Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Erma Bombeck: Subversive Feminist

Nope, I’m not kidding.

Granted, hers isn’t the first name to jump to mind when you think of great feminist writers of the 60’s and 70’s. But for every one woman who plowed through The Feminine Mystique, hundreds LOL’d their way through her At Wit’s End columns. 

In case you don't know her, Erma Bombeck was a humor writer. She spent several years as a stay-at-home mother before beginning a small weekly humor column about housewifery. Her editor had his doubts about whether such a column would find an audience, but within a short time it was syndicated to over 900 newspapers. Erma became so successful, her husband quit his job to manage her career. In total, she wrote 15 books, most of which became bestsellers. If her humor feels a bit tired today, it’s only because subsequent humorists, including today’s crop of mommy bloggers, still work with updates of tropes Erma popularized.

But she wrote about being a housewife and mom. What's feminist about that?

1. Well, she said this: “Sharing responsibility is what the entire movement to free women is all about. If woman are ever to be appreciated, a husband should drive a car pool . . . just once.”

2.  She told the truth about cleaning. Advertisements and zen philosophy be damned, housework isn’t fulfilling work. It’s monotonous and boring and it's time away from more meaningful pursuits. “Housework,” Bombeck said, “is a treadmill from futility to oblivion with stop offs at tedium and counter productivity.”

She made it okay for women jump off that treadmill. Unfortunately, there’s been a pushback on this. With entire TV channels devoted to home improvement, it’s no longer enough to just keep your house within acceptable sanitation standards; it should be show home worthy.

3. She wrote honestly and humorously about aging as a female. The big kerfuffle about Renee Zellweger reveals how brutally women are still judged just for daring to have birthdays past 35.

4. And she wrote about just how hard it was (and is) for women to balance work and home life:

“Then one day in a leading magazine, I saw a story called, 'Today’s Woman on the Go.'”
At the top of the article was a picture of a well-stacked blonde at a construction site with a group of men around her while she read blueprints to them. I noted her shoes were coordinated with her Gucci yellow hard hat.
The second picture showed her in a pair of flowing pajamas standing over the stove stirring her filet-mignon helper (recipe on page 36) while her husband tossed the salad and her children lovingly set the table.
It made me want to spit up….
You have only to work once in your life to know that “Today’s Woman on the Go” is pure fiction. Maybe they got the captions under the pictures switched. Maybe she wore the long flowing pajamas at work and the hard hat at home. Heaven knows, home is a Hard Hat area.
Where were the pictures showing her racing around the kitchen in a pair of bedroom slippers, trying to quick-thaw a chop under each armpit….”

5. And she said this: “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’” Not I had a floor you could lick. Not I ironed my children’s jeans every day. But I used my talents. 

She helped a generation of mothers and housewives to know their personal dreams were legitimate and worth pursuing. That it was okay to want more than a husband and children and white picket fence.

Okay, okay, Erma was a feminist. But subversive? Really? Isn’t that a little… strong? We're talking housewife humor, here, not George Carlin.

Erma Bombeck let it all hang out, telling readers about her messy house, flawed children, body issues, imperfect marriage, and work/family balance struggles. She made readers laugh at her failures to meet societal expectations, using humor to reveal just how ridiculous the expectations were in the first place. “If you can’t change it, laugh at it,” Erma said. 

I'm willing to bet Sarah Silverman would agree: That’s a darned subversive idea.


  1. Yay! The blog muse struck and resulted in a great post! I love the parallel you made between blogs of today and Bombeck's column. Bloggers face the same type of trivialization (I was guilty of this myself, just yesterday) even though they're pioneers in what's shaping up to be not only a powerhouse marketing tool but probably the most relevant form of communication this century. Women dominate the blogs, no question, and perhaps we have Erma to thank for that.

    1. Thanks, Jen and Sylvia. And I hope this doesn't come across as me trivializing mom work. Housework, yes. Mom work, no. Erma dedicated one of her later books to her children, saying, "If I blow it raising them . . . . nothing else I do will matter very much." (Of course she said this after already achieving fame and recognition as a writer!)

  2. As a one time say at home mommy, I assure you it's not an easy job and I beg people who think it is to try it.