel Tropic of Cancer. It was, for certain women, at one point in time, a revelation and a necessary intervention. It’s hard to overstate the success of Jong’s first novel: it’s reportedly sold more than 20 million copies and been translated into 27 languages.
(Erica Jong, image source Wikimedia)
By the time I read Fear of Flying (1973) some twenty years after its publication, it didn’t have much urgency for me, mostly because I’d decided by then that I just didn’t share Jong’s enthusiasm for the male member. (No offense intended to those who have them or enjoy them, but it just wasn’t my thing, so to speak.) I was also put off by the racism in the book, but to be honest, I’d forgotten about that until the people began writing (and drawing) about the book again recently.
Since her first novel, Jong has gone on to publish lots of other books in a range of genres including poetry, fiction, non-fiction. She’s back in the news – or, at least, in my newsfeed – because of a conversation with Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist, at a recent book festival. I’m writing about it here because it refreshes the need for a sustained critique of white feminism.
First, a bit of background on Jong, in case you’re not familiar. She is the child of “wealthy and bohemian” parents. She went to Barnard and Columbia, where she studied English Literature. She now lives in a high rise on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She’s been married four times, and has one daughter and one grandchild. All of which is to say, she’s fairly typical for a woman of her class, region, generation. I’ve encountered her on the street, in passing, the way one does in New York, and she fits in her milieu.
What distinguishes her is that in 1973 she wrote a book that became known as “groundbreaking” text for feminists. “To be identified with having written a groundbreaking book is a particular kind of death-mask. I think any writer who becomes famous for one thing feels that way from time to time,” Jong has said of the book’s success and her conflicted relationship to it.
The Decatur Book Festival
It was this outsized success of Jong’s 1973 novel, along with the release of a new book Fear of Dying, that got her invited to be the recent Decatur Book Festival, Jong was billed as the keynote speaker. Gay, an associate professor of English at Purdue University, joined her as interviewer and host, fielding questions from a near-capacity crowd and answering some questions herself. This conversation was meant to “celebrate feminism” but according to multiple reports, the format eventually evolved into a casual exchange that became “testy,” “awkward” and “uncomfortable”. That awkwardness is worth exploring for what it reveals about white feminism and why it requires critique.
(Erica Jong, Roxane Gay at the Decatur Book Festival, image source)
These days, Jong likes to call herself a “defrocked academic” by which I can only surmise she means that she was once in a PhD program. Her use of the word “defrocked’ suggests that she was forced out of the program (or academia), but I find nothing that confirms this. She’s also fond of saying that she has “partly returned to her roots as a scholar.” Again, it’s unclear what she means by this. Whatever she may mean, her “return” to her scholarly roots has not meant delving into black feminist thought or “intersectionality” among the most important develops in feminism in the last twenty years. When Roxane Gay mentioned the word intersectionality in passing, Jong interrupted to ask “What’s that?”
Jong also seems to be under the mistaken impression that no one knew about abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth until Gloria Steinem starting writing about her in Ms. Magazine.
She is simply wrong about this unless she means that “no one” in her social circle knew about Sojourner Truth until then. As Gloria Steinem tells it, they were originally going to name the magazine “Sojourner” but this was perceived to be a travel magazine, so they chose ‘Ms.’ as a shorter, more marketable title. Beyond Jong’s factual error, her re-telling of it in this particular way overlays the accomplishments of a white woman (Steinem) on top of the achievements of a Black woman (Sojourner Truth). This both diminishes Sojourner Truth’s position within feminism, while is elevates Steinem’s. It also re-writes the ways that Steinem herself has tried to work in solidarity with black women, including Dorothy Pitman-Hughes, Flo Kennedy and Alice Walker. Steinem recently acknowledged “black women invented feminism.” Jong seems to have in mind the iconic image (below) in her vision of feminism. But, even if we only take the second-wave of feminism into consideration, that image of Gloria Steinem and Deborah Pitman-Hughes is more aspirational than reportorial. And, it’s an image that represents a very narrow view of racial diversity, and reinforces cisgender women’s place at the center of feminism.
(Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman-Hughes,
images: left – 1971, Dan Ragan; right – 2014, Dan Wynn)
One of the reports on the exchange at the book festival attributed the disconnect between Jong and Gay (and the mostly Gay-supportive audience) to the “generational, cultural and racial divides” within feminism. While it’s true those differences exist and were evident in their conversation, the characterization of these as a series of “divides” situates Jong and Gay equally, on opposing sides of something (generation, culture, race) neither controls. What this talk of “divides” misses, of course, is power. Jong and Gay are not situated equally. Jong is white, wealthy, well-known; Gay is black, not wealthy, and becoming well-known. These are important dimensions of power that are overlooked in the simplistic language of “divides.” Both Jong and Gay can be feminist though they come from these different positions but what an intersectional feminism requires is some self-reflection on how one’s place in the world shapes one’s need for, relationship to and practice of feminism.
This is Roxane Gay’s genius in Bad Feminist. She tells us where she is in the world and how that shapes her relationship to feminism.
The characterization of the book festival exchange as “testy” “awkward” and “uncomfortable” trivializes the difference between Jong and Gay as an interpersonal squabble between two women. This is an old strategy for dismissing feminism. “Oh, just a bunch of women, arguing…who cares?” When this sort of “testy” exchange happens between a white woman and a woman of color, it’s the woman of color who bears the burden of the conflict. Given the powerful stereotype of the “angry black woman,” the onus of the way this exchange was reported implicitly falls on Gay, and her supporters, even though all reports indicate she and the audience exercised a great deal of restraint.
