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Revolutionary to Retro: Reading, Then Meeting, Erica Jong

You need a man, says 1970s icon Erica Jong. You need a calendar, says audience.

[Bella’s intro: Forty-five years ago, in her sexually shocking Fear of Flying, Erica Jong introduced the “zipless f*ck.” Readers could not get enough. The book has sold more than 20 million copies. Is Jong still on the cutting edge in her thinking? Fortunately for us, Professor Joan DelFattore was invited to spend an evening with Jong. She and others took the opportunity to ask Jong what she thought about single women and people who do not have kids. Her answer was worse than disappointing, but DelFattore’s account of the event is priceless. Thank-you, Joan, for this and for your previous guest posts that Living Single readers have greatly appreciated!]

Revolutionary to Retro: Erica Jong and Second-Wave Feminism

By Joan DelFattore

With all we're hearing about confirmation bias, internet silos, and general unwillingness to encounter ideas we find offensive, I thought it might be fun just to go on out there and get myself offended.

So I accepted an invitation to hear Erica Jong discuss her 1973 novel, Fear of Flying, with a group of twenty-five women, all old enough to remember the 70s.

In case you've never read it, here's a summary.

Isadora Wing's first husband was institutionalized for claiming to be Jesus Christ. Now married to one psychiatrist and sleeping with another, she recalls other sex partners with whom she sought to achieve the "zipless f*ck": a copulation so perfect that “zippers fell away like rose petals, [and] underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff.” When her current affair ends, she goes to the hotel where her husband is staying and waits for him in the bathtub.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't suggest that there's anything objectionable about sex between consenting adults, as long as they don't break the law or the furniture. And although extending sexual freedom to women was a shocker back in 1973, Isadora's adventures seem relatively tame by today's standards.

The reason I expected to be offended was that Fear of Flying is a classic of 1960s-70s second-wave feminism, whose goal was to eliminate the tension between marriage and a career by making it not only easier, but effectively mandatory, for women to do both. Published ten years after Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Jong's novel embraces the same confusion of freedom with conformity. Have all the husbands and male lovers you like, she urges—just don't be a full-time wife and mother. And don't even think about suggesting that romantic partnerships aren't necessarily hetero, or, worse, aren't necessary at all.

With passionate conviction and no evidence, second-wave feminist leaders dismissed single women as victims of "pseudo-radical infantilism," while adopting what Rachel Moran calls "a narrow vision of emotional independence premised on heterosexual relations, rather than on the capacity to live successfully on one's own."

What they failed to reckon with was the law of unintended consequences, which came into play when efforts to expand options for wives opened up educational, professional, and business opportunities for all women. As Moran writes, "One of the great ironies of second-wave feminism is that it ignored single women as a distinct constituency while creating the conditions that increasingly enabled women to forego marriage."

Surely, no one would be more horrified by that outcome than some 1970s feminist icons—including, perhaps, Erica Jong.

And yet, as I read Fear of Flying in preparation for her lecture, I found a scene on page 66 where the childless Isadora, harangued by an advocate for universal motherhood, protests that if mothers "were so happy with their lives, why did they have to proselytize all the time? Why did they insist that everyone do as they did? Why were they such goddamned missionaries?"

Equally unexpected were Isadora's musings on pages 110 and 111, where she acknowledges that her need to have a romantic partner at all costs sometimes led to undesirable consequences. The problem, she concludes, is that "Being unmarried in a man's world was such a hassle that anything had to be better." At the end of a long list of injuries that married women suffer, she suggests that the question is not "when did it all go wrong," but "when was it ever right?"

Those are exceptions, though. For most of the 430-page novel, Isadora repeatedly asserts that without a man, she feels "lost as a dog without a master." When her lover leaves her, she laments that being on her own "was the most terrifying sensation I'd ever known in my life. Like teetering on the edge of the Grand Canyon and hoping you'll learn to fly before you hit bottom." In a world where fear of independent flight is a feminine virtue, she rushes right back to her husband.

I pondered those unexpected passages on the long taxi ride to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where Jong was speaking. Amid all the couplist hype, Isadora did, very briefly, think open-mindedly about marriage and motherhood. Forty-five years later, what would Erica Jong have to say about those roles?

The first hint lay in her account of a talk she once gave to an audience of lesbians, in which she rhapsodized about what she called the "miracle" of breastfeeding her baby. "They booed me!" she recalled, her eyes wide with dismay.

Of course, some lesbians do have biological children. But her remarks, as she described them, sounded ironically like the mommy missionaries who exasperated Isadora. Her life choices were so uniquely right, she implied, that only by emulating them could any woman be fulfilled.

The talk I heard her give was much the same. And as soon as she opened the floor for discussion, someone asked, "How many of us are married?" while proudly waving her hand.

With whiplash suddenness, the direction of the discussion changed as another participant called out, "Who's single besides me?" As hands flew up, several women shared their reasons for being not only unmarried, but happy to remain so. Women no longer need the approval of men to validate them, they asserted, asking Jong if she didn't agree. Each time, she evaded the question.

When the program organizer asked if anyone had one last question, I raised my hand. While genuinely respecting the choices of women who want to be wives and/or mothers, I said, I've never seen myself in those roles. They're not mandatory, are they? Do women need a man at our side, and a baby at our breast, to validate us as women?

"Well!" Jong exclaimed. "There will always be some people like that, I guess." But in her view, having a child is "just a miracle," as is marriage. Although she'd never allow anything to impede her writing career, she can't imagine how she'd survive if anything happened to her husband. "But if you don't want children," she concluded, "then you certainly shouldn't have any."

It was second-wave feminism at its snarkiest. But although her reply was clearly intended as a put-down, it was equally clear that it's Jong who's now out of step.

When Fear of Flying was first published forty-five years ago, women who didn't want to be wives and/or mothers might have felt coerced into silence, or even into questioning their own sense of self. But that evening, single women spoke out as equals, and several married women affirmed us. Lifestyle is an individual choice, most of us agreed, rather than a competition or the subject of majority rule.

Scanning the nighttime streets for a taxi, I felt unexpectedly light-hearted. True, I'd endured a head-on blast of vintage second-wave feminism. But more importantly, I'd experienced the power of women who feel free to proclaim, right out loud, our choice of happy and productive single lives. In a sense that needy Isadora could never have comprehended, we are not afraid to fly.

photo provided by Joan DelFattore
Joan DelFattore
Source: photo provided by Joan DelFattore

About the Author:

In an earlier life, Joan DelFattore published three books with Yale University Press as well as dozens of articles on freedom of speech. (She's in favor of it.) Since retiring from a professorship in English and legal studies at the University of Delaware, she's been writing about the choice to live single, with emphasis on singlism in American health care. She also gave a TEDx talk, Sick While Single? Don't Die of Discrimination.