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The Sad Ballad of Phyllis and Betty

You know, reader, when I want well-informed, thought-provoking, responsible essays on gender as it pertains to literature (or literature as it pertains to gender) there is one publication to which I turn: the New York Times Book Review. KIDDING! Ha ha ha, woo boy, sometimes I crack myself up.

I read Bitch, of course, which published an article roughly nine billion years ago about NYTBR’s tendency to ignore major new feminist works or assign them to obviously hostile reviewers, and its tendency to assign more space to writers who embrace feminist backlash (because that’s “edgy” now; think of it as the old-people version of Vice) than to writers who embrace actual feminism. Bitch will no doubt be pleased to note that its article, despite being nine billion years old, is still totally true! For what did NYTBR publish, in this week’s edition, but an essay on the life and work of Phyllis McGinley?

They published several other things, actually, some of which might have been good. I couldn’t tell! I was unable to read them, because I had been blinded by the terrible, terrible essay on Phyllis McGinley!

Who is Phyllis McGinley? Why is there an essay about her in the New York Times Book Review? Why are she, and the essay, and the essay’s author, all so crazy? I will let the essay’s crazy author, noted television critic Ginia Bellafante, explain it in her own creepily approving words:

[McGinley lived] contentedly for a number of years as a wife, mother and well-known poet in Larchmont, N.Y., writing reverentially of lush lawns and country-club Sundays in The New Yorker, Harper’s and elsewhere… McGinley’s light verse sought to convey the ecstatic peace of suburban ritual, the delight in greeting a husband, in appointing a room, in going to the butcher. Anticipation pervades her work, the feeling of something quietly joyful about to happen — beloved friends coming for dessert, perhaps.

Have you barfed yet? Get it out of the way now, because this essay (“Suburban Rapture!” Is its title!) is dead set on sickening you, being as it is about how mind-blowingly great it was to be a suburban housewife in the 1950s. History students among you may recall the 1950s, along with most of the 20th century, as a time when women had precious few viable options other than becoming housewives, and even the ones that did work (or had to work, due to social marginalization and corresponding poverty – I’m not discounting that) were relegated to menial, low-paying positions with little to no hope of advancement, due to pervasive, unchecked, institutionalized sexism and racism, which were of course inextricably bound to each other and also to class! Ginia Bellafante, apparently not into this whole “history and also actual well-documented fact” thing, seems to recall the 1950s differently: as a blissful Eden, from which women were expelled when they ate from the Tree of Wanting an Actual Freaking Choice. To demonstrate how very lovely it all was (we grow good people in our small towns!) and how the elitist lib’rul media (referred to here as the “contemptuous… literary and intellectual class”) just doesn’t get it, she has chosen to utilize the marginal and deservedly forgotten McGinley.

The facts of McGinley’s career are as such: the lady churned out a lot of crap. It was extremely commercial crap, mind you – so very commercial, in fact, that some of it was used in actual commercials, as in her many catchy jingles. She was your basic ladyhack (not to be confused with your basic Ladyhawke) and, as a ladyhack myself, I cannot judge her for cranking out women’s magazine articles, children’s books, and light verse that was… well, about what you would expect from a writer of commercial jingles. I can, however, judge the Pulitzer committee for awarding her a prize in 1961, a gesture which I can only interpret as proof that the nascent second wave was making a great deal of gentlemen very uncomfortable, and that they felt the need to placate the bevaginad masses by rewarding a token female who knew her place and stuck to it – er, I mean, “exhibited a uniquely feminine sensibility.” For here is a sampling of the timeless, Pulitzer-worthy verse of Phyllis McGinley:

A lady is smarter than a gentleman, maybe,
She can sew a fine seam, she can have a baby,
She can use her intuition instead of her brain

… She can write sexist poems that drive you insane!

Ginia Bellafante insists (and insists, and insists) Phyllis McGinley loved being a suburban housewife, and so did lots of people, so it’s just plain silly that people keep insisting that women who became housewives when it was the only economically rewarding, unstigmatized choice for women did so because it was the only economically rewarding, unstigmatized choice for women. Ginia Bellafante just doesn’t understand why Betty Friedan “dismissed” McGinley as “one of the housewife writers.” I mean, as Ginia Bellafante points out in her own piece, her entire career and aesthetic was about being a housewife, so you can see why that was a completely unmerited attack!

This piece is really miraculous, in that any given line has the capacity to inspire epileptic rage fits, as in, “Having married happily at 33, she loved domesticity the way a woman can only when it has come late to find her,” which manages to imply within a mere 22 words that (a) “domesticity,” meaning marriage and babies, is the only thing that can make a woman complete and happy, (b) women who don’t have it are failures, and women who get it should be simperingly grateful, (c) THIRTY-FUCKING-THREE is late to find it, or, I’m sorry, to be found by it, since we obviously don’t have any choice in the matter and can only hope to be chosen by that one very special boy, who can evaluate and reject women as if we were avocados he were squeezing for ripeness in the fucking supermarket, for he is Man, Master of All Things. Jesus, and they wonder why we drink. However, I would rather skip right over most of the piece, and deliver to you its creamy, poisonous center, which goes like this:

“A liberal arts education is not a tool like a hoe . . . or an electric mixer,” McGinley wrote, dismayed at a world she thought was conspiring to make women feel as though any acquired erudition would be wasted in a life of riffling through recipe cards. “It is a true and precious stone which can glow as wholesomely on a kitchen table as when it is put on exhibition in a jeweler’s window or bartered for bread and butter.” She went on to dismiss the already benighted suggestion that Bryn Mawr was a threat to what ought to get done in a kitchen. “Surely the ability to enjoy Heine’s exquisite melancholy in the original German,” she wrote, “will not cripple a girl’s talent for making chocolate brownies.”

McGinley’s point, an eternally divisive one, was clear: a woman who enjoyed herself as a wife and mother should not submit to imposed ambitions.

Fair enough! If you have absolutely no goals in life other than to get married and have babies, no-one should force you to discover a cure for cancer, or to make any use whatsoever of your education. However, if you do have other goals, a life spent doing nothing but making chocolate brownies would be pretty goddamn tragic. That, one suspects – and hears, from women who survived the era – was the more common scenario. And, hey, good news for ladies whose brains are capable of comprehending something other than the fine points of selecting lawn furniture: it turns out that having ambition does not automatically make you barren or unlovable! You can, in fact, have a career, a marriage, and a baby, or a career and marriage with no baby, or a baby and career with no marriage, or whatever else your heart desires. It’s just strange that the women who tell us otherwise, the women who insist and insist and insist that being a wife and mother to the exclusion of all other things is an honorable and beautiful route that is not in any way limiting or likely to drive you out of your mind – women like Phyllis Schlafly, Phyllis McGinley, Caitlyn Flanagan, and the woman who seems to just love them all, or at least to be unable to frame an incisive and well-merited critique of their message, TV critic Ginia Bellafante – are only able to reach us with this message because they have, well, jobs.


I know, right? This post was freaking huge! I’ve decided that whenever I write a bonkers nutso long-winded thing like this, I should reward people who make it all the way through, as with the Cracker Jack prizes which are maybe the only reason on Earth to eat Cracker Jack, which is sticky and gross. Therefore, I present to you: women’s education in the McGinley Age. Strangely, none of them seems to be studying Heine!