Q&A with Maureen Dowd
'My mom said a week before she died, "Can't you find someone to settle down with?" I think she really wanted to have someone take care of me.'
LINDA FRUM | Nov 15, 2005
Maureen Dowd, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, is the author of a new book with the provocative title Are Men Necessary? For two decades, Dowd has been a ruthless critic of U.S. presidents and other power-wielding alpha males. Her glamorous ex-boyfriends include the actor Michael Douglas, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, and New York Times colleagues John Tierney and Howell Raines. For Dowd, men would appear to be very necessary indeed. And yet, at age 53, Dowd, a commanding wit and beauty, remains unmarried, childless -- and baffled.
The first sentence in your book is: "I don't understand men." What don't you understand?
A I think I tend to overcomplicate them. I think the women who treat men as more simple creatures are more successful with them than I am. There's this great Seinfeld episode where George Costanza thinks that the ideal situation for a man would be if he could eat a pastrami with mustard at the same time as he is making love to a woman, at the same time as he is watching a sports game on a hand-held TV. I know it's a caricature. But I don't know -- I think I'm always reaching for a more complicated view of them.
The basic assertion of this book seems to be that the women's movement has not made many gains over the past 30 years . . .
Actually no. Women are in better shape in many ways. Economically the feminist movement did a lot of good. But in terms of culture, they made the mistake of thinking that women could succeed by aping men. So women were aping men in the way they dressed, with those blue suits and floppy bow ties, and in the way they worked, and in orgasms. And I think that was a mistake, as was demonizing Barbie, Cosmo and Playboy. Gloria Steinem said a woman reading Playboy feels like a Jew reading a Nazi manual. It was cutting out too much of the sexuality and frivolity. So now I think women are reshaping the world according to their desires and needs in a womanly way. So it's like starting all over again, in a way.
But we're much further along than that, aren't we? Women have choices. They make necessary trade-offs to do with work, children and husbands, and live with the consequences. Isn't that as good as we're ever going to get on this subject?
Yeah, I think you're right. The more choices we have, the better. But there was a story on the front page of the New York Times recently about young Ivy League women who did not want to go into the workplace. They just want to find a husband, and stay home and have kids. And some professors were quoted in that story as saying young women now are "more realistic." And maybe they are more realistic . . . or more retro. Or both. Kate White, the editor of Cosmo, says that her young readers feel that the way the baby boomer women led their lives was just too much of a grind. In fact, I know a lot of baby boomer women who feel that their lives are a grind. They'd like to go off and play bridge and eat bonbons.
Does that trouble you?
Oh no. I'm not judging any of these choices. I'm just saying, isn't it weird that a lot of these things turned out the opposite of what the women's movement expected. A lot of Ivy League women want to be called "Mrs." now and not keep their own names. And a lot of women want to look like Playboy bunnies. I mean it's just strange. I'm not saying women who stay home are wrong. Or women are in worse shape now because that's just simply not how I feel.
You write that a "Mrs." next to a woman's name has become "the latest fashion accessory." What is that about?
It is a sign that younger women do not want to go along with the ideas of what I call "Jurassic Feminists." At the 1968 Miss America contest in Atlantic City, some feminists went in and symbolically threw high heels and girdles into a garbage can. Now, the front page of the New York Times recently had a story about women getting their toes surgically shortened for stilettos. Liposuction instead of girdles is the rage.
Is this caused by a sexist society or are women doing it because they want to?
Narcissism has trumped feminism. Pat Wexler [the New York dermatologist] has an interesting quote in the book where she says that women are not trying to get all these puffed-up, male-fantasy proportions for men, but for themselves. They all played with Barbies when they were little, and that's what they want.
In many ways this book is about the mystery of your own marital status and whether or not you feel you remained unmarried as a trade-off for your career . . .
I have got to correct that. My career helped me meet more and more interesting men. Not the reverse. And I always put my personal life ahead of my professional life -- I hope my boss doesn't read Maclean's -- so when I write about women in the book who are so focused on their careers that they look up one day and don't have a personal life, I am not writing about myself. That's just reporting.
