THE BITCH IS BACK: OLDER, WISER, AND (GETTING) HAPPIER editor Cathi Hanauer shares an overview of the BITCH series, insights into powerful essays by 25 prominent women writers, and the joy and method of her rigorous editing process.
“THE BITCH IS BACK is about how important it is in early midlife to stop and assess how, if you want to grow and evolve and not ‘calcify,’ you have to dig deep and figure out what you want and need and what’s missing and what’s there, and then go get that — to throw off the old, broken ways and get to a new, better self.” — Cathi Hanauer
AFLW: The release of THE BITCH IS BACK couldn’t be more timely with the first female Democratic candidate running for President of United States. Hillary Clinton has been called a “bitch” and worse. What part of your motivation to write this series was to reclaim the word bitch and other words often hurled as slurs against women? And what part of its purpose went far beyond that?
Cathi Hanauer: The first book, THE BITCH IN THE HOUSE, which came out in 2002, was a result of my own anger and that of friends and colleagues who felt the same way. We were women juggling big jobs and small kids, responsible for half or more of the family income, yet also we were finding, for the bulk of the domestic upkeep and childcare. Feminism had allowed and encouraged us to be educated and to have careers and incomes on a level with men, but when we added a home or especially children to that mix, we felt like we needed a wife — and we were angry about that. But we didn’t want to be angry, when we had so much. So we were calling ourselves bitches: women who were angry (and exhausted and frustrated and overwhelmed) a lot of the time, not proud of our anger but angry nonetheless. In that way, we meant the word literally, but it was OK because we were using it on ourselves — not quite the same as reclaiming it, but a lot better than someone else calling us that.
At the same time, we were strong women, raised to be self-sufficient and to have a voice, and because of that, we weren’t willing to sit back and suffer in silence — like many of the women in our mothers’ generation, who, because they weren’t financially independent, couldn’t afford to speak up. So in this second way, yes, we were sort of reclaiming the word “bitch,” in a sense. It was a response to what the poet Coventry Patmore, writing about his wife back in 1854, called “The Angel in the House”: a woman who was pure, patient, loving, encouraging, all about pleasing him. Virginia Woolf, among others, later parodied the concept, saying, “If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught, she sat in it — in short, she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.” I used that as the epigraph for THE BITCH IN THE HOUSE — or Bitch 1, as I now call it — because the book is about the exact opposite kind of woman: the proud, strong, feisty “bitch” as opposed to the wimpy, selfless, boring and, frankly, quite horrible-sounding “angel.”
Over the years, between Bitch 1 and Bitch 2, more people started doing that — using the word as a source of pride instead of as a slur — and now, with Hillary, the word has, yes, had a complete rebirth (websites, hashtags galore, articles and even books coming out every day with the word in the title). Which is not to say that it’s always OK to use the word even now. “Bitch” still has both positive and negative connotations, depending on the situation and whose mouth it’s coming out of.
AFLW: This is a monumental time for women, and for examining the crisis of modern female midlife and its aftermath. What are some of the resonant takeaways in Bitch 2 from writers featured in the original book, as they moved forward in their lives?
CH: You’re right — it’s a really exciting time! We’re living in a period where there’s so much choice available for women — choices that weren’t possible even 10 or 20 years ago. And now, in midlife, we’ve got some space and freedom back from the Bitch 1 years — maybe a little more income too — and we’ve been through the therapy, we’ve gotten on the right diets and drugs to fix our inner lives … the world is our oyster, if we have the courage and strength and wherewithal to go get what we need. And that’s what THE BITCH IS BACK is about: It’s about strength and wisdom in early midlife and the different choices we’re making, and how they’re playing out.
So you have Jennifer Finney Boylan, who got to her 40s and realized she couldn’t live as a man anymore, and finally came out to her wife as transgender. You have Lizzie Skurnick, who wanted a baby but not a husband, so she figured out how to have one on her own. You have Kate Christensen, who, in Bitch 1, was struggling with her desire to be the perfect wife, and by 15 years later, she’s realized that the problem wasn’t her, but the marriage itself — and so she left and found a very different kind of man (20 years younger than she is, for one thing). Pam Houston was struggling in the first book with whether or not to have a baby. I won’t give that one away, but she had the final essay in Bitch 1 and has the first piece in Bitch 2 with her essay, “Five Crucial Things the Fifty-Three-Year-Old Bitch Knows That the Thirty-Nine-Year-Old Bitch Didn’t (Yet).” Robin Rinaldi contributed such a beautiful, bold, striking piece — she was just the kind of writer I was seeking in this book, a real pro who also had a story to tell, and I’m so happy to have her in this collection — and now, also excerpted here! There are also updates from women — Jill Bialosky, Hope Edelman — who stayed in their marriages, which were problematic (in not unusual ways, as marriage is never perfect, of course) in Bitch 1. You get to see how those marriages evolved and what happened to those problems over the years. Kerry Herlihy was having an affair with a married man, and then got pregnant, in Bitch 1. What happened? You’ll have to read Bitch 2 to find out!
