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The Bitch in the House: 26 Women tell the truth about sex, solitude, work, motherhood and marriage

Edited by Cathi Hanauer

Harper Collins

US Paperback

ISBN: 0-06-093646-0

Pages: 294; Price: $13.95

Date Reviewed: 26th January 2004

Reviewed by: Serena Trowbridge © 2004




Germaine Greer says, in "The Whole Woman", that the women's movement should harvest women's sadness, rather than anger. The Sixties and Seventies saw angry women, fighting for the right to have it all, but now, she says, what women suffer from is sadness, and the power of their tears is infinite. She's right, in many ways, but the anger, it seems, hasn't gone away; it's just changed direction. The Bitch in the House looks at the domestic anger experienced by women in contemporary society, and I hadn't realized what a widespread phenomenon this was. I leave whatever book I'm reading in my in-tray, and every woman I know seems to have picked this one up, read the back, and asked if she can have it after me, so clearly the topic is one that strikes a chord.

The title, says Hanauer, is taken from Virginia Woolf's essay, "Killing The Angel in the House", about the necessity for the emancipation of women from the shackles of the kitchen. However, the "Angel in the House" comes from an earlier source, Coventry Patmore's excessively Victorian poem "The Angel in the House", extolling the virtues of the woman who is the subservient goddess of home and hearth.

Cathi Hanauer became aware of the anger that women were feeling with regard to their day-to-day lives, and asked a series of women, mostly writers, to produce an essay on this. The result is a series of fresh, lively pieces filled to bursting with down-to-earth honesty, about the things that women usually don't talk about. The book is divided into sections - "Me, Myself, and I", "For Better and Worse", "Mommy Maddest" and "Look at Me Now". They all deal with pretty much the same thing, though - what to do when you have it all, and it's just too much hard work. Some of it I really agreed with, some of it seemed a bit too out there for me, but I just couldn't put it down.

The writers look at the choices they have made in their lives, what behavior they learned from their mothers, and what they found works for them. These are all motivated, ambitious women with great careers, wonderful partners and children they adore, and yet their lives are spiraling out of control. It's time, they say, to let go of the idea that we have to do everything, be responsible for everyone, and simultaneously be an earth-mother, a perfect hostess, a loving wife, a successful career woman, and a woman in one's own right. Put like that, it makes life sound impossible, and yet thousands of women make just that happen in their lives - it's no wonder there's some anger involved somewhere along the line, not to mention a bit of madness.

I did feel that this book would have benefited from some cogent analysis about why this is a problem in our society, and how society as a whole could move on from it. Apart from a brief fore- and after-word there is nothing to draw the strands together - but maybe that's the point - we have all these choices, all these things to think about, and this is another one we have to make up our own minds about. Is it women's feeling of powerlessness in domestic situations, or is it men's laziness? Or is it a combination of the two in a have-it-all society? Personally I think that perhaps anger is the inevitable result of our struggle, our aspirations and our social conditioning. We are still brought up to want to get married, and we increasingly still aspire to be the domestic goddess; but at the same time, we know now that we are also creative, businesslike, effective, and strong - and somehow it's very difficult to mix the two. The combination is often explosive.

In some ways, this is a slightly depressing book; it's about what goes wrong in relationships, and frequently not what is positive, and what can last. Those women who have found solutions to their situations seem to have find the kind of answers that I'm interested to read about but wouldn't want myself - open marriages, being a mistress, long distance relationships etc. Having said that, it is something that needs to be discussed, and with luck it will open up conversations and save relationships. I still believe that most problems in relationships turn out to be only a fraction of the problem we thought it was, once it is openly and frankly discussed, and perhaps that is the most enduring message of this book.

You can find out more at the website - where another interesting book, edited by Cathi Hanauer's husband, Daniel Jones, is advertised:

The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain their Feelings about Love, Loss, Fatherhood and Freedom