Before Pop Culture Feminism

Why many great female writers of the 20th century didn’t call themselves feminists.

Dorothy Parker, Hannah Arendt, and Nora Ephron.
Dorothy Parker, Hannah Arendt, and Nora Ephron.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Library of Congress, Fred Stein Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Image, and Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images.

On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Michelle Dean, a journalist and critic and the author of the new book Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion. Sharp examines the lives of 10 women of the 20th century—Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Dorothy Parker, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, and Janet Malcolm—and the impact they made on American culture, politics, and journalism. The book functions as a history of 20th-century intellectual life through the distinct prisms of the book’s subjects and also raises questions about the way society views women in public life today.

Below is an edited excerpt from the show, in which we discuss the intellectual legacies of Dean’s subjects, why many of them were reluctant to adopt the label of feminist, and what their work can teach us about debates over feminism today.

You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.

Isaac Chotiner: Ten subjects are a lot for a book. What made you want to do a biography with 10 people?

Michelle Dean: Well, the first reason is probably naïveté. This is my first book and I think I bit off a large, ambitious chunk and then realized, “Oh, I picked 10 people. That’s a lot.” But also because part of the point of the book is to demonstrate that there’s this heritage of this kind of woman critic-journalist in the American literary tradition. If it was just one, two, or three people it wouldn’t be much of a tradition; it would be a commonality. And in order to say that it was something stronger than that, like a type that came down all the way through the 20th century, then I really needed 10 people.

You write, “These women were all oppositional spirits and they tended not to like being grouped together.”

I am grouping them together and it did sometimes occur to me that I could end up haunted by some ghosts of people who are very angry with me.

That’s what I was hinting at, yeah.

Yeah, there is a danger always of flattening individuality when you write a kind of book like this, which tries to make a series of claims about somebody’s writing and, in particular, I’m going through most of these women’s whole careers, in which they sometimes contradicted themselves, particularly on the subject of their commonality as women writers or their relationship to feminism generally, which would have made a greater claim on them as representative of their sex rather than simply writers with individual voices.

It was a tension that I worried about and it is a tension that kind of drives the book, in that I feel like the book is elucidating a paradox that even as these women were constantly resisting the idea that they were women writers first, or that they shouldn’t be identified as such, they still managed to carve out a place for a particular kind of woman in public life that ended up being extremely valuable. And I kind of hate this word mostly because it’s become jargon now, because it’s a buzzword, but somewhat empowering for other women to see them engaging at such a high level. And that had this sort of paradoxical feminist effect, even as some of these women would have denied very heavily that they were feminists.

Can you talk a little about what you mean by “sharp” in your title?

Primarily, I do mean a certain kind of writing style or effect of these women’s writing in that it was seen often as quite exceptionally insightful or cutting through nonsense or, in some way, saying something that hadn’t been said before. But on the other hand, it was also seen as, for lack of a better word, mean and cutting. The idea is that it is a style and effect that is attributed to women in public life; that you have these moments both of extraordinary insight and then of extraordinary pushback because of the way that people relate to women with, say, a strong opinion or a strong position on something.

What was it about Dorothy Parker, your first subject chronologically, that felt like a good jumping-off point?

She was obviously very caustic but also very smart. It’s interesting because her literary reputation keeps changing and evolving. Even when she was alive, the same thing happened. She was greeted as brilliant, and then she was greeted as not as brilliant as she should have been and not living up to her potential, and it sort of went back-and-forth her whole life.

I think Dorothy Parker did inaugurate the type. In the 1920s, writers became celebrities in a way that they almost never would be again in 20th-century culture. She happened to be the woman, or one of the main women, who was elevated by that phenomenon. She tended to write so directly and, again, at the risk of being totally obsessed with my own metaphor, cuttingly that people couldn’t ignore what she had to say. There is a certain set of literary criticism that maintains that Parker was mostly focusing on trivialities. I don’t really agree with that, but even when she spoke on trivialities they ended up being things that we ended up remembering.

