Essay by Anne Bernays. The views expressed are the opinions of the author.
My mother, Doris Fleischman, was a feminist with regrets. I was determined to avoid her mistakes. Although, looking back, I have quite a few regrets of my own.
In 1915, my mother talked her way into becoming the first female journalist to cover a boxing match for a major newspaper, the New York Tribune. When she married my father, Edward Bernays, in 1922, she was intent on remaining Miss Fleischman. She made headlines for checking in under her birth name at the Waldorf Astoria on their wedding night, and then again, three years later, when she became the first married woman to obtain a U.S. passport in her own name. For decades, she partnered with my father at their public relations firm. She published hundreds of articles and a book encouraging working women.
And yet she came to lament the nuisance of repeatedly having to explain her name — to clients, to social contacts, to schools, to doctors’ offices, to banks.
She reflected that women of her era who were committed to keeping their names “were guilty of belief in magic. We thought a name itself had power to confer a separate identity. It is the actions of women and the attitudes of men towards them that determine a woman’s status.”
My mother further decided that she and other women were feminists in public but then reverted to traditional gender roles.
I can attest to the sometimes conflicting principles she adopted. She was the queen of the mixed message. And I didn’t always take away the right lesson. I stumbled both trying to follow and resist my mother’s advice.
A steely spokesperson for women beyond our front door, Doris Fleischman was the very model of a Victorian wife. On the eve of my wedding in 1954, my mother the feminist advised, “Remember, when you have an argument with your husband, he’s always right.” Then this piquant afterthought: “All men sleep with their secretaries.” My mother’s deference to my father helps explain why he is celebrated as the “father of public relations ,” while she gets relatively little credit for helping to create the field. And in fact, it was more his idea than hers to take a stand on keeping her name. He was fluent in the language of feminism, even if that wasn’t often evident in his relationship with her.
As a child, I hated explaining to friends about my mother’s name. “Isn’t she married to your father?” they’d ask. When I married my husband, Justin Kaplan, I was delighted to become Anne Kaplan, and I published my first short story under that name. But then I reconsidered: Anne Kaplan hadn’t written the story. Anne Bernays had, with her particular history, temperament and emotional makeup.
Everything in the more than five decades since then — my novels, my nonfiction books, my essays — I’ve published as Anne Bernays. I also co-wrote a book with my husband (whom everyone called Joe) on the history and social significance of names. To me now, it seems ludicrous that so many women when they marry blithely discard one of the central, profound elements that make up who they are, as though their birth name were a pair of jeans that no longer fit. My mother ended up using her married name in later years; I’ve become more radical. Although it happened in fits and starts.
I didn’t think much of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” when it was published in 1963. I was snooty about it partly because Friedan was a mere magazine writer who had drawn her conclusions largely through one survey distributed among her Smith College classmates. Also, the book didn’t seem to describe me. I wasn’t stifled at home; I was working (earning 35 bucks a week). And I loved being married.
My husband, who had lived alone for several years, knew how to cook and shop, while I, who had moved straight from my family’s townhouse to his apartment, was ignorant of anything that had to do with keeping house. I had never bought the ingredients for a meal, nor cooked for guests, nor planned anything domestic. My mother told me that educated women didn’t have to learn how to cook; all they needed was a couple of cookbooks. “You can read, can’t you?” (She wasn’t speaking from experience — she’d always relied on cooks.) So Joe gently tutored me in what used to be known as “home economics.” For me, this was a kind of liberation — because having “help” translates to being “helpless,” one of those neat oxymorons.
I got a far bigger jolt from reading Jean Baker Miller’s “Toward a New Psychology of Women” in 1976. Aimed at smug women like me, who thought we’d managed to have it all, it presented a stark portrayal of how women were simultaneously invited to live in the world and punished for it. For more years than I care to count, I had gone along with this morally flimsy status quo.
