To Hell with All That

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Caitlin Flanagan compares the lives and attitudes of women of her generation with those of her mother’sor, perhaps more to the point, her own childhood perceptions of what it was like to be a woman, based on her observations of her mother.

Flanagan’s attitudes toward traditional feminine roles are contradictory and, according to many critics who have reviewed this book, hypocritical. Although she expounds the virtues of staying home with children and keeping house, she has done neither. When her twins were born, she hired a nanny. Although she claims to have been a stay-at-home mother, she used the time to launch a successful magazine writing career and wrote this book while the boys were still quite young. She also mentions in the book that, despite her fascination with housekeeping, she hires a housekeeper and does very little cleaning herself. In fact, she makes the rather astonishing assertion that neither she nor her husband have ever changed the sheets.

Flanagan’s insight as an observer of women’s lives and current social practices are the book’s strength. The examples she gives of women’s fascination with femininity and their conflicts with it make for compelling and often funny reading. Her conclusions about what her examples mean, however, are often highly speculative. Because Flanagan espouses very traditional values in an irritatingly moralistic way, she has become the current writer feminists most love to hate.

Flanagan’s descriptions of her own upscale lifestyle as typical of the way women live is astounding. Flanagan writes as if hiring household help is the way most women solve their ambivalence about domestic duties. Her staff includes a nanny, housekeeper, gardener, and professional organizer. Part of what makes the book interesting reading is its depiction of a way of life that people of normal means cannot afford. In one part of the book, Flanagan argues that the fascination women had a generation earlier for books about John F. Kennedy’s children and the English princesses’ nannies stemmed from the fact that they could not afford nannies themselves. The same could be said of Flanagan’s descriptions of her dealing with her own nanny.

In the 1970’s, the charge was often made against the women’s movement that feminism echoed the concerns of middle-class white women and ignored poor women and women of color. Ironically, the same charge could be made about this decidedly nonfeminist book. Many of the situations Flanagan describes are exclusive to upper-middle-class women like her.

For a book about traditional marriage and motherhood, Flanagan is oddly quiet about one member of the householdthe husband and father. Her husband, Rob, is included in the dedication, and she mentions how thoughtful and caring he was when she had cancer. Yet he does not figure into Flanagan’s discussions of housekeeping or child care. Clearly Flanagan sees housekeeping and child care as women’s concerns. Yet, surely, the husband’s existence must somehow figure into what the wife’s role will be.

Flanagan starts her social critique with the wedding. Whereas at one time all but the wealthiest brides had simple wedding receptions, now many young couples spend much more than they can afford. Flanagan suggests that current wedding trends are farcical, so far removed from the original traditions that they have become absurd. The white dresses that once symbolized virginity are worn by women who have enjoyed sexual freedom without reservation, and fathers give away brides who have been independent for years.

Flanagan concludes that weddings have lost their significance, which once was to mark the beginning of a woman’s sexual life. Surely, however, weddings have traditionally been about more than sex. Despite the high divorce rate, most brides, and grooms for that matter, still say their vows with the belief that their commitment to each other will survive the odds. One could just as easily conclude that the lavish wedding displays are offered as proof of the couples’ desires for their weddings to have lasting significance.

Next Flanagan takes on sex within marriage. This chapter is the least convincing in the book, largely because both the evidence Flanagan offers and her analysis are...

(The entire section is 1755 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 16 (April 15, 2006): 9-10.

The Boston Globe, May 7, 2006, p. E7.

Library Journal 131, no. 8 (May 1, 2006): 106-108.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (April 16, 2006): 16.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 9 (February 27, 2006): 51.

The Wall Street Journal 247, no. 96 (April 25, 2006): D6.

The Washington Post, April 30, 2006, p. T10.

Weekly Standard 11, no. 45 (August 14, 2006): 33-34.