Just weeks before the presidential election, after the release of the recording in which Donald Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women as he headed to the set of Days of Our Lives, my mother called me. While most people talked about the words that came out of a presidential candidate’s mouth, my mother didn’t mention Trump. Instead she said, “It’s Nicole! The woman in the video. It’s Nicole Walker from Days.”
My mother works from home, and as a kid I watched Days of Our Lives with her any weekday I wasn’t at school. The shows were so packed with golden-hued flashbacks, it was easy to catch up on what I missed. In our basement apartment, I witnessed glamorous women in mansions plot to destroy men who wronged them while my mother read the newspaper next to me on the couch we’d dragged in from the adjacent garbage room. For my mother, the soap opera was a background soundtrack to the country’s various crises. Only every now and then would she peek up from the paper to watch. While the villainous Stefano used hypnosis to try to seduce noble Marlena, or while the abusive Curtis blackmailed social-climber Kate, my mother would scream, “He’s a jerk!” I could never tell if she was hollering at the man on screen or a politician in the paper.
Then Nicole showed up in Days’s fictional town of Salem, sleekly blond, clear-skinned, and hiding a mysterious past. I was 11, frizzy-haired, freckled, and trying only to conceal how mysterious the future seemed to me, how weird I found the specter of adulthood, or at least boobs. When the handsome Eric Brady fell for Nicole, I paid fierce attention to her wiles—the way she swayed her hips, the way she looked at Eric, what she did with her hands during soft-focus make-out sessions.
But Nicole wasn’t just beautiful. She was tough. She would fight if she was treated unfairly or if she faced obstacles to love. At one point in the show, believing she’s successfully killed her older wealthy husband, Nicole begins to fall for her step-grandson. Later, she tries to sabotage the facial surgery of his love interest so that she, opera singer Chloe Lane, is permanently scarred and no longer competition in Nicole’s romantic quest. My mother and I laughed together as Nicole plotted her surgical revenge. Even the most abominable actions on Days could lose their power when my mother pointed out how ridiculous they were. “It’s an absurd storyline,” she’d say. With those words, she’d dismiss the rising music, the threat of loss, shame, heartbreak. Then she’d scream at the paper, “You total jerk.”
By the time I started commuting to high school on the subway, I found myself less interested in following the drama of Days than the drama of my own life, slight as it might have been.
One afternoon, while I was sitting on a packed subway with my eyes closed, flashing back to an interaction with a crush during French class, I felt a pressure against my thigh. A tall man sat next to me, a few bulky plastic grocery bags covering and spilling over his lap. I wasn’t sure if I was being touched by the man or his bags. If this were a scene on Days, dramatic music would swell. The man’s eyes would shift, his sketchiness as loud as a red-plumed hat. But instead the man just gazed ahead as the subway clanked in its rhythmic way. The train was crowded during rush hour and people touched each other accidentally all the time. I didn’t want to seem like a hysterical child. I didn’t want to make even a tiny scene. I slipped out of my seat and stood with the rest of the commuters.
At the next stop the man with the grocery bags stood and leaned close. “You have nice hips,” he said, his breath all over my face, and then he sped away.
I spent the rest of the ride reading and rereading headlines of a newspaper someone had left on the subway floor, trying not to think about how gross I felt, how angry I felt at the man for not only groping me, but for getting the last word. I kept focusing on the headlines at my feet: Somewhere else, people were being killed for reasons that didn’t make sense. Somewhere else, people were starving, disease-ridden. Somewhere else, other girls didn’t go to school at all.
We reached my stop.
What happened next happened fast. As I exited the train, a guy on the platform smiled, grabbed my crotch in passing, then boarded the subway. The doors shut, the train left, and I stood unmoving on the platform.
Something about how both these offenses happened to me one after the other, without a single word from me, made me hazy. One alone would be an occurrence—but two felt like a freakish, melodramatic pattern. Days had taught me about freakish, melodramatic patterns in love, hate, and betrayal, but my assailants weren’t men I knew. They had no narrative significance to me.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to tell my mom about what happened. But when I got home and sat on the couch with her in front of the muted TV, it just spilled out: Not just one guy had grabbed me, but two. “Two!” I said and laughed with as little wobble and as much irony as I could muster. I thought my mother might blame me, tell me I should have been more alert on the train. Or maybe she’d just laugh like she did at the craziest plot lines on Days and say, “Two? That is absurd.”
