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Femininity vs. feminism 

Speaking of feminism, why is it that the Amy Vanderbilt Success Program for Women is so much better represented in the thrift and used-book stores of Arkansas than in those of any other state I’ve been to? I’ve been lazily collecting these slim volumes — with titles like “How to Be Well Dressed” and “How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead” — for years, and they seemed like a humorous novelty when I only came across them once in a while; finding them in quantity here is commonplace, and that fact, I believe, merits investigation.

Despite their apparent ubiquity, I can’t seem to find much information about them. Amy Vanderbilt was a Swiss-finished New York reporter who published, in 1952, one of the best-known American books on etiquette, which has remained so popular that it is still being reprinted today. The program, according to a sort of invoice tucked into the back of one of my booklets, was marketed through department stores. For many women, the road to self-improvement is paved with credit cards — always looking for the perfect dress, shoe, haircut or lipstick, the one that will make us feel (or at least feel like we look) like the person we want people to think we are.

But of course, for Amy Vanderbilt to lead us into successful womanhood, she would first have to define what it is to be a woman. Judging by the titles of some of the booklets, the American woman at mid-century was concerned primarily with clothes, talking to people, her husband’s career, giving parties, decorating and cooking — in other words, what used to be called “the domestic arts.” Should she have any free time, she might also learn to “develop poise and confidence” or “become a more interesting woman.”

The earliest of the books I have was published in 1963 — the same year as “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan’s (another Northerner) foundational anti-housework treatise that illuminated the widespread dissatisfaction plaguing postwar suburban women. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that Vanderbilt’s success program might have been a sort of emergency action to staunch the coming tide of “bra-burning” housewifery abandonment that, in some places, followed. Indeed, one book even opens with a quote from Friedan, and goes on to warn women not to do anything rash: True happiness can be found in the safety of a well-appointed ranch house in Harper Valley. (Ironically, included in the same booklet is an advertising flyer for Jacqueline Susann’s “Valley of the Dolls”: Women who yearn for more are doomed to alcoholism, drug addiction, pornography, abusive relationships and, ultimately, death, so watch out!)

Not that the South has a reputation for its commitment to being on the cutting edge of feminism. Two-thirds of the states that have yet to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment are in the South; just last month, despite widespread sponsorship, the ratification bill was unbelievably stalled in the Arkansas House in a 10-10 committee vote. It should come as no surprise, then, that kitschy holdovers from an era reeking of petal-fresh (albeit enforced) femininity should be found in such great numbers here.

In fact, most of the really “feminine” women I’ve ever known, I’ve known in Arkansas. My grandmother dyed her hair and wore heels well into her 80s; when she traveled she needed a separate piece of luggage for her jewelry and cosmetics; during the 2000 ice storm, oblivious to the fact that half the state was without electricity, she blithely baked pies and made soup from scratch. To witness this dedication to feminine arts is humbling for a person who can barely muster a display of propriety and prettiness once a week, much less 24/7 as she did. Of course, she likely felt that she had to do things that way. I do not.

And therein lies the rub. I’m not the only woman I know who likes to cook and sew and wear dresses and smell nice, but growing up I became aware that to express such feelings may signal weakness and adherence to a regressive mode of thought considered detrimental to the larger female cause. I agree that for women to feel that they must look and act a certain way is wrong, but I also think it is wrong for a girl to be criticized as backwards and compliant for wearing a skirt. The dirty secret about my collection of Vanderbilt books is that while they mostly serve as a kooky coffee-table decoration, every now and then I pick one up and read it.

Just yesterday a girl came into the shop where I work and bought this frilly, ruffled, wedding cake of a dress. “I love dresses,” she said. “I wear them all the time. All girls should wear dresses.”

“Well,” I said (myself wearing a dress), “we usually look better in them than men do.”

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