How I Grew
Recently Mary McCarthy told an interviewer from The New York Times that she has not had “the slightest effect on public behavior.” With all due respect to her reputation for unsparing honesty, it must be said that this statement is not true. From the appearance of her first stories, she has altered the public idea of what a women of letters can be. Since then she has continued to expand this conception in many surprising directions. In spite of her declared disinterest in feminism, she has surely changed the lives of generations of intelligent young women.
Before Mary McCarthy, if an educated girl did not simply abdicate all intellectual ambitions and agree to dwindle into a housewife, there seemed to be only two possible roles she could choose: the Wise Virgin and the Romantic Victim. In classical terms, you could opt for Athena or for Psyche. As Athena you would renounce love and marriage and children and become a kind of secular nun. You would devote yourself to the worship of physics, music, Latin, poetry, medicine, or some other high-minded pursuit. You would achieve serenity, dignity, and authority. You would earn honorary degrees, write important books, inspire generations of students, have many devoted friends. If you were good looking, these friends would suspect some tragic loss in your past: a fiancé killed in some war, perhaps. Your life would be calm, productive, admirable—and also, unless this sort of thing really suited you, a little empty and sad.
There were many varieties of this role, from Florence Nightingale to Marianne Moore; but of course the most visible concentration of Athenas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was in the girls’ school and colleges. Almost every woman I know who was born before, say, 1950, can recall some teacher who stood to her for this possible path in life.
But suppose you did not want to be either a happy housewife (or, as we used to call it at Radcliffe, “a contented cow”) or a dignified spinster? The only alternative seemed to be the role of Psyche, in love with Love. We knew what to expect along this route: you would live intensely; you would scale the heights of experience and possibly descend to the depths. Of course you would suffer. You would be hurt over and over again, mostly by the men you loved, who would either leave you or prove to be beasts in disguise. Out of all these would come moving, deeply felt poetry, art, drama, music, philosophy, political action, etc.
The prime representative of the type for us was Edna St. Vincent Millay, who had declared dramatically: “My candle burns at both ends.” But there were plenty of other examples closer at hand; any number of unmarried but by no means spinster music teachers and dance teachers. Or my youngest aunt, who read European novels and wore embroidered peasant blouses and dangly silver earrings, and had changed her name from Etta to Gita; who often …