She didn’t blame me and she didn’t laugh. Instead she started to tell me about the time when she was a teenager walking down the street with her sister, both of them eating ice cream. An old man grabbed her sister’s butt, then walked away. My mother, fresh off a reading of The Feminine Mystique, shouted after him. The man turned, said, “Now, girls,” his condescension only enraging her more. My mother, who had finished her ice cream, grabbed her sister’s cone and shoved it in the man’s face. Then she ran.
When she got home, adrenalized and giddy, she told her boyfriend about what happened. He shrugged, not impressed. He said the man was probably at home getting off on the memory of what she’d done.
And then my mother took my hand and her voice got angry, the way it did when she was talking about a politician. She told me the boyfriend had wanted to diminish her, to make her feel foolish for trying to get the last word, to make her feel like even in enacting revenge, she could never be the heroine, but only the sexual object.
“That boyfriend sounds like a jerk,” I said and felt older, adult in the way I’d been watching for when I watched Days. What happened on the subway seemed different now, too, not like two absurd moments, but rather like points on an absurd storyline, stretching back to before me, tying me to my mother.
The next day, I got back on the subway to go to school. Sometimes I thought of those men, what I’d say if I saw them again, but I never did.
When I saw the clip of Nicole Walker and Donald Trump, it didn’t feel like I was watching a soap opera or an escape. It felt like a flashback. Of course, it wasn’t really Nicole Walker in the clip. It was the actress Arianne Zucker, trying to be nice, to do her job. Yet I couldn’t help seeing the soap character I’d admired in my childhood, couldn’t help imagining a lost episode of Days of Our Lives where Nicole bugs Trump and hears what he said about grabbing women. I imagined her plotting a revenge that involved babies switched at birth, evil twins, plastic surgery gone awry.
But why was it easier for me to envision a female character exacting vengeance than a woman who existed in reality? I needed to do better. I closed my eyes, remembering how silent I felt when I got grabbed in the subway, and how powerful I felt when I told my mother her boyfriend had been a total jerk. When I again imagined the clip of Arianne Zucker and Donald Trump, my mind made a dramatic switch worthy of a soap opera. Instead of Nicole Walker, and instead of the actress playing her, it was my mother I envisioned now, holding an ice cream cone like a sword, ready to change the storyline however she could.
Linda Rosenkrantz’s Talk — somewhat unsurprisingly — is about what we don’t say when we say things.
Recently re-issued by NYRB Classics, Rosenkrantz’s Talk was a small sensation when it was first published in 1968. The book condensed a series of summer-long conversations between three late-20-somethings — one modeled after Linda herself — during one sweltering and sandy summer spent at the beach in East Hampton, N.Y.
Thanks to a ’60s script of psychedelics and psychoanalysis, Talk is characterized by introspective and scrupulous self-analysis. The three friends — Emily, Vincent, and Marsha — spend their 1965 summer discussing what most young people discuss: sex, relationships, and more sex. Much of the pleasure of Talk is the fact that though we readers feel we are reading a “script” — inherently a type of contrived and falsified dialogue — in fact we are reading the actual, although slightly altered, conversations of three friends over a Hamptons summer.
In 1965, Rosenkrantz lugged her enormous tape recorder — what she calls “the bulky monster” — to the beach and recorded conversations. The end product was some 1,500 pages and a stable of some 25 characters. She condensed the tome of transcribed papers to a slim 250-page paperback and reduced the character count to three. Marsha — modeled on the author — is an aspiring writer; Emily is a young actress who recounts her struggles and triumphs; and Vincent is a gay painter who shares in Emily and Marsha’s candid conversations about S&M and masturbation.
