Indignities women suffer, then and now

WASHINGTON • My mother, Doris Fleischman, was a feminist with regrets. I was determined to avoid her mistakes. Though, 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. 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. "We bore children, baked cakes, said 'yes, please' to our husbands, and tried to be good wives," she wrote. "Feminists in general were - and are - feminine at home."

As a child, I hated explaining to friends about my mother's name. 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 make-up.

Everything in the more than five decades since then - my novels, my non-fiction books, my essays - I've published as Anne Bernays. 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 if their birth name was a pair of jeans that no longer fit.

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. And I loved being married.

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 cared 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, which published 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 yanked me down onto his lap and tried to keep me there, laughing. Looking back, I wonder: Where was my outrage?

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 on 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.

Has any clear message trickled down to my three daughters, or have I aped my mother's ambiguities?

I'm thinking about the time in the 1970s when my eldest daughter, Susanna, played on her school's otherwise all-male soccer team. Another team refused to compete as long as there was a girl on the field. So her 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 realise 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.


• Bernays is a novelist and a fiction writing instructor with Harvard's Nieman Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 12, 2017, with the headline 'Indignities women suffer, then and now'. Subscribe