One critique of Parker is that there was something frivolous about her; that she was not writing, as you say, on serious subjects. Is that something that you think the women [whom] you’re writing about, and even women writing today, are aware is thrown at them more frequently than at men?

I think they all knew it. I mean, I think it was inescapable, basically. And it’s been an inescapable phenomenon even now. It feels like things are opening up now a little bit. Rebecca West would write sometimes about how frustrating it was that women didn’t get to speak exactly to their own sexual preferences in most of the literature of the day, where meanwhile, somebody like H.G. Wells is just spreading, as she once called it, his cold, clotted-cream-type sexuality all over his novels.

Even somebody like Mary McCarthy, who is one of the people in the book who was more resistant to calling herself a feminist, wrote in an introduction to her theater criticism about how she never set out to become a theater critic for Partisan Review, but she knew that when they gave her that post, they did it largely because [the editors] saw her as basically another editor’s girlfriend, and they thought of the theater as not a very important subject, and so they could just give it to her to do without much risk to the integrity of the institution.

The one person in your book that I think people just reading the list of names might be somewhat surprised to see is Nora Ephron, whom a lot of people think of as a very brilliant humorist and screenwriter above all else. How do you think she fits in with the group?

Actually, Nora was in many ways the seed of the book in that I too thought of her that way—as mostly a humorist and a film director of, and please forgive me, of not necessarily always very good romantic comedies.

No. Come on.

I should say here that I’m Canadian and I grew up there and cultural touchstones are different. I don’t even think I was very aware that she had written any journalism at all until a couple years before she died somebody gave me a copy of one of her first books, which is called Crazy Salad. And I read it and it was sort of a revelation to me because I found, frankly, Nora’s writing very serious, at the risk of reinforcing the dichotomy we were just talking about. I mean, her approach was very much kind of intellectual, which, again, is not something that I had associated her with prior to that.

Exactly that revelation made me wonder what else am I missing about the history of women writers in the 20th century. I had no idea that she had been something of a celebrity journalist in her time. And it seemed to me that that aspect of her had been buried behind this focus on the trivialities of her later work, or what were seen as the trivialities of her later work. In many ways, she was an heir to Parker. Sort of Parker refigured through a Hollywood childhood and second-wave feminism. But still very much writing in the same vein and in the same sort of caustic tone.

You write, “All through this book I have been trying to point out that there is room in this deep ambivalence about, and even hostility towards feminism, to take away a feminist message.” Where do you think your subjects’ ambivalence toward feminism came from?

When I say “feminism” in this connection, I mostly mean movement feminism. Defining it down a little bit. Now that we live in an era of widespread cultural feminism or pop culture feminism, we don’t tend to think of it as a formal movement in the same way. It looked a little bit more formal in these women’s times. There were people who went to feminist meetings and wore feminist buttons in a way that they don’t typically do right now.

I think that, in general, the ambivalence toward feminism is the ambivalence that any writer, or as I try to politely put it, [any] oppositional spirit, would feel toward social movements, in that there’s always a flattening of self that is involved in engaging in political action. I don’t mean that the flattening is permanent. I don’t mean that people go into social movements and become zombies. To use a contemporary example, there are days where you just have to put the pussy hat on even if you don’t like the aesthetics of the pussy hat. That’s just the way that social movements work. But the activity of writing or speaking in public, or being yourself in public, is naturally opposed to that because it might be hard to somebody like one of these women, and was often hard for somebody like these women, to make a crack about the pussy hats of their day and what might bother them about them. It was hard for them to not be forthcoming about that.

I say “ambivalence” because actually, although I am charting women who mostly did not explicitly align themselves with feminism … most of them came around eventually. Didion is famous for having written a takedown of the movement in the form of a book review of a bunch of different feminist books of the early 1970s. Even she, in an interview not so very long ago, told an interviewer, [paraphrasing], “I was documenting a specific moment in time where I felt like the movement was getting caught up in trivialities about who should wash dishes and stuff. And I’m not sure the movement is there anymore and I don’t think I would say the same thing about it.”