What made Talk such a sensation in the 1960s was that not only the salacious content, but the fact that it was a series of recorded conversations presented as a novel. In an era of New Journalism, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, Rosenkrantz’s book was a hybrid of sorts. Talk took its premise from theatre, but its politics from the likes of The Feminine Mystique and the recent legalization of the pill. It was a character study; a story of three under-represented and oppressed classes — women, gay men, artists — which were given an unobstructed avenue to see their conversations and experiences and stories shared. The voices of women and gay men were so often marginalized; Talk made them the focal point.
But Rosenkrantz had a hard time convincing a publisher of the book’s literary and cultural merits. She shopped it around for over a year, sending out countless manuscripts to prospective publishers and collecting “a long trail of less colorful rejection letters,” as she recently wrote in The Paris Review. Many editors were shocked by the risqué and confessional content contained in the conversations. Rosenkrantz writes that one well-known editor rejected the proposal, calling the book “repellently raunchy.”
In early 1968, Talk finally saw daylight. Publishing house Putnam — as a means to avoid any type of legal consequences after publication — presented the work as completely fiction. Rosenkrantz says that she was thrilled when the book was finally published but admits that she had been “completely complicit in the betrayal of the book’s mandate — which was to present raw reality.” Talk, published as a work of fiction, would not carry the same cultural and literary currency had it been released under its original “mandate.”
Then, as now, the intersection of truth and fiction is a complicated place. The quality of Rosenkrantz’s extracted conversations is both visceral and intimate. But equally there is a falseness that belies their sense of authenticity.
Case in point: in one exchange, friends Marsha and Emily are discussing Emily’s recent “breakthrough” in her acting class. Emily was able to cry on cue in a monologue she performed from La Notte. (Emily is talking about performing a scene from a play; we are reading a “scene” from Talk.) In this particular monologue she describes, Emily was asked to weep after reading a letter her character receives. As a way to “embody” her character, Emily pretends the letter is from one of her own former lovers, Philippe. Emily imitates her own actions when she received a letter from him, as she performs the scene from La Notte for her class. The fact that Emily and Marsha are discussing a moment of acting — ironically about a scene from La Notte where no words are spoken — really serves to only point out their dialogue, their exchange, the fact that Emily and Marsha are talking, but also are not.
It would appear that their conversation is based on a real exchange of ideas, in which Emily is talking about her efforts to show an “authentic” character in her acting class. Emily then goes on, telling Marsha that later at a party the following evening, a crush of hers named Michael Christy, appeared and her “hysterical feelings” for him were filtered from “damaged, love feelings about Phillippe.” The overwhelming irony underscoring this is that Emily’s rawness and realness on stage is truer than the performance she gave at the party. The exchange calls into question the whole idea of character and performances we all give in our daily lives, at work, at home. Rosenkrantz’s indulges in a clever paradox here: Emily is fake when she’s being real and is real when she’s being fake.
Talk offers these wonderful — if slightly meta — interventions into the daily lives and (recorded) conversations of young creative people, as well as those from social and gender groups otherwise marginalized by the larger 1960s cultural milieu. This is what made Rosenkrantz’s book (not “novel”) so revolutionary and transgressive. It is recorded away from mainstream America and at the beach, a place so often for self-reflection and deeper, more intimate prying. It is also set in a hub of queer and non-heteronormative people and experiences and ideas, all of which are examined and told through the dialogue of Emily, Marsha, and Vincent.
What adds to the more political dimensions of Talk is the sheer excess of dialogue Rosenkrantz presents. The fact that the entire book is a series of exchanges between two women — and often their gay friend Vincent — is deeply transgressive in the context of 1960s mainstream publishing. While the 1960s offered rare moments of feminist and queer representations, like Leslie Gore’s hit song “You Don’t Own Me” or CBS’s notorious “The Homosexuals” TV interviews, women and gay men were not often given space for individual and unmitigated self-expression. Talk is not just about giving women and gay men the space to be open and honest about their sexual and emotional lives, but acknowledging that this is a legitimate and real set of experiences.