One of my first jobs after college was at a literary journal called Discovery (costing 35 cents and publishing the work of writers known and yet to be known, including Norman Mailer, William Styron and Muriel Rukeyser). Editor Vance Bourjaily propositioned me on my first day. When I arrived at the journal’s offices, then housed in his apartment, he said his wife was out and suggested we go into the bedroom. I told him I wasn’t interested, but I wasn’t distressed. I figured that was just what men did.
When Discovery moved to Rockefeller Center, home of parent company Simon & Schuster, I entered a world that teemed with uninhibited male libido. I watched, agog, as the patrician chief executive goosed his secretary while she bent over the drawer of a filing cabinet. I said nothing as the head of the production department, laughing, yanked me down onto his lap and tried to keep me there. Looking back, I wonder: Where was my outrage?
I was offered the top editor job at Discovery after Bourjaily left. I wanted to take it. But I was scared of the responsibilities and didn’t think I could do it well enough. So I turned it down — one of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever made. I can forgive myself, because I was 22 and too young to know what I could accomplish. But a 22-year-old man probably would have jumped at the chance.
Instead, I took a job as an assistant editor in the New York office of Houghton Mifflin, one of the whitest-shoe publishers on the planet. Sometimes, when the switchboard operator was on her lunch hour, I was asked to fill in. I found I kind of enjoyed it. I liked shoving electrical cords into the round jacks on the board in front of me and announcing calls. And it was a relief from reading mediocre manuscripts. I assure you, though, they would never have asked a man to do it. It was considered almost as humbling as emptying wastebaskets.
Of course, these sorts of indignities followed me outside the office, as well. In 1968, we bought a few acres of land on Cape Cod — on a dune on the edge of the bay, where you can see the sun set into the water. At the top of our deed of sale was “Justin Kaplan,” and a line or two below his name, in smaller type, “et ux.” “Uxor” is Latin for “wife.” When I first saw the deed, I was annoyed. But then I began to think it was funny and sad, even while realizing that my name being replaced by “ux” was a blatant example of men’s persistent social superiority. My mother would probably have minded it more than me, I thought. Joe didn’t like it, either. But neither of us did anything about it.
Miller’s book forced a reckoning. Many of us who took it seriously were in a quandary: We were aware that the old, patriarchal ways still had a profound hold in most marriages, but we didn’t want to endanger our partnerships. I loved my husband and the life we had worked out together. I had begun to write the first of 10 published novels, and he was working on his first book, a biography of Mark Twain that would win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Why should I want to change anything?
So I made two gestures that were far more symbolic than actual. I told him I was no longer going to pick up his clothes from the floor, where he invariably left them before getting into bed. And I was no longer going to iron his shirts. Trivial, maybe, but representing a shift in our relationship that wasn’t missed by Joe.
I’m thinking about the time in the ’70s when my eldest daughter, Susanna, played on her school’s otherwise all-male soccer team. Another team refused to compete as long as a girl was on the field. So Susanna’s headmaster duly benched her. This was the ideal time to resist, yet I said nothing. It took another parent to stand up to the headmaster. He caved, the game was forfeited, and Susanna was vindicated. But I hadn’t yet found the grit or the words to be her champion.
Indignities, large and small, are still visited on girls and women so automatically, so regularly, that they pass as the norm. We accept far too much without even wincing. Witness all the women posting about being at the receiving end of sexual harassment, with the hashtag #metoo, in many cases noting that they didn’t realize it was harassment at the time. It will probably take years and years before our — that is, female as well as male — moral muscles function properly.
I’ve come to admire my mother’s willingness to advocate for women’s rights in circumstances where we’ve been pushed to the back row. And I’ve grown to accept that it’s not easy to achieve parity, especially when the history of family life has been predetermined and maintained by men. I’ve become more forgiving of her mistakes — and some of my own.
I find it somewhat odd and at the same time gratifying that my daughters don’t identify themselves as feminists. They refuse to focus on abstractions and instead just get on with it. All three work at and get paid for doing what they like to do best. Maybe, in spite of it all, the right message got through.
Anne Bernays delivered a version of this essay as a speech last year at the Humanist Hub at Harvard. Follow @Anne_Bernays.