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Erma Bombeck: Feminist Housewife


When you think of Erma Bombeck, the word "feminist" probably doesn't leap to mind. Instead, you might think of your mother's well-worn copy of one of Bombeck's ten bestsellers or a yellowed clipping of one of her syndicated newspaper columns stuck to your childhood fridge with a magnet. And, perhaps, that's just as Bombeck would have wanted it, having made a career, as she did, out of lampooning her life as a suburban housewife. But Bombeck was in many ways a feminist. A working mother herself, she nevertheless believed that the women's movement needed to expand to include the voices of stay-at-home mothers. As she strove to balance her own career and family, she also worked tirelessly -- if in vain -- for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Erma Bombeck was born in 1927 in Dayton, Ohio, where she grew up in humble, working class surroundings. Erma's father died suddenly when she was nine, and she and her mother -- also named Erma, and only 25 herself -- moved in with her grandmother. The elder Erma went to work full time and eventually remarried. The younger Erma was a shy, book-loving child, despite the song and dance gig with a local radio station's children's revue that her mother signed her up for. In junior high, Erma started writing a humor column for the school newspaper, an experience about which she later recollected, "God, I wanted to write. That's all I wanted to do. I really loved the exaggeration. I still write about passing my varicose veins off as textured stockings."

After graduating from high school -- the first person in her family to do so -- Bombeck lived at home and worked a number of jobs, including penning the newsletter for a local department store, to help pay her way through college. After graduating from the University of Dayton, where a supportive teacher presciently told her, "You can write," she became a reporter for the Dayton Herald. She threw herself into her work, but felt stymied by skeptical editors who didn't know what to make of "Operation Dustrag," her column that offered a humorous take on homemaking. In 1949, Erma married her husband Bill; in 1953, they adopted their daughter Betsy, a decision which helped crystallize her decision to quit her job at the paper. Less than two years later, when Erma was pregnant with their son Andrew, the Bombecks moved to a suburban tract house in Centerville, Ohio, and commenced the domestic life she would later come to caricature in her columns.

Living in Centerville and staying home with her three children (son Matthew was born in 1958), Bombeck worked with her husband to give her kids advantages she hadn't had as a girl. However, she soon found herself suffering from an affliction soon to be diagnosed by Betty Friedan as the "Problem That Has No Name." Bombeck put much of her creative and professional life on hold when her children were very young -- busying herself with taking care of her kids and her home and hiding, she wrote, "my dreams in the back of my mind -- it was the only safe place in the house. From time to time I would get them out and play with them, not daring to reveal them to anyone else because they were fragile and might get broken."

But in 1964, when, according to Bombeck, her household "responsibilities began to level off," she started to share those dreams with an audience, using her experiences as a homemaker as the fodder for a weekly humor column in the local paper, an undertaking about which she famously said, "I was too old for a paper route, too young for Social Security, and too tired for an affair." In a scenario most writers wouldn't dare to dream about, the next year the Dayton Journal-Herald offered her a column, which was almost immediately syndicated by Newsday and eventually appeared in 900 newspapers.

Through her column, "At Wit's End," and, eventually, her 15 books, speaking tours, and 11-year run as a correspondent on Good Morning America, Bombeck turned the image of the 1950s happy homemaker on its head, inviting women to identify with her experiences and take a closer look at their own. She shed light on the less glamorous elements of housewifery, critiquing a cultural institution in ways different than Friedan, but perhaps just as revolutionary. Her early columns were brief and punchy, heavy on the jokes. (About her uncouth neighbors, she teased, "These people had never seen a wheel until we unpacked the kids' tricycles.") As she matured, narrative dominated more of her writing and she sprinkled in sentimental pieces and even a few tear-jerkers, writing an entire book about children battling cancer and lending her work a variety that she may actually have found easier, arguing, as she did, that "anybody -- anybody -- can bring out your tears. That is a piece of cake. It is 20 times as easy -- make that 50 -- to make people cry rather than laugh."

In her columns and public appearances, Bombeck convinced a generation of readers that she was just like them. Indeed, her humor was often of the "misery loves company" variety: She exaggerated the mundane absurdities of her own life to connect with millions of women who felt the same way. She poked fun at her husband and her kids and, while there was often an over-the-top tone to her skewers, the life and struggles she depicted felt true and relatable to scores of readers. Of her decision to become a humor writer, Bombeck wrote:

There seemed to be several avenues open to me: (a) take myself seriously and end up drinking gin just after the school bus left; (b) take the children seriously and end up drinking gin before the school bus left; (c) admit to the fear and frustration and have a good time with it.

Her columns left women nodding in recognition and shattered, according to her entry in the Ohio Women's Hall of Fame, "the prevailing stereotypes of the housewife happily cleaning in heels and pearls."