As a point of comparison, look at popular film representations of women at the time. These include Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), where the star of the film is undressed and then slaughtered 40 minutes into the narrative; Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), about a lonely call girl whose entire existence is mediated by a nameless cat, rich men, and a cantankerous and aggressive upstairs neighbor; and Barbarella (1968), in which we see Jane Fonda shoot alien men with beehive hair and low-cut skin suits. While these films suggest they are giving “air time” to more women and women’s issues, they only masked a more insidious silencing of women by a larger patriarchal world.
Talk disengaged with and disturbed this. It said that women speak about sex, drugs, alcohol, S&M, masturbation, boys, adultery, abortion, the pill, vaginas, urination, underwear, penises, and periods. It vocalized an unfairly hidden world.
Rosenkrantz’s title emphasized this simplicity; it is a book with “just” talking in it. But what was so important about Rosenkrantz’s intervention (recording these conversations) and then regurgitation of these discussion was that talk, as a literary device or indeed as a type of text endemic to the cultural and political sphere of the time, was not taken seriously. Rosenkrantz elevated it to argue that the discussions women — and, to an extent, gay men — have about sex and relationships and everything else are worthy of print and publication and politics.
Although Rosenkrantz later made a name for herself — ironically enough — by producing popular baby name guides (Cool Names for Babies is one), Talk is an era-defining text. With its unvarnished “realism” and its celebration of marginalized groups, Talk argues that the everyday language of men and women is valuable, important, and worthy of a book.
For at least five generations now, women’s lives have been examined in books and newspaper features as a great social riddle. We are encouraged to lean in yet be skeptical of having it all, to call bias as we see it yet pipe down and smile more in meetings to get ahead. Just now, as the season thaws, the cultural conversation on whether to embrace a particular well-worn path — to marry and have children, if one can — is being amped up by a whirl of essays, memoirs, and historical narrative. This week, Random House will publish Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick. In early April, the anthology Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum and featuring essays by men as well as women, came out. These books are the latest volleys in a public debate that has been going on for at least a century. Bolick acknowledges this in Spinster as she reinterprets the lives of five women from the last century — columnist Neith Boyce, essayist Maeve Brennan, visionary writer Charlote Perkins Gilman, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and novelist Edith Wharton — all figures who were boldly true to themselves and their ambitions. But beyond those names, hovering in the background, haunting us today from Progressive-Era New York, investigative journalist Ida Tarbell and her now-obscure series The Business of Being a Woman was an essential voice in the beginning of this debate in American media. Her complicated vision, which shifted with the decades and reflected the national upheavals she observed from close quarters, should not be forgotten today.
How can one opt out of a social design that so many of us feel pressured to fulfill, without being possessed by regret (or, at the very least, a whole lot of ambivalence)? Is there a working morality that decides which choice is better for everyone? If not, why do so many people feel and act as though there is? I first read Daum on this subject in The New Yorker earlier this year, in her masterful essay “Difference Maker.” That piece’s honesty about the “Central Sadness” of a marriage was like a punch in the chest — and set a daunting example for how honest the rest of us can aspire to be in the narratives we build out of our own lives. Daum’s anthology was reviewed in The New York Times by Bolick, whose book has already been excerpted and discussed in Vogue and Slate. In hearing these contemporary voices weigh in with both confession and argument, it seemed to me there would be value in looking back at earlier manifestoes. I wondered how much, or how little, had changed in the portrayal of that high-consequence negotiation of biology, circumstance, and choice.
Since the early 1900s, the contradictions of living a woman’s life have lurked in the media spotlight as a reliable spark for debate: before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique and the “problem that has no name,” there was the Uneasy Woman, and the writers who sought to diagnose and save her from uneasiness. Ida Minerva Tarbell was a pioneering journalist — a “muckraker” whose beady eye relentlessly parsed the sins of great tycoons through the early 1900s. But she also had a lesser-known passion: later in her career, she tried to have the last word on her peers’ dissatisfactions with sex, marriage, and gender equality. Born in a Pennsylvania log cabin in 1857, Tarbell rose to stardom at the turn of the 20th century at McClure’s Magazine, where she wrote one of one of the landmark pieces of American reportage, “The History of Standard Oil Company.” A decade later, she began writing essay after essay about “the Uneasy Woman,” and the result was a series in the Ladies’ Home Journal and two now-forgotten books compiled from her dozens of magazine pieces: The Business of Being a Woman (1912) and The Ways of Woman (1915). When I came across Tarbell’s books, it was clear that they were revealing documents. Written in a fluid, authoritative style, as though she is making her arguments to a literary salon of the 1920s, they entertained even as they exasperated and surprised me. How should a female person be? The question occupied hundreds of printed pages a century ago and still does today. Tarbell tried her damnedest to answer it.
