The feminine antiques

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of "Fear of Flying," feminists Erica Jong, Susan Cheever, Wendy Wasserstein and Sarah Jessica Parker discuss "Sex: Then and Now." Yawn.

Published November 6, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

What the hell happened to feminism?

It's the question that was almost -- but not quite -- addressed at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan on Wednesday night, when a bevy of broads, including writers Erica Jong, Susan Cheever, Wendy Wasserstein, and actress Sarah Jessica Parker gathered for a panel discussion. The event, billed as a discussion of "Sex: Then and Now," was being held in honor of the 30th anniversary of the publication of "Fear of Flying," Jong's seminal celebration of dirty talk.

Jong, 61, dressed in a conservative black suit, her pouf of hair now silvery, served as moderator for the evening, and began by introducing her compatriots to the auditorium, which was packed with women of all ages.

The 38-year-old Parker, who, according to Jong, "has galvanized the world" with her portrayal of passion-addled columnist Carrie Bradshaw on HBO's "Sex and the City" and is "one of the great actresses of our time," emerged in a silky pale purple dress and lacy jacket that looked pricey. Compounding the fact that her long, springy hair looked like Jennifer Aniston circa last year, Parker further confused fans by holding a book in her right hand in place of a Dolce and Gabbana clutch.

Next, Jong introduced "Heidi Chronicles" playwright Wendy Wasserstein, calling her the kind of person "one feels happy to be on the same planet with." Wasserstein, 53, is currently blond. Clad in a red cowl-neck sweater and a black skirt and boots, she did look sort of cheerful as she ambled to her seat.

Finally Jong introduced Susan Cheever, the fourth panelist, a role recently vacated by Tina Brown, who had shown remarkable perspicacity by deciding to bail at the last minute. Jong said that Cheever's work, including "Note Found in a Bottle" and "As Good As I Could Be," "had absolutely galvanized" her, and that one of the author's chief talents was supporting and appreciating the work of other women.

"That's what we're all learning in this period of history," said a thoroughly galvanized Jong, as the white-haired Cheever, 60, took her seat, "how to support each other and love each other."

It was then that a young woman in my row hissed, "These women are going to tell us about sex?"

Once the panel was assembled, Jong got down to the business of appreciating her own work by reading the "zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals" paragraph from "Fear of Flying."

"I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote that paragraph," said Jong, her voice rich with experience and apparent self-assurance. "But it did change the world."

Talking about the way her book had helped to show a nation that women were capable of desire and sexual fantasy, she turned to her companions and asked, "Thirty years later -- is it better for women?"

There was a pause.

"Yes?" squeaked Parker tentatively before catching her own tone and joking robotically, "That's what they told us to say.

"Women my age reaped the benefits of you being bold. We feel entitled to be free," said Parker. The musculature in her celery-stalk-thin calves, poured into a pair of pretty stiletto heels, was perfect. She turned to her left and quoted Wasserstein: "We live with the assumption that we can have love and literature."

"That's right," said Jong, nodding her head emphatically. "Because for women writers in the past -- they always had to give up one or the other."

Wasserstein, whose voice recalls every nut-case Jewish aunt you've ever had, marveled at the changed options for women, recalling that when she was choosing colleges, her mother told her that "Smith was to bed, Mt. Holyoke was to wed." Wasserstein went to Mt. Holyoke, though she added, "I ultimately got an honorary degree from Smith, so things worked out."

Jong, who seemed intent on keeping things moving at a steady -- not to say choppy -- clip, next asked Parker whether she thought that her show, "Sex and the City," could have continued to follow the lives of its four lead characters after their 40th birthdays, or whether aging would necessitate that the show go off the air.

"Well, we're goin' off the air, so you tell me," said Parker, though she held out the hope that someday the show's team might decide to revisit the women in their later years, when presumably they would meet their inevitable end as Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, Betty White and Rue McClanahan.

Cheever soon piped up, describing her memory of reading "Fear of Flying" for the first time, and how it turned her staid, married, Pembroke College-educated world upside down.

"You can't change a pickle back into a cucumber," Cheever proclaimed enigmatically to roars of laughter from an audience that really seemed to like the pickle reference.

Cheever spoke about the way that the book also changed men's lives, specifically that of her then-husband, who was "ecstatic" to read a book that made it possible to imagine that women -- gasp -- enjoyed sex and had desires that were not directly tied to dishwashers and vacuum cleaners.

But then it was time for Jong to ask her next question: What did the panelists think of the possible effects of a "flood of pornography" and had they read Naomi Wolf's recent New York magazine piece about the effect of pornography on women's sexual freedoms?

