Demystifying marriage

To the dismay of the 'Katie haters,' Katie Roiphe's new book is far tamer than her early work.

Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939 By Katie Roiphe Dell 352 pages; $14 'If feminism as a movement doesn't have much of a future, that's a testament of its success' "A lot of women of her generation who were feminist in the '70s all of a sudden were, like, "Wait, where are my grandchildren?"' Katie Roiphe once needed bodyguards to give a book reading. In 1994, when she published The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism, American campuses were awash with hysteria about the supposed date-rape epidemic. The 24-year-old doctoral candidate at Princeton attracted death threats for accusing anti-rape activists of conjuring a myth. Three years later, she drew more fire with Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at the Century's End, which argued that America's youth culture had been deadened by puritanism since the AIDS crisis. Roiphe (or Roy-fee) claimed that the backlash against the sexual revolution and relentless sex-education campaigns were killing the mystery and excitement of sex. But with her new book, Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939, critics have raised the white flag. Upon its American release, the New York Observer announced that "Katie haters will be sorry to hear that it's very absorbing." A decade ago, Roiphe expected picketing whenever she spoke at a university. But since being hired last year as a journalism professor at New York University, she's been an insider of the academy. With a scholarly-titled new book, on the bourgeois topic of marriage, Roiphe is mellowing as she approaches 40. "I wrote my first book when I was 23, so I certainly like to think I've matured since then," she reflects by phone in the honeyed voice of a sorority sister. In The Morning After, Roiphe charged campus feminists with depriving women of agency by encouraging them to view themselves as passive victims and see all men as potential aggressors. Rape awareness lectures, sexual conduct codes, Take-Back-the-Night rallies, key-chain alarms and blue-lit emergency phones did not empower women, in her view, but infantilized them. To her detractors, such as Naomi Wolf and Gloria Steinem, the book called for the return to a culture of blaming the victim, where women were ridiculed for speaking up about sexual abuse. By the late '90s, the culture of political correctness had shifted, and Wolf and Steinem were singing from a similar tunebook to Roiphe. Wolf styled herself as a "pro-sex" feminist, and Steinem defended Bill Clinton against the charges of sexual assault from Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones. "The idea that we shouldn't look at women as victims - and that it's insulting to say that men want to have sex and women don't - now seems very obvious." Though The Morning After won accolades from hard-line conservatives such as Pat Buchanan, Roiphe votes Democrat and comes from fiercely liberal stock. Her mother, the writer Anne Roiphe, was a prominent "second-wave" feminist, whose best-selling novel, Up the Sandbox, explored the fantasy life of a bored housewife and became a film starring Barbra Streisand in 1972. "My mother has an instinctive liberal sensibility that I don't have," she says, "but I wouldn't call myself a conservative." Anne Roiphe supported her daughter throughout the kerfuffle over The Morning After, causing her to fall out with several feminist allies. "It's hard for me to tell whether she agreed with me or whether it was just unconditional love," Roiphe says. WHEN ROIPHE and her four sisters were children, Anne wouldn't let them play with Barbie dolls. She gave her daughters trucks instead, which they used as beds for their stuffed animals. Roiphe recalls feeling exasperated at hearing her mother repeat ad nauseam that, contrary to what fairy tales suggest, a princess shouldn't await rescue by a prince. "My generation absorbed these ideas of equality so instantly and so totally that it seemed superfluous to have this constant polemic being told to you." Roiphe makes a lesser attempt to shape the views of her five-year-old daughter Violet. "The feminists of the '70s thought that they could create equality by just enforcing it," she says. "I don't think you can control those things." By the time Roiphe reached her mid-20s, her mother was pressuring her to marry and have kids. "A lot of women of her generation who were feminist in the '70s all of a sudden were, like, 'Wait, where are my grandchildren?'" But in 1997, Roiphe horrified Anne Roiphe by publishing an article, "The Independent Woman (and Other Lies)," in which she described her desire to be provided for by a man. "She spent all these decades trying to crash down these stereotypes, so the enduring power of these old-fashioned