Steve Weinberg’s 2008 book Taking on the Trust: How Ida Tarbell Brought Down John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil describes Tarbell living alone in New York City in a handsome red-brick building at 40 West Ninth St. Her independence was concentrated by a dose of fear that she would end up like her mother, Esther, a women’s rights advocate and teacher who had given up her job after getting married. Esther’s life had been governed by the vagaries of her husband’s career and the needs of their babies. Ida, their first child, knew from an early age that she wanted something else: “I must be free; and to be free I must be a spinster. When I was fourteen I was praying God on my knees to keep me from marriage,” she wrote in her memoir, All in a Day’s Work. So she set her eyes on college, and beyond that, on making her own way. As adulthood wore on, things got more complicated.
Higher education and careers were opening up to women for the first time, and women’s suffrage seemed to be just over the horizon. Recent technologies, the typewriter and then the telephone, meant a steady rise in secretarial jobs. The media called the suddenly visible population of educated, outgoing young ladies New Women: they rode bicycles, played tennis, wore skirts that showed some ankle, and appeared in Charles Dana Gibson’s pen-and-ink drawings. But while the Gibson Girls on the page were always nattily dressed and never political, the New Woman was in practice wary that having a family almost always meant giving up any public influence she had already earned. As one of Tarbell’s fellow newspaperwomen, Rheta Childe Dorr, put it, women increasingly sought “to belong to the human race, not the ladies’ aid society to the human race.”
In the hot August of 1891, Ida Tarbell gave up her cozy job as managing editor of the journal The Chautauquan and moved to Paris. She wanted to write full-time and taste life outside small-town Pennsylvania. She threw herself into cafe life and became fascinated with the militant feminists of the French Revolution, who had preached a different way of life over two centuries earlier. “Celibacy is the aristocracy of the future” was one of their slogans, and in her library chair at the Sorbonne, Tarbell carefully copied it into her notebook.
Celibacy, or at least independence, made Tarbell’s life the freewheeling, over-achieving affair that it was. But once she moved from Paris to New York and made her name at McClure’s, she was alarmed to be seen as a role model. Reading her Ladies’ Home Journal columns today, it’s clear that for her suffrage and spinsterhood had trade-offs that didn’t have much to do with success or happiness. She preached instead that the “feminine unrest” was the result of mistaking sameness for equality. “[Women] cannot be made equal by exterior devices like trousers, ballots, the study of Greek,” she insisted; “The central fact of the woman’s life — Nature’s reason for her — is the child.” The subject was inescapable and exhausting. “The most conspicuous occupation of the American woman of to-day, dressing herself aside,” Ida Tarbell chided, “is self-discussion.”
Alternately starry-eyed and detached towards the community of women she was addressing, she wrote herself into the story as a fluke, one of the few “bachelor souls” whose homes were full of beautiful things but empty of the “sweet human litter” that made it other than a “meatless shell.” Tarbell’s meatless shell was a postcard-perfect farm in Connecticut where she entertained Mark Twain and kept a pig named Juicy, but she did her best to brush off those who wanted to follow in her footsteps. “A few women in every country have always and probably always will find work and usefulness and happiness in exceptional tasks,” she wrote. “[They] are not the ones who build the nation.”