Or Mary McCarthy, who would do things at the end of her life like give a speech where she’d say, I’m not a feminist in one breath and then later say, You know, I guess I’m enough of a feminist to have never liked it when people told me that I wrote like a man. I think there was not necessarily hostility to the idea that in the world there are gendered structures of knowledge and power. Hannah Arendt [gave] an interview toward the end of her life and she says, You ask me what kind of influence I wish I had, and if I’m going to speak ironically I just want to say I think that’s a very masculine question. Men are always looking to influence and I’m looking to understand. And I think it’s interesting that she said that, right? In spite of the fact that she was definitely the person most hostile to feminism in the book.

I think the way you phrase it in the book is that feminism is about sisterhood and they were individuals. I have the vivid memory of reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which is Rebecca West’s incredible travelogue through the Balkans between the world wars, and it’s a sort of amazing dichotomy between her belief that women should be granted equal opportunities but also constant cracks about women, about the way they look, referring to them by names that we would now deem politically incorrect for good reason, and taking shots at the official women’s movement of the day.

You read a book like Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and you think there is some value to this individual sensibility. I do think West could sometimes be really hard on people’s appearances. She tended to be that way overall, whether she was talking about women or men, frankly, on their personal appearances. She tended to extrapolate a lot from, say, the shape of their nose [laughs]. Although it’s kind of fun to just watch her mind ramble over these things. Actually, this kind of self-awareness, or having a little bit of fun at the expense of your politics, is also politically valuable in a way I feel like I keep struggling to articulate in these interviews. That feminism would be richer, I think, or will be richer if it becomes something more like a Tower of Babel, right? Where everybody is just arguing all the time. I would prefer if the arguments were of relative good nature to what they are right now. But there’s something valuable in having all these individual sensibilities crop up and sort of amount to feminism in the aggregate as opposed to just rehearsing rote arguments about, I don’t know, liberation and equality, which are useful but I think are actually easier to come to in the process of us all arguing together.

What you are saying mirrors in certain ways the way some feminists of the baby-boomer generation have been talking about feminism as they perceive it on social media these days, which they view as kind of flattening. Do you see any similarity there? And what have you thought of that critique generally?

I actually think that critique tends to come from people who don’t engage on social media with feminists. I don’t want to talk about Katie Roiphe exactly, but if you read a piece like that—which is representative, I think, of some of what you’re talking about, where she’s trying to characterize the #MeToo moment—it seemed to me very obvious from the piece, not knowing anything necessarily about her, that she had not engaged a lot on social media because there was an idea that on social media there is a party line about feminism that is being observed. In my experience, that is not totally the case.

Do I think that social media discussion about feminism is flattening, though? I do, but I think it’s more about the way that social media has completely poisoned our conversational dynamics generally, and it is not a problem specific to feminism.

I think that online feminism has, in many ways, been great, or was great, and I come out of it in some sense. I’m a person who came to writing and journalism late, and I came to it actually though the feminist comment sections among other places. Those were extremely vibrant conversational places. I do think that as somebody who engages a lot in social media … I tweet way too much. I do think it poisons conversational dynamics, but I sort of get frustrated when people think it’s about feminism going too far. It’s about feminism getting caught in the net that everything’s getting caught in right now.

Do you think there is more mainstream acceptance now of women expressing strong or sharp opinions for their own sake?

There is. Still not enough, I don’t think. But yeah, there is more widespread acceptance. I mean, #MeToo, to the extent that it has been a women-led movement, even aside from the discussion about harassment, there is something about it that says we need to re-evaluate the way that we listen or don’t listen to women. And having that conversation on the table has been useful, even if it doesn’t feel like everybody is adjusting to it.