Caitlin Flanagan on “Why the Democratic Party is losing the housewife vote”

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Where to begin with Flanagan’s doofy Time article?

I am a 44-year-old woman who grew up in Berkeley who has never once voted for a Republican, or crossed a picket line, or failed to send in a small check when the Doctors Without Borders envelope showed up. I believe that we should not have invaded Iraq, that we should have signed the Kyoto treaty, that the Starr Report was, in part, the result of a vast right-wing conspiracy. I believe that poverty is our most pressing issue and that we should be pouring money and energy into its eradication. I believe that allowing migrant women and children to die of thirst in American deserts is a moral transgression that will stain us forever.

But despite all that, there is apparently no room for me in the Democratic Party. In fact, I have spent much of the past week on a forced march to the G.O.P. And the bayonet at my back isn’t in the hands of the Republicans; the Democrats are the bullyboys. Such lions of the left as Barbara Ehrenreich, the writers at Salon and much of the Upper West Side of Manhattan have made it abundantly clear to me that I ought to start packing my bags. I’m not leaving, but sometimes I wonder: When did I sign up to be the beaten wife of the Democratic Party?

Here’s why they’re after me: I have made a lifestyle choice that they can’t stand, and I’m not cowering in the closet because of it. I’m out, and I’m proud. I am a happy member of an exceedingly “traditional” family. I’m in charge of the house and the kids, my husband is in charge of the finances and the car maintenance, and we all go to church every Sunday. This month Little, Brown published a collection of my essays about family life called To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife. It’s written in the spirit of one of my great heroes, the late housewife writer and feminist Erma Bombeck. It’s not a book about social policy or alternative lifestyles or anything even vaguely political. It’s a book about how much I miss my mother, who died recently, and about the struggles I have had fighting breast cancer without my mom around to help me. It’s a book that pays tribute to the ’50s housewife instead of ridiculing her.

As far as I can tell, every reviewer and reporter who has encountered my book has assumed that I’m a conservative Republican. At the end of an interview on a national TV network, a reporter said, “Caitlin, I can’t let you go without asking you one question.” Here was her question: Was it really true that I’m a Democrat? Those reporters’ assumptions don’t tell you anything about me, nor do they tell you much about the reporters themselves: they made an honest mistake. What it tells you a whole lot about is the Democratic Party and the face it projects to the world. It’s a party that supports gay families, as I do, and has vast sympathy for many other kinds of alternative lifestyles. But we let the Republicans have complete ownership of the image of the traditional family. And that’s one reason we keep losing elections.

Most of the 60 million people who voted against George W. Bush have lifestyles more like mine than the Democratic Party would like to admit. Most of us aren’t the Hollywood elite or the nontraditional family. Many of us do what I do, which is go to church on Sunday, work hard and value my marriage. Again, it’s not so much my party’s platform that rejects the family; God help us all if Bush’s brutality to the poor continues much longer. It’s a small but very vocal minority, the Democratic pundits, who abhor what I represent because it doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of the modern woman who has escaped from domestic prison. Fifty years ago, a stay-at-home mom who loved her husband would not automatically be assumed to be a Republican. The image of the Democratic Party that used to come to mind was of a workingman and his wife sitting at the kitchen table worrying about how they were going to pay the bills and voting for Adlai Stevenson because he was going to help them squeak by every month and maybe even afford to send their kids to college.

The Democrats made a huge tactical error a few decades ago. In the middle of doing the great work of the ’60s–civil rights, women’s liberation, gay inclusion–we decided to stigmatize the white male. The union dues–paying, churchgoing, beer-drinking family man got nothing but ridicule and venom from us. So he dumped us. And he took the wife and kids with him.

And now here we are, living in a country with a political and economic agenda we deplore, losing election after election and wondering why.

It’s the contempt, stupid.

Such a bitter closing line. As a reader, I do indeed feel a lot of contempt for her, and she apparently thinks I’m stupid, so I guess we are even. But I feel the need to address a few of her assertions in this article, like that part where she asks: “When did I sign up to be the beaten wife of the Democratic Party?” Nice way to trivialize domestic violence and self-aggrandize simultaneously, huh? She’s the Bride of the Democratic Party! But The Party is violently abusing her! Democratic “bullboys” put her on “a forced march!” There was a “bayonet at [her] back!” Sheesh. This overwrought, self-pitying rhetoric is really sickening; to equate mere criticism, no matter how passionate, with some sort of violent political plot against her makes her sound incredibly narcissistic.