A prolonged silence suggested they had not.

But Wasserstein forged ahead, talking about the pornographic spam e-mails that flood her mailbox.

"Whoever they are at the hot titties club ..." began Wasserstein.

"They've got our numbers!" said Jong. Parker quietly mentioned that she tends to receive Viagra ads.

Soon Wasserstein was wallowing in memories of her first time with "Fear of Flying." She was a graduate student at the Yale Drama School, working in the costume shop.

"I just felt this gush of liberation," she said, perhaps unaware of her own distressing talent for imagery. "I was sewing costumes for William Ivey Long and she [Jong's protagonist Isadora Wing] was having zipless fucks!" said Wasserstein with her self-deprecating giggle. "I was doing something wrong!"

It was time to ask Sarah Jessica Parker another question about "Sex and the City."

"The girls talking on 'Sex and the City,'" began Jong.

"Mmmm," said Parker, deeply.

"Here are four women, sharing their lives ..."

"Mmmm-hmmmm," said Parker.

"Their questionings about life ..."

"Hmmmm," said Parker, more seriously.

"I am wondering if it opens the door for new kinds of television," said Jong. She turned to Parker. "Do you think so?"

"Um ... I hope so," said the actress, perhaps taken aback at the ridiculousness of the query.

Jong observed that what was interesting about the "SATC" women was "the self-questioning, not the dirty talk," and Cheever chimed in that "Charlotte is what I was meant to be. Samantha is how I turned out." This got a big laugh.

"Are we anywhere near having true equality?" said Jong, still in "Crossfire" mode. "On TV? Onstage? In life?"

A noise that sounded like "nononononono" rippled through the auditorium audience.

Parker jumped in. "In fiction, as we write it and see it, yes. But not in day-to-day life. In my experience, I don't see it yet."

"This is what scares me," said Wasserstein, referring to Bush's signing a bill that day that would ban late-term abortions. "I have a 4-year-old daughter. And when I think about the rights I had when I was reading 'Fear of Flying' in that costume shop. I mean, not that anything was happening, but I had the right." She stopped briefly. "Attention must be paid!" she said, fiercely.

Jong turned to Parker. "You have a little boy," she said.

"It's just as bad!" said the actress, showing a little backbone. "I don't want him to grow up in a world where he thinks that men can tell women what choices they can make. You can be raised in a house with all good intentions, but if you live in a world that tells you something different, with an administration that thinks differently about women and their choices ... It is just unfathomable to me. It's something I was born with. It's my right. It's what I was taught."

Jong wondered aloud about whether writing a novel about a woman about to turn 60 can be done. Cheever responded that Jong should stop worrying about her work as political and do what she claimed to have done in her 20s with "Fear of Flying": Just write the story and don't think about polemic.

"This is so interesting," said Parker about the revelation that "Fear of Flying" was about a woman in her 20s. "Because I only read the book extremely recently" -- Jong looked momentarily surprised -- "and it didn't occur to me that this was a book about a woman who was only in her 20s. I thought of it as about women -- 20, 40, 50, 60."

Parker was talking fast now, her brows knit. "Of course you can write a book about a woman turning 60," she said to Jong, "because she's a woman and women are fascinating!"

Jong spoke of her daughter, 25-year-old writer Molly Jong-Fast, who was married last Saturday. Ma Jong said, "She takes for granted that the world is hers, so she starts at a higher level than I did. It's as if I'd given her courage with my mother's milk.

"I have found that I have become more invested with child rearing as my daughter gets older," Jong continued, noting that Molly "is 25, and married, and pregnant, yet my whole being has shifted to being her mother," thus confirming a long-held suspicion that it is indeed easier to invest in child rearing when the child being reared is more likely to buy you a glass of wine than spit up on you.

"I am just learning how complicated it is," said Parker. "It's funny that everyone who thought I could juggle were men." Parker said that the decisions about her son, James, who was born a year ago, "have gotten harder as he's become a person who wants to interact more ... And I have to figure out how to make it work and to be a good mother, because that is what's most important to me."

Cheever pointed out that the "choice" between family and work is really no choice at all. "Every molecule in your body wants to stay with your child," she said, recalling her own decision to turn her attention to a book when her child was young. "Leaving my daughter to write a book I really cared about was the worst pain of my life."

"It is very hard for women to say that they don't want to have a professional life outside of the home," said Parker, who was going great guns, now. "It takes a lot of courage, as if there's something not heroic there."

Jong nodded emphatically.

"God, we have gone deep here!" she said, breathlessly.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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