Feminist Note:
Two Tracks
25 June 2019

¶ Although I am usually able to resist buying novels that I’ve never heard of, I succumbed to the previewed charms of Renée Rosen’s Park Avenue Summer when it appeared in an array of things that I “might like” at Amazon. The book arrived almost immediately, and I read it just as quickly, finding it engaging and well-written. I probably won’t ever read it again, but I don’t at all regret having yielded to the impulse to buy it.  

The framework of the story is very simple. Alice Weiss, a twenty-one year-old girl from Youngstown, gets off the bus in Manhattan with a lot of ambition and one valuable contact. This lands her a job as Helen Gurley Brown’s secretary at Cosmopolitan, which Brown has just taken on. It is March 1965, and the first issue to reflect Brown’s plans for the magazine will be July’s. If she makes it. We learn pretty quickly that the executives at Hearst are hoping to be able to cease publication of the venerable magazine, once eminent but now a faded, suburban rag. In other words, they expect Brown to fail, and they saddle her with a backlog of paid-for but lackluster articles and a budget that won’t enable striking out in new directions. Knowing that Brown will triumph despite all attempts to thwart her keeps at least one happy ending simmering in the background.

Meanwhile, Alice — whose career as a resourceful Gal Friday, devoted to keeping her bold boss aloft, is rather more interesting to read about — has her love-life to tend to. Rosen manages to keep the romancing cued to the issues facing any smart Cosmo Girl. For example: what to do with a devilishly handsome, sexually clever big, bad Don Juan? Listen to Helen. 

Without at any time veering more than two or three sentences from the course of true storytelling, Rosen raises, for any interested reader, a host of thoughts about feminism in the Sixties — and today. She is very good about reminding the reader of the era’s sexual and gender-linked strictures, which were only beginning to reflect, and not at all starting to melt in the rising sun of coming changes. I found myself grasping, for the first time, that there were, even then, two tracks for feminist action, parallel and even antagonistic. I stopped thinking of successive waves and took up instead the notion of simultaneous pilgrimages.

The high road, as it were, was pioneered by a small band of intelligent women who hoped for the creation of a new politics that would in turn nourish a new society, one in which, among other things, the corrosive effects of masculine hegemony (ever more awkwardly self-conscious as women emerged from purdah) would be countered by women’s voices. The low road — low in the esteem of the ladies on high, such as Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin — thronged with girls who simply wanted to have as much as fun as men did. It was on the low road that billboards for Cosmopolitan were posted. 

So far, travelers on neither road have encountered a generalized solution to the problem of parenthood, which is that becoming a father need not, and in almost all cases does not, disrupt a man’s life. There is much more to this problem than just the hassles of, for example, caring for an infant and managing carpools, doing the laundry and meeting with teachers. It begins when a boy and a girl start holding hands. As things (still) stand today, the girl who does not know a lot more than the boy about what holding hands leads to may find herself at a loss quite as regrettable as the fate of unlucky Victorian maidens. The Victorian maiden might have faced ostracism, but the modern girl risks a demoralizing exhaustion that is no less likely to take her out of the swim. Somehow, it is still the men who are entitled to feel resentful and put-upon. 

And while girls have indeed, for better or worse, had a lot more fun, the search for a new politics has proved unavailing. The relationship of women to the world of work has quite failed to produce scalable alternatives to male preferences, so that there still exists no social idea of what success for a woman might be counted upon to look like. The idea that the acquisition of expertise as a mother might constitute a kind of graduate-degree program, bestowing powerful credentials, in a reformed world of work, along with their children’s high-school diplomas, doesn’t seem to have occurred to anybody. The fact that much of what men both are required to do and do of their own free will during their early working years is simply vile, wrong, and counterhuman has barely dawned on satirists. Are we even lucky — and just whom do I mean by “we” — to know that something so taken for granted is so very wrong? 

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