Design: DF/Public Seminar
Joan Didion and feminism never had much of a relationship when she was alive. And yet, shortly before Christmas, as news of Didion’s death from Parkinson’s disease spread, prominent feminists claimed her as one of their own.
Although Didion “wrote scathing commentary on feminism,” novelist Joyce Carol Oates tweeted, “she was (of course) an ardent feminist; one who distrusted any sort of groupthink & who believed, from her experience, that the most profound events in our lives are emotional/personal, not political.”
Literary critic Sandra Gilbert, who co-edited a foundational feminist collection in the early 1970s, agreed. Although she speculated that Didion might have even thought of herself as anti-feminist, actually she “was feminist,” Gilbert wrote, “which is to say aspirational, desirous, and passionately ambitious.”
These generalizations are a tribute to Didion’s importance as an intellectual and a stylist who changed how women were allowed to write. But they didn’t clear anything up. Before Oates’s tweet, I had never heard Didion described as an “ardent feminist.” Since we are all projecting here, I think it is a retrospection that Didion herself would have inherently distrusted. I think she also disagreed that feminism was a set of qualities related to being a successful woman, rather a set of beliefs or political goals that some women embraced and others did not.
But Oates and Gilbert raise a bigger question: by absorbing Didion into a feminist canon, based on her enduring influence on women writers, are we taking her somewhere she deliberately did not go? And are we missing why so many younger women, many of them feminists, but some at war with feminism, see themselves in Didion today?
After all, many women in Didion’s generation were equally “aspirational, desirous, and passionately ambitious”—and didn’t get as far. Then, in the 1950s, men walked out of college and into journalism careers. Women with the same credentials started in the mailroom, the clipping department, or as an editorial assistant at a woman’s magazine.
Didion chose the narrow, highly traditional route of editorial assistant. Then, in 1956, her senior year at Berkeley, she won a job at Vogue magazine through an essay contest. She honed her distinctive, spare, and highly visual style by writing to fit the spaces in the magazine she was allotted—often, these were captions for photographs. But by 1963, when Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique skewered everything Vogue represented, Didion was already gone. Her first novel Run, River (1963), written at night and on weekends, was greeted favorably by critics but sold few copies. Shortly afterward, she married Time magazine journalist John Gregory Dunne, a lifetime writing partner, and the pair decamped for her native California.
Los Angeles, and the cultural revolution sweeping east from California, was where Didion’s writing took off. On the strength of Dunne’s connections, Didion grabbed for the brass ring at major magazines like the Saturday Evening Post. In orderly, crisp sentences patterned, not on women writers, but on Ernest Hemingway, she archived the cultural crack-up of the 1960s from Ground Zero. Moreover, as radical feminism urged women to give up self-interest for class consciousness and men for a revolution made by women, the conservative Didion promoted herself and succeeded in a predominantly male journalism world.
Eventually, Didion would drift leftward, adopting a liberal stance sometime in the Nixon administration. But liberalism does not a feminist make. You don’t have to look too closely to know from the essays collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)and The White Album (1979) that Didion wasn’t a feminist. A blistering 1972 New York Times review essay about women’s liberation confirms that. “To make an omelette,” Didion began drily, “you need not only those broken eggs but someone `oppressed’ to break them.”
While she honored the origins of radical feminism in Marxist theory, within five years, the movement had descended, Didion wrote, into “superstitions and little sophistries, wish fulfillment, and self-loathing.” Didion joined other female movement critics—Midge Decter, Diana Trilling—in distancing herself from “a certain dolorous phantasm, an imagined Everywoman,” oppressed by everyone from her gynecologist to her children’s school. Feminism, as it had become a mass movement, was a collection of “half-truths” that “authenticated themselves,” Didion wrote, “bitter fancies” that “assumed their own logic.”
One feminist journalist described Didion to me as “a reflexive anti-feminist.” I think that’s true. Yet it’s easy, if you know your Didion, to understand that her misidentification was intimately linked to who she was as a writer. Feminists made revolutions. Didion watched revolutions, distilled them, and laid them bare. The two things could not be more different.
And subsequent generations of women writers, who drank in Didion’s prose as they fantasized about their careers, wanted to write about politics and culture in crisp, masculine prose as much as they wanted feminism. Some wanted it instead of feminism, and Didion became a route to both goals. Caitlin Flanagan began a widely read 2012 article for The Atlantic by illustrating the sheer heterogeneity of the Didion fan club. Depicting a panel about The Year of Magical Thinking, a short book that narrated the death of Didion’s husband and her daughter’s mortal illness, Flanagan described feminist Meghan O’ Rourke and anti-feminist gadfly Katie Roiphe bonding, not over the book, but Didion herself, leaving a third, male, writer (who hated the book) barely able to get a word in edgewise.
It’s also true that Didion never returned to feminism as a subject after that 1972 profile: once she was done, she never returned to any topic, as far as I can tell. So, we don’t know if, in the end, Didion grudgingly accommodated feminism or shifted into feminism as it changed the world around her. Likewise, we don’t know how she accounted for the fact that the movement she trivialized in 1972 rapidly produced the cornerstones of gender equality that changed the culture: legal abortion, the anti-rape movement, no-fault divorce, and equal employment.
Perhaps from another perspective, Didion never bought what feminism was selling. Instead, she was a Western individualist who worked her way up the system and emerged victorious. As a writer, Didion regarded herself as the equal of any man. Because of that, she tackled topics men had owned for generations—revolution, war, John Wayne, the counterculture, rock and roll, and the craft of journalism itself—while clinging to a distinctly female, not a feminist, stance.
And ironically, by doing that, she carved out a path for generations of women writers born into the world and the opportunities that feminism made.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This essay first appeared on her Substack, Political Junkie.