So I guess if there’s a takeaway, it’s how important it is in early midlife to stop and assess, how, if you want to grow and evolve and not “calcify,” as Gail Sheehy puts it in her famous book, PASSAGES, you have to dig deep and figure out what you want and need and what’s missing and what’s there, and then go get that — to throw off the old, broken ways and get to a new, better self. “Getting happier,” as the subtitle says. There’s also a lot of wisdom in Bitch 2. Because in their quest to assess and reconfigure, these writers — already thoughtful and searching by nature — learn a lot along the way.
AFLW: You included 16 new voices in this sequel, Robin Rinaldi, known for her controversial WILD OATS PROJECT, among them. Her chapter reveals her exploration of sex and ownership of “dirty” words in her self-discovery. Sexually explicit words have become headline news with Donald Trump’s outrageous talk of “pussy grabbing” and created a huge online response with women writing about their experiences of sexual abuse, some for the first time. Your book also provides a platform for women to share previously untold stories. Is that important to you as an editor? What were you looking for in writings for this collection? And what is your writer-to-editor relationship like?
CH: To be honest, in a book like this it’s less important to me that this be a previously untold story as that it be a beautifully written, accessible, often literary essay, full of honesty and wisdom and great writing. That’s what makes it worthy of being in a book — something I’m asking people to buy, to put on their shelves, to really spend time with, as opposed to, say, a blog or a Facebook post. Not to knock those; it’s great that so many women now have a platform for their stories and writing, great that anyone can write anything and “publish” it now. But to me, that’s all the more reason that a book needs to be perfect, or as close as it possibly can. Which is not to say that this one is perfect — there are always things an author would do just a little differently, of course, just a little better. But at some point, you have to let go of a book — and I’m very happy with how this one turned out.
I thought long and hard — for years, really— about what it should be, and about every single piece in it. I searched out writers who could address the many different aspects of being a midlife American woman today that I thought needed to be covered, many of them the most talented women writing today. Then, I worked with each writer to make the piece both as good as it could be, in and of itself, and to make it fit into my idea for this book so that the stories together would form a whole that conformed with what I was trying to say. It’s a long, often arduous or tedious but also very exciting process, and I was lucky enough to have many incredibly talented writers to work with. My years as a magazine editor in the ‘80s and ‘90s helped me a ton; I knew how to think of several pieces together as a whole, how to assign an essay and work with an author. And as a novelist and essayist, I know what it’s like on the writer’s side, too, and could even write things in when necessary to try to get a piece to where I wanted it or help an author get there. I’m a heavy-handed editor, but the real professional writers understand this process and appreciate it — just as I do when I’m the one doing the writing. Every piece of writing needs an editor to become the best piece it can be; a good piece of writing is always a collaboration between a writer and an editor. That said, a handful of these writers needed almost nothing. Editing them was like taking a beautiful, brilliant sculpture and just polishing it a little to make it shine. What a treat.
I also was able to write some of the book myself: the introduction, of course, and also, in particular, the story of one woman in Bitch 2, Kathy Thomas, that I felt really needed to be told in this book because it’s such an amazing, inspiring, harrowing story. Kathy isn’t a writer, so we spent hours and hours together with me interviewing her and her telling me her story, and then I spent more hours writing the piece, and then working with her to get it the way she wanted, and also to be factually accurate. I’m so happy to have that piece in the book, and I think she is, too. I hope so, anyway! We gave a reading near her hometown — she read from her piece—and the audience was in tears.
AFLW: Not ironically, Hillary Clinton supporters have proclaimed her the new #BitchInChief. Are you excited about the possibility of having a “bitch” not just in the house but, finally, in the White House?
CH: YES! Thrilled. The Bitch in the White House. What a beautiful thing.
Read Robin Rinaldi’s “Fifty Shades of Free,” adapted from THE BITCH IS BACK.
Cathi Hanauer is the New York Times bestselling author of three novels — GONE, SWEET RUIN, and MY SISTER’S BONES — and editor of the 2002 anthology THE BITCH IN THE HOUSE and, now, THE BITCH IS BACK: OLDER, WISER, AND (GETTING) HAPPIER. A contributing writer for Elle, she also has written for The New York Times, O, Real Simple, Refinery 29, Whole Living and many other magazines; she was the books columnist for both Glamour and Mademoiselle, and the relationships advice columnist for Seventeen magazine for seven years (about a million years ago). She lives in Northampton, Mass., and New York City with her husband, Daniel Jones, who edits the New York Times “Modern Love” column.