I'm sure to many observers your life looks pretty fabulous . . .
Some elements of it are. It's just that I haven't been lucky enough to meet "the one" yet. But it's not about anything I've sacrificed.
By all reports, men are crazy for you. One of your critics theorizes that the reason you never married was because you didn't want to sacrifice the sexual allure that comes with being a single woman, and which has helped your career. It would take away your edge, your ability to be flirtatious with your subjects, such as George Bush, the elder.
But married women can flirt! And I never really flirted with him anyway. He flirted with me. I would love to be married. I think it would be really, really fun. It would be fun to try to make it fun -- that would be very challenging. But I think I could still flirt if I were married.
Many female critics have taken offence at your assertion that successful, intelligent women are less likely to find mates. As the blogger "Wonkette" put it: "Thank God we aren't as smart as Maureen Dowd is or else we'd never have found a husband." Is it harder for talented women to find husbands?
I think it is a little harder.
But, to name a few examples -- Marie-Josée Kravis, Barbara Amiel, Heather Reisman, Catherine Zeta-Jones -- they obviously found men who were attracted to them because of their power and success.
Of course it's possible. I'm only making a much smaller point, which is that it's a little trickier for women who came of age in the late '60s and early '70s because many of the things that they thought would fascinate men, men find draining. And sometimes men want to be with people who are in awe of them rather than people who spar with them in the Hepburn-Tracy manner. It doesn't mean you can't find men to do that with. It just means it's a little harder. There's a place in the book where I give the statistics on single women and married men in the top tier of the Bush administration. Women were five times more likely to be single than their male counterparts.
Could that be because, as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice can't be fixing the world's problems and also raising toddlers?
That's right. That's why Harriet Miers and Condoleezza Rice did so well with Bush. Because they are his nannies. And since they are his nanny, they didn't have time to be anyone else's.
What about Hillary Clinton? There's the hilarious quote in your book from [literary editor of The New Republic] Leon Wieseltier where he says: "She's like some hellish housewife who has seen something she really, really wants and won't stop nagging you about it until finally you say, fine, take it, be the goddamn president, just leave me alone." You credit Hillary with doing a lot of "collateral damage" to feminism . . .
Hillary is in favour of helping women unless they get in the way of the Clintons. Because Hillary thinks that if you get in the way of the Clintons, you get in the way of the republic as she sees it. Hillary was involved with some of the vivisections of Bill's girlfriends. They would never just say: "Yeah, he cheated." He would hide behind the skirts of Hillary and Madeleine Albright when he got into trouble. And they would defend him. And when Hillary said he wasn't lying about Monica, and the White House tried to paint Monica as a fantasist, and a troubled young woman, and a stalker, I just don't think that was a good moment for women's rights as far as Hillary was concerned. It's interesting because she's still a feminist icon. And yet she was willing to smear women when they got in the way of the Clintons' success.
Your mother [who died in 2005 at the age of 97] has been described as the "love of your life to date." From your descriptions she was very clever and funny, but she also lived a conventional female life as a wife and mother. Do you ever look at your life and your mother's life and compare the choices you both made?
It's funny, because our lives are opposite in many ways but our sensibilities were very similar. She was a news junkie. She raised her five kids in high heels. She was really fun and saucy -- and just curious about everything in the world.
So she was a model to you, but not a complete model?
She was a model to me in the way of having a family, too. I just haven't been lucky enough to meet the equivalent of what my dad was for her.
You've had a brilliant career but your mother's life was probably a lot less angst-ridden . . .
She had a fantastic life. She died on the July 4 weekend and she died with her three sons taking turns holding her hand and my sister and I just sobbing insanely because we were going to miss her so much. I don't think you can do any better than that in life. She didn't miss anything. I have a remarkable life, too, but obviously I'd like the personal side of it . . . . My mom said a week before she died, "Can't you find someone to settle down with?" I was the baby of the family and I'm a little bit ditzy. I think she really wanted to have someone take care of me. I would like someone to take care of, too. But everybody doesn't get everything they want.
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