There are few real answers here for the Uneasy Woman, apart from to appreciate the awesome responsibility of raising well-adjusted babies. The problem with society, Tarbell was sure, was the way it handled the way those babies were made. The Uneasy Woman would never have gotten that way if it hadn’t been for two all-too-pervasive ideas: first, that sex should be completely ignored until marriage; and second, that marriage meant submission. Sex was not frankly discussed with young people, though children rarely came of age without figuring out the facts of life. Tarbell was disdainful of the deep-seated cultural secrecy and hysteria surrounding the subject and the harm that it did to relationships and families. A young woman embarking on marriage at the turn of the century, Tarbell wrote, “is like a voyager who starts out on a great sea with no other chart than a sailor’s yarns, no other compass than curiosity.” Even if that curiosity brought satisfaction instead of disappointment (or worse), it often came with hefty consequences. Through the 19th century, withdrawal and abortion were the most common methods of family planning, and many married couples had children earlier and in greater number than they would have liked.
Divorce and separation rates rose faster in the Progressive Era than ever before, and social scientists turned their attention to this sudden trend. Many of them argued that its stigma should be removed, and that men and women should equally have the authority to leave a failed marriage. Tarbell, for her part, was jaded by the number of women she knew who had sacrificed their values and interests for the sake of a superficially tranquil marriage. “Peace which comes from submission and restraint is a poor thing,” she wrote. It was an alluring trap, one disguised as security for both people in the marriage, but it would inevitably make a woman “less interesting, less important, both to herself and to him.”
What’s eye-catching about Tarbell’s writing here is not that she was a bad feminist with some progressive ideas. In her published writing she was, as Kathleen Brady wrote in Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker, “a weathervane, not an engine of change.” Privately, though, she chafed against the boundaries and tried to live as though they did not apply to her. It’s the way her own uncertainty and frustration — her own Unease — bubble up in her writing when her guard is down. The fact that she was a woman sometimes excluded her from the more clubby, sociable aspects of New York journalism. “The whole office goes on Thursday to the publishers’ dinner,” she wrote in a letter, “– that is, everybody but myself. It is the first time since I came into the office that the fact of petticoats has stood in my way, and I am half inclined to resent it.” Her editor at McClure’s had encouraged her to tell the stories she wanted to tell, but later in her career, she hit a glass ceiling that took her by surprise. At the American magazine, which she co-founded, a male colleague began to reject her editorials, saying, “You sputter like a woman” — and Tarbell, retelling the scenes years later, couldn’t shake the worry that he was right.
It took time, war, and a chance meeting to change her mind. During the First World War, Woodrow Wilson appointed her to the 11-member Council of National Defense Woman’s Committee. As she got to know another woman on the committee, Anna H. Shaw, Tarbell’s convictions began to change. Shaw, the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, didn’t try to befriend Tarbell right away because of her anti-suffrage stance, but Tarbell admired Shaw more and more as they worked together. “She was so able, so zealous, so utterly given to her cause,” Tarbell marveled. “…most warm-hearted…as well as delightfully salty in her bristling against men.” They became friends, and gradually, Tarbell’s tone changed. She became more of a devil’s advocate for feminist causes, questioning them sympathetically instead of brushing them aside.
For the October 1924 edition of Good Housekeeping, Tarbell wrote a long investigation titled, “Is Woman’s Suffrage a Failure?” It had been four years since women had won the vote, and Tarbell took a road trip across America to research the story. She enthusiastically reported on the women she met who held public office, and concluded that a woman could lead a nation just as well as a man: “Consider Catherine of Russia…Elizabeth of England, Catherine de Medici. And it was of Marie Antoinette that Mirabeau said she was the only man the king had about him.” It took substantial hindsight, but Tarbell had decided that the flukes, the “bachelor souls” who pursued power and success in public life, were as much the Everywoman as those who were wives and mothers first. Her narrative, printed and sold across America, had decisively changed.
Ida Tarbell lived through monumental events in American history: the Civil War, Great Depression, two World Wars, and the invention of Thomas Edison’s light bulb, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, the car, and airplane, to name a few. She saw slaves freed and women get the vote, and she turned her critical, curious gaze on it all. But when it came to the Business of Being a Woman, she had to fight with herself as much as with others to come to a working conclusion. It took years of writing and unrest to realize what it was that she really wanted to see in the world.