I disgaree with her writings because I feel she expresses contempt for me, and for a lot of women who are important to me. I regret that her mother died, which she apparently brought up here so I’d feel sorry for her, and I do. And I’m sorry she had breast cancer, which must have been awful, and is also apparently raised here so she’ll have my sympathies, and she does. Life is hard and terrible things happen. Maybe someday her suffering will teach her a little empathy for other people, and her essays won’t be so mean-spirited and intolerant, and I won’t hate them so much.

I wish she’d provided a little factual support for her assertion that the Democratic party is “losing the housewife vote.” All the data I’ve seen supports the opposite conclusion (see e.g. this), and makes her look even more like a self-serving liar. And does she really think that “the union dues–paying, churchgoing, beer-drinking family man” has a traditional stay-at-home wife? I doubt he can very readily afford it, but obviously that won’t stop Flanagan from invoking a fanciful construction of him for her own benefit. He’s a perfect match for her fictional ’50s housewife.

–Ann Bartow

Update: See also Echidne of the Snakes, Amanda at Pandagon, and Scott at Lawyers, Guns and Money.

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0 Responses to Caitlin Flanagan on “Why the Democratic Party is losing the housewife vote”

  1. QuidPro says:

    Why do you feel that Flanagan expreses contempt for you? Her article is a cri de coeur from one who feels that the Democratic Party has marginalized her. Although she may be guilty of employing overwrought metaphors, she said nothing in opposition to the choices of women who have chosen differently than her.
    In fact your post only confirms her point. You call her a “liar” based upon a snapshot poll on how married women might vote if the 2004 election were held today and accuse Flanagan of “invokeing a fanciful construction” and living the life of a “fictional 50’s housewife”. Flanagan may not agree with everything that the Republican Party (or the current administration) advocates, but the Republicans will at least treat her with respect.

  2. Ann Bartow says:

    she said nothing in opposition to the choices of women who have chosen differently than her.

    Oh yes she has! I suspect you are not familiar with her entire body of work. She has unloaded a truckload of opprobrium on women who have made choices she dislikes. And she castigates e.g. women who hire nannies, even though she did the same thing. She of course NEEDED a nanny! Everyone else is just a slacker!

    She is lying about the way women vote, and I suspect she knows it. If only female votes had been counted, Gore would have won the electroral college by a huge margin in 2000 and Kerry by a significant one in 2004. There is plenty of evidence of this from a variety of sources (I’m dealing with some serious shoulder pain and therefore typing with the wrong hand, slowly, but in a day or two I could provide you with a host of links/data if you are interested.) She distorts a lot of things; when she is caught she laughs it off as “humor” or “snark.” She claims to be a journalist when it suits her, but when she makes shit up, she claims she is but a memoirist, entitled to license with “facts.”

    She wants to pretend now that she has been standing up for other women. Her body of work gives little evidence of this. She has been meanly judgmental about anyone who does not live the way she thinks/says they should. In this short piece she says she misses her mother. I’m sure she does, but she has been quite critical of her mother in her writings as well, for going back to work when Flanagan was 12 or so. This short piece is disingenous to the point of dishonesty in characterizing her book as some homage to her mother. She will say anything to try to get pity; it seems to have worked on you, but I’m much more hard-hearted.

    I’m sure folks like Carrie Lukas, Phyllis Schlafley and Maggie Gallagher think she is simply wonderful. She is quite correct that everyone who reads her book thinks she is a conservative Republican. What surprises me is that this surprises her! Are Democrats really supposed to buy into this “women should gracefully submit to the authority of their husbands” crap just to keep Flanagan in the party? Not on my watch!

    I know many Democratic/liberal SAHMs. They think she is even creepier than I do, if that is possible. Read her essays. She has actually toned them down a bit in her book, and it’s still pretty awful.

  3. QuidPro says:

    Dear Professor Bartow,

    You are correct that I am unfamiliar with “the entire body of work” of Flanagan, which is irrelevant to the Time article you posted and upon which your original comment was directed. In that article she did not exhibit contempt towards women who have made choices with which she disagrees.

    Your claim that she lies “about the way women vote” is disingenuous. Her point was that the Democrats were losing the “housewife vote”, not the “woman’s vote”.

    Thus, your fantasy of what might have been in the last two presidential elections if women, and only women, had the franchise not only responds to an argument that Flanagan did not make, but also supports the point she did make. The Republican Gender Gap among women is more than offset by the Democratic Gender Gap among men. As Democrats drive the housewives such as Flanagan out of the Party, the Republican Gender Gap shrinks. Do you really think that your contemptuous screed against women who “submit to the authority of their husbands” is likely to attract men into the Democratic Party to offset the loss of the Housewife vote?

  4. Ann Bartow says:

    If men like the way the country is being run right now, they will vote Republican. If they don’t, they won’t. I can’t imagine anything I say will have much impact either way. I’m not a Democratic Party spokeperson or Democratic Party official.

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