Elizabeth Warren’s Maiden Aunt

The Washington Post recently reported that Elizabeth Warren is being attacked as “angry” and “antagonistic”, and hence perhaps not likable. Amanda Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Barbara Lee Foundation, “citing extensive research”, is reported as saying that “voters will not support a woman they do not like even if they believe she is qualified … but they will vote for a man they do not like.”

This brought to mind the chapter “At the Parlor Lecture Club” from William Saroyan’s 1943 novel, The Human Comedy. Homer Macauley, the  young protagonist, is charged with delivering a telegram to Rosalie Simms-Pibity, the current speaker at the Ithaca Parlor Lecture Club, which appears to be solely attended by women. “Wonderful, plump, middle-aged ladies, most of them mothers, were cheerfully entering the building,” writes Saroyan.

It quickly becomes apparent that the telegram is a ruse: Homer is instructed to rush forward and interrupt the speaker to deliver the telegram only once she appears on the stage, as a device to inflate her importance. Saroyan continues:

“Members of the Ithaca Parlor Lecture Club,” the President of the Club began to say. “This afternoon,” she continued, “we have in store a great treat. Our speaker is to be Rosalie Simms-Pibity.” … “The story of Rosalie Simms-Pibity, ” the President of the Club said, as if she were telling a fable not the least unlike, or not one bit less majestic than the fable of the Odyssey itself, “is a story especially thrilling to women. Simms-Pibity — for that is how she prefers to be known — has lived a life brimming over with adventure, romance, danger, and beauty, and yet today she is scarcely more than a dashing handsome British girl — at the same time a girl hard as steel and stronger than most men….”

Now a note of tender sadness came into the voice of the President of the Ithaca Parlor Lecture Club as she continued the legend of the great female hero. “As for us,” she said somberly, “the stay-at-homes, the mothers, the bringer-uppers, so to speak, of children, the life of Simms-Pibity is like a dream — our dream — the unfulfilled dream of each of us who have only stayed at home, given birth to our children, and looked after our houses. Hers is the beautiful life each of us would have liked to have lived if we had dared, but Fate, as it will, has not decreed such adventures for us, and in all the world there is only one Simms-Pibity. Only one!”

There follows a multi-page recitation of Simms-Pibity’s adventures. Like Hemingway, she drove an ambulance in World War I. That is followed by a life of travel, espionage, disguise, bravery, and danger, in Africa, China, and Arabia.

“Simms-Pibity went disguised as an Egyptian woman one thousand miles on camel-back, her only companions coarse, native men who could speak no English.” The President of the Ithaca Parlor Lecture Club lifted her eyes at this remark and looked over at two of her most intimate friends. Homer Macauley wondered what she meant by that glance and then wondered how long she was going to continue to talk about this incredible and wonderful person, Rosalie Simms-Pibity.

Quite a while, it turns out, while Homer shuffles his feet impatiently, waiting for the speaker to appear at the lectern so that he can deliver the telegram as instructed. Finally, the President announces the speaker.

“It gives me great pride, as President of the Ithaca Parlor Lecture Club, to present to you — Rosalie Simms-Pibity!”

The applause this time was almost an ovation…. After perhaps two full minutes of clapping … the great lady finally presented herself.

Homer Macauley expected to see someone unlike any woman he had ever seen before in his life. He couldn’t imagine exactly what form this creature would take, but he felt certain that it would be surely at least interesting — and so it was. Rosalie Simms-Pibity was, briefly, an old battle-ax, horse-faced, sex-starved, dried-out, tall, skinny, gaunt, bony, absurd, and a mess.

Homer is pushed through the crowd to deliver his telegram.

On the stage the great lady pretended not to be aware of the commotion. “Ladies,” she began to say, “Members of the Ithaca Parlor Lecture Club–” Her voice was equal in unattractiveness to her person.

Homer Macauley hurried up onto the stage and in a very clear voice announced, “Telegram for Rosalie Simms-Pibity!”

The great lady stopped her speech and turned to the messenger as if his appearance was utterly accidental. “Here, boy,” she said, “I am Simms-Pibity!”

She glanced back at the audience and said, “Excuse me, ladies.” She signed for the telegram, took it from the messenger, and then offered him a dime, saying, “And that’s for you, boy.”

Like the fictional Simms-Pibity, this chapter has not aged well. Indeed, the characters are so cartoonishly broad that it’s hard to believe it was ever taken seriously as literature. Whatever the depths of the human soul, male or female, might be, Mr. Saroyan does not plumb them here.

But the caricatures do make his message clear. Women should be stay-at-homes, mothers, bringer-uppers of children. That way, they can become wonderful, plump, middle-aged ladies. They may think they want more, pine for Simms-Pibity’s life, maybe feel a frisson of sexual excitement at the thought of those coarse, native Egyptian camel riders who speak no English — but they are confused, bless their souls. That way lies ruination, and their thoughts of a larger life had best remain daydreams, lest they end up horse-faced, sex-starved, and dried-out.

Much has changed for women in the 76 years since that chapter was written, largely in the second half of that period. Until 1974, banks could refuse a credit card to an unmarried woman, or require her husband’s approval if she was married. In many states, women were automatically exempted from jury duty. The top educational institutions were almost exclusively male, while the relatively small number of selective women’s colleges saw their mission as producing cultured, refined wives and mothers. Adlai Stevenson was the graduation speaker for the Smith College class of 1955, and told the graduates that the purpose of their education was to make sure that their husbands always had high-quality reading material at their bedsides. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated from Columbia Law School in 1959, tied for first in her class, she was unable to get a job as a lawyer, so outlandish was the notion of a top female attorney.

These rapid, tectonic shifts cannot help creating some social stress fractures. By and large, women have flourished under their ongoing liberation — unsurprisingly, people prefer being free to being constrained. But even some women have been unsettled by the rapid change in social expectations, and feel some ambivalence, and nostalgia for what is perceived to be a simpler time.

For men, the change has been more complicated. Human flourishing is not zero-sum, and improving the prospects of women has also liberated men to lead fuller lives — fatherhood, for one thing, can be much more rewarding today than it was when men’s role in child-rearing was limited to bread-winning and imposing punishment. Especially toward the lower end of the education and economic spectrums, though, men have had difficulty holding their own in a changing job market without the protection of a gender-based cartel.

Life is difficult under all circumstances, and when those circumstances are changing rapidly, it is easy to succumb to the nostalgic fallacy: things were so much simpler, better, happier in the good, old days. The political version of nostalgia is reaction: the desire to turn back the clock to an imagined, idyllic past. The mental archetypes of earlier times do not exit the stage gracefully or quickly.

Elizabeth Warren can stand for hours in the rain as her supporters take selfies with her, crouch down again and again to chat warmly with a young girl or boy, get photographed with her adorable golden retriever, and talk about her humble upbringing all she likes. She is an accomplished attorney and professor, intellectual and ambitious, aspiring to what is still the most powerful office on the planet. And that means that, no matter what she says or does, some will hear her voice and see her face, and hear only the unattractive  voice, and see only the sex-starved, dried-out horse face, of Rosalie Simms-Pibity.