Part of Bombeck's appeal may have been rooted in timing. Bombeck's target audience underwent a transformation during the years she was writing; some stay-at-home mothers, in particular, felt under assault by the burgeoning women's movement and saw in Bombeck a champion for their lifestyle. Indeed, as Bombeck's popularity grew, she sometimes clashed with feminists who thought her satirical celebration of motherhood and homemaking contradicted their go-to-work message. Bombeck once went to hear Betty Friedan speak, but felt put off by what she took to be Friedan's dismissal of stay-at-home mothers: "These women threw a war for themselves and didn't invite any of us. That was very wrong of them." Bombeck even went so far as to disparage some hardcore feminists as, "Roller Derby dropouts and Russian pole-vaulting types." Yet, despite her frustration with the movement's leaders, Bombeck held many feminist views herself, ultimately believing that a woman's work in the home was worthy of dignity and recognition, just like a woman's work outside of it. About Bombeck, Ellen Goodman wrote, "This mother never signed on to the infamous mommy wars that pitted women at home against those in the workplace. How could she? She had done it all, and so she wrote for us all."

Despite a strong belief in equal rights for all women, Bombeck eschewed politics in her columns. In 1978, though, Bombeck's feminism became more public when she was named to the President's National Advisory Committee for Women and embarked on a two-year speaking tour urging holdout states to ratify the Congressionally-sanctioned Equal Rights Amendment. While stumping for the ERA, Bombeck blended her trademark humor with a spirit of activism. While speaking to the National Student Nurses' Association convention in Utah, she quipped: "We've got to get sex out of the gutter and back into the Constitution where it belongs. . . .The ERA cause -- 'equality of rights under the law' -- may be the most misunderstood words since 'one size fits all.'"

As usual, she was very good at what she did; about Bombeck's work on the ERA, fellow committee member Esther Landa remarked, she "is too shy to admit that she's the one who told the committee to concentrate on the ERA a year ago. . . . When she has something to say, people listen." Bombeck's work on the ERA endeared her to some fans, influenced others, and alienated a few who bristled at the political nature of her work, including some conservative leaders and some bookstore owners who removed her books from their shelves. Nevertheless, Bombeck was devoted to the cause, proudly saying, "I'm doing it for my kids. It will be important to them. It's also a great feeling to be a part of history. I wish that they could put this on my tombstone: She got Missouri for the ERA." She took the defeat of the ERA personally, laying the blame in part at the feet of younger women who, she said, mistakenly believed they already had it all.

For her part, Bombeck recognized that what she had attained was rare and difficult and, although the ERA did not succeed, Bombeck certainly did as a model for her contemporaries. Indeed, her life was in many ways a feminist success story. For one thing, her college education was not at all typical for girls in the 1940s, and especially not for one from a working-class background. (According to Bombeck, a girl like her "either got a job and paid board, or you got married.") As she transformed herself from a stay-at-home mom to a working writer and savvy businesswoman, she made sacrifices for her career, working long hours and maintaining a complex travel schedule, much of which she eventually gave up -- proudly claiming her right to choose the next move in her quest to balance her professional and family lives. Her choice of profession was also a progressive one; woman humor writers are still relatively uncommon. Not surprisingly, Bombeck became her family's primary breadwinner; her husband eventually retired as a school administrator to manage her considerable income. Ultimately, her success allowed her family a lifestyle she could have only dreamed of as a girl, a development not lost on Bombeck: "Syndication has brought ground round to our table, winters for our orthodontist in Palm Beach, not to mention life's little necessities. (Having the dog's teeth capped in case he goes into show business.)"

Bombeck died in 1996 due to complications following a kidney transplant. Her professional legacy lives on at the biannual Erma Bombeck Writer's Workshop hosted by the University of Dayton. Her voice also echoes in those of mother-writers who, with Erma-esque candor, humor, and heart, document their own lives in the ever-growing "momoir" genre and through blogging. The next time you see a copy of one of Bombeck's paperbacks in a bookstore or your mother's living room, dust it off and give it a read. Although the vernacular may have changed, Bombeck's humor and insights remain remarkably fresh and will resonate with any mother trying to do it all, just as Erma did nearly 50 years ago.

Kristen Levithan’s writing has appeared online at Babble, BlogHer, and the Ms. Magazine Blog and in print in University of Dayton Magazine. She lives in the Midwest with her husband and three children and offers cultural commentary and musings on modern motherhood at her blog Motherese.

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Kristen, what a magnificent tribute. I truly do recall the well-worn books and newsclippings and have read several of Erma's books myself. I am very much looking forward to attending this year's EBWC - my very first writers' conference!
Wow. What a well written, well researched piece. I love Erma even more now. The quote about hiding her dreams in the back of her mind while her children were young? So poignant.
I would never dream of Erma Bombeck as "not a feminist." I grew up reading her, she said things that women of that time knew but dared not speak -- and she said it in ways that made everyone laugh. She was a mommyblogger before the internet, she used her voice when so many of the women in my life were strangling themselves and cutting off their voices and hiding their truth away in boxes and closets. The only reason she wasn't considered dangerous was because she was so dang funny.
Kristen, I was so happy to find you at Literary Mama and what a lovely essay! I have always been intrigued by Erma and have been inspired to read more about her because of your post. Thank you! -Elizabeth
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