In her report about the Decatur Book Festival, Cristen Conger writes that “white feminism and privilege oversight is still alive …it’s high time white feminists face and own up to this unsavory past and present.”
But why is it ‘high time’ for such a reckoning? Many people object to this kind of critique because – based on what I’ve been able to glean from readin the comments on this piece (g-d help me) and reading the comments I’ve gotten on my series about white feminism – the thinking seems to be that this is being needlessly divisive. Can’t we all just raise our fists in sisterhood and solidarity? Doesn’t the patriarchy (if we’re still using that word) win if you’re critiquing white feminism? I don’t think so.
Why Critiquing White Feminism is Necessary
White feminism is a set of ideas – an ideology – a way of advocating for gender equality without attention to race or class. It’s not simply that there are a ‘few bad apples’ (i.e., racist white women) within an otherwise trouble-free feminist landscape. White feminism is a systematic way of looking at the world; it’s often promoted or practiced by white women, although it’s not exclusive to white women. This short video by Zeba Blay and Emma Gray is a good primer if you’re new to these ideas. You can also go back and read the series about white feminism starting here.
For me, personally, it’s important to critique white feminism because it harms other women and perpetuates racism (causing more harm). My critique is meant to interrupt the harmful cycle of ‘gender only’ feminism that replays in generation after generation of feminists. This cycle is a kind of ignorance that’s painful to other women, especially women of color, and also queer, gender nonconforming and transgender women of all races. It is the opposite of sisterhood, the antithesis of feminism.
It’s possible to see what’s at stake and why we need a sustained critique of white feminism in a recent review of Erica Jong’s work.
Reviewing Fear of Flying on its 40th anniversary in 2013 (“Is the sexiest novel of the 1970s still relevant?”), Katy Waldman mentions the racism of the book, but then buries that critique by including a defensive quote from Jong about the chapter title mentioned earlier (“Arabs and Other Animals.”). Waldman then writes: “But I am underselling this novel, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month with a reissue and has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide.” So, not only is the racism of the text set aside as unimportant or irrelevant, but we’re reminded of the novel’s successful sales.
Part of what’s at stake here is that Jong’s voice is amplified globally- 20 million copies in 27 languages – in a way that other feminist writers and voices are not. That’s an enormous power. And, it has an impact. In the same review, Waldman writes about literature and how people wrote novels differently in the 1970s (hoping to produce One Great Character), then she writes this:
“For as much as Fear of Flying is about producing that One Great Character, it is also about understanding womanhood circa 1973.” [emphasis added]
In fact, Erica Jong’s writing tells us about a very, very thin slice of wealthy, urban, white, American, Jewish, heterosexual, thin, cis-gendered womanhood. And yet, her voice, her writing, is held out at offering us an understanding of WOMANHOOD. This is the quintessential move of white feminism, and it’s important to critique it in order to recognize that what it means to be a “woman” encompasses multiple lives, experiences, and perspectives. This form of ‘gender only’ feminism erases all those other experiences and flattens into one, that looks like Isadora Wing/Erica Jong.
While Jong’s conversational missteps at the book festival can be partially attributed to coming from an earlier era of feminism, she continues to speak out in ways that are harmful to other women. In a recent ALL CAPS post to Twiitter, she had this to say about sex workers:
There is lots of smart, feminist writing out there about women and sex work, like Melissa Gira Grant’s Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (2014), but Jong has apparently not read any of this, it seems. Her tweet struck me as an odd reaction – “strange smelly bods” — from someone whose writing is so explicitly and enthusiastically involved with “bods”. Perhaps this is related to the way Jong equates rape with sex work and the reaction to her first book, she said in an interview:
“It was sort of as if I was a prostitute available to everyone because I’d written freely about sex; that happens in a very puritanical culture.”
Jong’s brand of ‘gender only’ white feminism doesn’t have room for women who are sex workers. Although she was an early and avid adopter of the overshare about her personal life she is somewhat paradoxically not given to self-reflection about how her pronouncements on sex work and feminism and ‘womanhood’ might be damaging to some women.
That’s why it’s important to keep critiquing white feminism, to undo some of the damage of this set of ideas.
Where Do We Go From Here?
So, am I saying that wealthy, white, Upper East Side ladies can’t be feminists? No. That’s not it at all.
The conversation at the book festival between Jong and Gay could have gone much differently if a couple of things had shifted. First, if Jong hadn’t been so defensive and a little more self-aware about her position, then a different kind of conversation might have been possible. And, if Jong had been more well informed about the history and scholarship of white feminism, another kind of encounter might have happened. Instead, it just replayed old scripts of white feminism in a way that was hurtful and left many women, including queer, gender nonconforming, and transgender women of color, out of the conversation.
If these things had shifted, then the exchange could have been an actual example of intersectional feminism. But it didn’t. It ended with Erica Jong saying something about it was going to “take a lot of work” to get a more inclusive feminism. And Roxane Gay clarified: “The work of fixing racism isn’t something that we, people of color, have to do. We don’t have the problem. We’re good.”
Let’s be clear where the work need to happen: with white women who are the most frequent purveyors of white feminism.
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