ideas of men and women to exert a hold over our imagination is bewildering to her," she says. The idea of a dominant husband lost its allure, however. In 2005, Roiphe split with her husband of five years, lawyer Harry Chernoff. "I didn't marry for money, but I had a fantasy of being taken care of. There is a cost in terms of your relationship and your identity in the world when you do that." She's now dating a writer - "definitely not a man in a gray flannel suit" - who she implies is the opposite of Chernoff. Yet she still thinks men should pay for dates. As her marriage collapsed, Roiphe was inundated with condolence notes and offers to help out around the house. It felt like her friends were determined to imagine her cracking up. "For people who are unhappily staying together, it's particularly troubling to see somebody leave a marriage and thrive. In Edith Wharton's New York, there was a different kind of moralism about divorce. Now we officially accept it as fine, but our moralistic attitude takes a different form - a worry that either the kids or the mother are falling apart." Her father, psychoanalyst Herman Roiphe, died the year of her divorce. It was the worst period of her life, Roiphe says, but also the most productive. In an article for New York magazine, she wrote about "the release of a strange jittery energy… when you burn your entire life down," which made her more focused than ever. UNCOMMON ARRANGEMENTS is the fruit of that nervous energy. It examines seven complex literary relationships from between the two world wars, including Vanessa and Clive Bell, Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge, H.G. and Jane Wells and Vera Brittain and George Gordon Catlin. Reacting against Victorian hypocrisy, the unions are governed by reason rather than convention - experiments in what Katherine Mansfield called "marriage à la mode." Roiphe began reading about these couples to make sense of her own failed marriage. Reading the letters, diaries and memoirs of these literary bohemians made her "realize how much in a marriage can happen without you paying attention. One isn't aware of something falling apart until afterward." Belonging to a period that long predated e-mail meant that these writers' most private communications were preserved on paper: "You can read their papers and get further into those marriages than you would your closest friends, who you see for dinner and you have no idea what really goes on in their house. Marriage is a mystery." Early 20th-century intellectuals often believed that by speaking rationally and openly about their extramarital affairs they could avoid inflicting emotional pain. "I don't think that's a popular mode of thinking today," Roiphe says. "People give in to overwhelming feeling more easily." But she feels that the era's conflicts resonate with contemporary discussion about women. "We're half-enchanted with these old-fashioned traditional ideas of wifehood and motherhood, and half-enchanted with our legacy of absolute equality and women working. We're torn between these two ideas of what women are, in a way that mirrors this very peculiar period right after Edwardian England." Uncommon Arrangements reflects her aversion to conceiving of women as victims. She writes that "where a man has been monstrous, the woman has almost always had some hand in creating her particular monster." The creativity of these relationships contrasts with the pettiness of contemporary discussion of marriage - dominated, as Roiphe sees it, by issues like whether husbands should share the duty of picking up Lego. "Why," she writes, "when women have so many choices, are we still as angry as gloved suffragettes hurling bricks through windows?" Still, the book's contemporary relevance is mostly implied rather than stated. Roiphe "wanted to write a more complicated and rich portrait of these marriages than some sort of polemic would have been allowed." But, she is quick to add, she still often writes contrarian journalism and teaches a course on polemic at NYU. When she began her Ph.D thesis on Freud and mid-20th century American writers, she wanted to be an academic. But convinced that no university would employ her following the brouhaha over The Morning After, she settled for journalism instead. Now she has an academic job, but her appointment as one of two full-time professors in NYU's cultural journalism program was controversial. The post was vacated after the program's founder, feminist critic Ellen Willis, died of lung cancer in 2006. Some saw the choice of replacement as an affront to her legacy. But, counters Roiphe, "Ellen was the person who, before she died, kind of selected me and really wanted me to have this job." Clearly, she still inspires fear and loathing from the sisterhood. But there's relish in her voice when she says: "The Katie haters still exist."