Magazines

Caitlin Flanagan, observed

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The Los Angeles-based staff writer for The New Yorker (and former Harvard Westlake English teacher) riled up people with her March piece in the Atlantic, "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement." Her background and capacity to ruffle feathers is examined today in a New York Observer piece by Rachel Donadio, who calls Flanagan a "provocatrice, chronicler of contemporary domestic life, self-described anti-feminist." Excerpts:

In her signature prose — biting and witty, full of a writerly flair hard to find in discussions of "women's issues" — Ms. Flanagan argued that upper-middle-class women have achieved their goal of having both a career and a family more often than not by employing — or, she maintained, exploiting — other women lower on the class ladder: nannies, on whom they don't always bestow the same benefits they demand for themselves, like Social Security and maternity leave.

Tapping into the turgid well of upper-middle-class women's guilt, the piece drew "an extraordinary number of letters," according to Julia Rothwax, a spokeswoman for The Atlantic. It set off a debate among women writers who still proudly wear the "feminist" mantle: Ellen Willis and Lynne Sharon Schwartz, among others, raged against Ms. Flanagan in The Atlantic's letters column, while book groups, bloggers and dinner-party conversations from Scarsdale to Santa Monica have busily dissected in the piece.

But it's the plum New Yorker gig that really riles Ms. Flanagan's critics. "Why the hell did The New Yorker hire this person who's utterly not serious and turn her loose on a serious social issue?" asked Ann Crittenden, a writer for The American Prospect and author of The Price of Motherhood. "It's a really big issue bothering a lot of people." Ms. Crittenden added, "She's got a shtick: attacking other women. Catfight sells. Nasty, ad hominem, bitchy attacks on other women sell magazines. She's made her name by this stuff."

The vitriol kept coming, just as Ms. Flanagan was edging out the door of The Atlantic, on her way to The New Yorker. For his part, New Yorker editor David Remnick said he was excited to have Ms. Flanagan "joining in on the conversation" on family issues. "Caitlin's got a very sharp mind and has that rare thing—real wit," he said. Ms. Flanagan is at work on her first piece for The New Yorker, which is expected to run this summer.

Flanagan, who declines to name her husband in print — and who has called him the head of her household — is also working on Housewife Heaven, a book on the evolution of the housewife, for Little, Brown.


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