Bombeck: Misunderstood Feminist

Have the right adopted Erma Bombeck? I guess I get it: she wrote funny articles about homemaking and was probably pro-spanking.

You do know she campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment, right?

I know her glurgy ‘When God Made-’ series is just the sort of feel-good nonsense everyone loves, but have you never read her articles about going back to work or the ridicule she got as a reporter?

To a certain extent, this is the black-and-white, feminist paradise or Gilead thinking we all indulge in. She is either with us or against us.

But she isn’t. Or wasn’t, I should say. She died roughly the same time I was born. It’s strange to say she was a product of her time when her time and my time nearly overlap, but there it is.

The Pioneer

Her decision to demand a column about the funny side of being a housewife came from frustration with her options. When she started out, in the 1960’s, she had a housecleaning column. She was expected to care deeply about removing stains from sofas. Any content provider trying to muster enthusiasm for hydraulic hose fittings can relate. That was the silo a woman reporter was put in. You were assumed to be suited to that line.

Obviously, you could break out of it. Women have found a lot more flexibility in writing than other industries, but there was always a push toward genteel topics directed specifically to helping your fellow housewife.

Part of that push was a narrow education. It was assumed that your future was to marry and have babies, so education in anything else required jumping through extra hoops, the first hoop being knowing that something else was possible.

Another part of that push was an assumption that the daily life of your average woman couldn’t be interesting, or that you could have any kind of mental life after giving birth. Bombeck pioneered the humor column because people before her thought daily life, especially a woman’s daily life, wasn’t worth writing about.

I think that was why she joined the campaign for the ERA. She is rarely salty, but she was when women were treated as though they didn’t exist in public places or were assumed to be uninteresting. She knew that a woman’s place, without a campaign, was assumed to be nowhere.

You could make the argument that our place was assumed to be in the home, but that can, in essence, be nowhere.

I know some folks like to glorify the homemaker as essential and something we should all be satisfied with, but society does not and never has valued those skills or the people doing them. That’s why cleaners and daycare providers are paid poorly.

Besides, homemaking has become automated to redundancy. As Bombeck herself said, “A chimpanzee with a driver’s license could do my job.”

A stay-at-home mom changes the world by buying stuff and chauffeuring others around. Otherwise, her world is narrow and can feel beyond her control. Bombeck insisted that she could do more and that she was worth that effort.

The Email

Bombeck had her kids in the era of Benjamin Spock’s first edition on child rearing. Spanking had started to raise eye-brows earlier, but it was still the norm, more or less. Her “I Loved You Enough To-” article is part of that era.

Although, I have to say, the original article is a different beast from the email forward that I have seen.

Did you know, for instance, that one line is, “I loved you enough to say yes, you can go to Disneyland with your friends on Mother’s Day?” That always gets dropped from the email version.

Also, in other articles, she lays bare the pure tedium of child rearing. The ‘monkey with a driver’s license,’ was part of that.

When people listed nursing with what a housewife does in an effort to make us feel useful, Bombeck cracked, “When the kid is sick, I use my tongue-depressor to dial the doctor.” Her description of picking a bunch of kids up from school makes funny what is an obviously frustrating slog. It’s not something only you can do, and wanting more makes you human.

What I am saying is that she describes a suburban family in terms that are recognizable. Not some hell without appeal, but also imperfect. It isn’t a stretch to say she viewed some of it as a trap, especially mending, which she hated. She wrote a whole article about how much she avoided it.

The “I Loved You Enough To-” article may fit, with some clipping, in the category of tough love, parent-is-boss-and-knows-what-is-best. I get that angle.

But it comes from someone who didn’t buy the glorious homemaker lie and understood that her daughter should enter the workforce on the same footing as her sons.


There is room to politicize Bombeck. She is dead, after all, and left a body of work to mine for talking points.

Those talking points can go both ways, however, and within her context, I would say she is more feminist then not, for whatever that is worth.



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