By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In fairness, Flanagan does allude to that in her book, and she tells me she pays both her own and her domestic workers’ Social Security taxes. And though the vast majority of professional women I know couldn’t afford a nanny in the first place, it’s true that women of the class she belongs to and writes about could use a little shaking up: liberal women who believe in public schooling but wouldn’t dream of sending their kids to one; whose feminism begins and ends with, as Flanagan puts it, “making partner” at the law firm; who buy organic at Whole Foods but aren’t home to eat meals with their kids; who use their nannies as substitute mothers; who still regard themselves as oppressed victims and who gripe that their spouses don’t do housework properly.
Flanagan is a sophisticated writer with a highly developed sense of irony and an engaging frankness about her own limitations as a homemaker. For someone so intensely male-identified, she gives great girl-talk and, notwithstanding the twinset and pearls, is great fun to gab with about almost anything — movies (she loves Pauline Kael), books (she adores Joan Didion), adopted Chinese girls (I have one, she wants one), stay-at-home dads (they’re great), Bill Clinton (she loves him), the horrors of academese, sneaking off to check e-mail after the kids come home. She’s becomingly modest about her own writing, generous toward other woman writers, and has her share of loyal female writer pals and admirers, among them Sandra Tsing Loh, a friend and colleague who took over the domestic beat at The Atlantic (and who has made it her own with lively, funny, unpredictable commentary on everything from public schooling to the mommy wars) when Flanagan went to The New Yorker. “Wonderful, lively writing that makes people talk is a good thing,” says Tsing Loh, who calls Flanagan a “volatile, controversial figure” offering a useful critique of women “who lead very enclaved lives that have more in common with wealthy men than with poor women.”
But Flanagan is one of those enclaved women, and then some. She’s married to a Mattel executive (her husband produced Barbie of Swan Lake) and admits to never having changed a sheet, nor is she big on laundry. She also has the kind of job that doesn’t require her to produce every week, as most journalists do. She seems genuinely shocked when I tell her I have to produce a film feature every week, plus capsule reviews. Catherine Seipp, a peppy Republican writer in her own right who’s never met Flanagan but likes her work, says, “I can see why she drives other working moms crazy, because she’s a very rich lady who can afford not to work, who has full-time help for her two boys and can write her New Yorker/Atlantic stuff or hang around with them as she pleases. What a charmed life! I mean, she landed right on the top of that heap without putting in years in the reporting trenches, or scrounging around for those Crappy Hackington celebrity-interview assignments. But here’s the difference between Flanagan and most essayists of her ilk, which, besides her large talent, is her saving grace: She fully owns up to her privileged position. Most first-person writers spend a lot of fake energy presenting themselves as a Nice Person. She seems more honest than that, which I like.” Ehrenreich is less forgiving. “She’s a little like Phyllis Schlafly, this high-achieving woman who advocates domesticity for the rest of us,” she says tartly. “My sisterhood doesn’t extend to feeling the pain of stay-at-home mothers with nannies.”
For her part, Flanagan seems to be feeling the pain of backlash from those she has judged. A week after our meeting — during which she has very likely read the Elle profile, which brought out the pious parson in her, a side I didn’t see — she calls me back and tells me she has a quote for me that she hasn’t given anyone else. “I am pro-choice, anti-war, anti-Bush, I’m a Democrat, and only a conservative on family issues,” she says plaintively. “I’ve got nothing but derision from the left — you’ve got to check everything on the menu to please them. But the right has been good to me, even though they disagree with me about abortion. I can go on Tucker Carlson and he’s respectful. The head of the Southern Baptist Convention had me on the radio. But the feminists humiliate me. We, the Democrats, have a real small tent. The Republicans have a big tent.” She must have in mind those beacons of open-minded tolerance, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.
For all her street smarts, Flanagan, like so many ardent fans of family values, seems cocooned in woozy nostalgia for a lost world even she admits never really existed. A little girl still lives inside her, craving the certainties of life with a mother who had nothing else to do but care for her husband and children. Yet she admits that her mother was depressed while confined to the home, and owns to having been depressed herself while her children were babies. Her hopelessly caricatured feminists are straw women, frozen in the excesses of Berkeley in the ’70s, where her friends’ mothers refused to shave their armpits or brush their daughters’ hair because it was “too oppressive.” In fact it’s been a while since hairy armpits were on the to-do list of the women’s movement, and in my experience as a lipstick feminist, they never were high on the agenda except in the minds of a few literalists. When I bring up an acerbic exchange Flanagan had with Ellen Willis in the letters column of The Atlantic over her nanny piece (she called Willis’ child’s co-op preschool “risibly egalitarian”), she barely remembers the episode and seems unaware that Willis is one of the great dames of the women’s movement. Willis, for her part, finds Flanagan’s ideas on women, feminism, sex and the family “not merely wrong but teeth-grindingly shallow and clichéd. And she is one of those people who seems to think she and her six friends represent the world.”