The Bitch Is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier
- Edited by Cathi Hanauer
- William Morrow
- 368 pp.
- Reviewed by Susan Schorn
- December 16, 2016
A new collection of essays revisits the burdens of motherhood, marriage, and autonomy first laid out in The Bitch in the House.
"There were a lot of us 'bitches' out there," observes editor Cathi Hanauer in her introduction to The Bitch Is Back, referring to the readers and writers of 2002's The Bitch in the House, a collection of essays by women who were, she says, "exhausted, disillusioned, resentful, and angry at our husbands."
In The Bitch Is Back, Hanauer has rounded up 25 more essays by women still struggling with the hard-won right to "have it all": Fulfilling relationships, careers, and parenthood. In the years since the publication of The Bitch in the House, she notes, our culture has entered "a period of arguably the greatest sexual, gender, marriage, and relationship transition in history."
The authors of the essays in The Bitch in the House have grappled with their own transitions: aging, divorce and remarriage, and professional challenges. What, Hanauer wondered, have we all learned in the interim?
Nine of the contributors to this new volume also wrote essays for The Bitch in the House, and catching up with these women is often quite satisfying. Kate Christensen, who wrote about compromise and commitment in her marriage in 2002, explains why she has since divorced her husband and found a new partner two decades younger. Hope Edelman reports that the lopsided allocation of childcare duties and professional work in her marriage has never righted itself, but has come to feel like less of a grievance than it once did. Kerry Herlihy paints a stark picture of the end of the affair she first wrote about 14 years ago.
The emotional impact of these essays comes not so much from any profound lessons learned, but more from following the authors' journeys as they agonize and finally choose one course or another. For many women trying to "have it all," or at least more than our mothers and grandmothers had, this cycle of doubt and decision feels achingly familiar.
Sex is a recurring theme throughout the book, and it is handled with humor, honesty, and generosity. Some contributors write about wanting more of it and others less; several ponder whether a durable relationship is possible between mismatched libidos.
The ravages of time on the body do not pass unremarked upon. Sarah Crichton's good-natured recounting of a sex life regained "in spitting distance of sixty" is hilarious and endearing; Debora L. Spar gives a merciless blow-by-blow of menopause's indignities — and the vexed promises of its remedies, in the form of hormone treatments, hair dye, Botox, and surgery.
Many of the contributors to this book are now past the exhausting work and intense collaboration required during the parenting of small children, yet their stories still echo a common theme: "Having it all" — career, family, fulfilling relationships — is hard, sometimes impossible, work and neither selfishness nor selflessness makes the juggling act easier.
Each of these women has found a way to make the struggle make sense for her. Sometimes the moment of self-discovery is earth-shattering, as when Jennifer Finney Boylan comes out to her wife as transgender. Sometimes the epiphany is quieter, like Karen Karbo's realization that, "without quite knowing why, I just don't give a fuck about a lot of stuff anymore."
The collection's most obvious strength — compelling prose from experienced authors and publishers — is also something of a weakness, as multiple contributors' stories centered on writing, book tours, editors, and related activities tend to blur together.
Two contributors in particular provide welcome relief from this pattern: the pseudonymous Rabia Hussain, writing about her arranged marriage, divorce, and subsequent re-marriage to the same man, is living proof of the autonomy of women in circumstances that Western feminism might naively deem "oppressive."
Kathy Thomas, the owner of a cleaning service and a survivor of domestic abuse, recounts her stark marital history via Hanauer, in an as-told-to format. Her story, and the potent terms in which she tells it, are a striking counterpoint to the world of relative privilege and intellectual labor that preoccupies other voices in the collection.
Hanauer frames The Bitch Is Back and its predecessor as responses, in part, to the Victorian trope of the "Angel in the House." The ideal of the domestic angel who sacrificed everything, including her identity, to the happiness of others was created by poet Coventry Patmore in 1854 but was brought into the crosshairs of feminism by Virginia Woolf in her 1931 speech "Professions for Women."
Woolf states that she herself solved the problem of the Angel in the House quite neatly, by killing her — an experience, Woolf assures her audience, that is "bound to befall all women writers…Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer."
And yet, she continues, "it will be a long time still, I think, before a woman can sit down to write a book without finding a phantom to be slain, a rock to be dashed against. And if this is so in literature, the freest of all professions for women, how is it in the new professions which you are now for the first time entering?"
Focused as it is on the stories of women who work with writing for a living, The Bitch Is Back provides only a partial answer to Woolf's question. But as Hanauer notes, there are a lot of "bitches" out there. There are doubtless many more volumes that could follow this one.
Susan Schorn's writing appears at McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Jezebel. Aeon, and elsewhere online; she is also the author of the memoir Smile at Strangers, and Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).