Alison Shaw


The Look, 1994

This is what a feminist looks like? It is in the case of Erica Jong, whose 1973 semi-autobiographical novel Fear of Flying electrified the nation with its frank talk of marital discontent, professional ambition, and no-strings-attached sex. The book sold 20 million copies, turning Jong into a household name.

“She sprinkles on the four-letter words as if women had invented them,” squealed John Updike in approval. Henry Miller compared her work to Tropic of Cancer, though “not as bitter and much funnier.” Bob Dylan dropped her name in song.

For a while Jong seemed the embodiment of a liberating, changing feminist movement. Then the movement changed again. In the ensuing decades feminists went from sex positive to celibate, Jong said. Her privileged worldview and desire for anonymous hookups in which “zippers fell away like rose petals” were deemed detrimental to the cause.

By the time she visited the Vineyard in July 1994, part of a nationwide swing to promote her memoir Fear of Fifty, Jong was eager to reassert her voice. Dressed in a sleek black top, fashionable round shades, her hands draped in jewels, she made no apologies. Yes, she had been married several times. Yes, she had been adulterous. Yes, she was professionally successful and a happy mother.

“I’m much more typical than most people would imagine,” she said. In other words: yes, her story deserved to be told. 

In a wide-ranging conversation with the Vineyard Gazette, Jong spoke of a failed attempt to adapt Fear of Flying for film, saying “Hollywood is completely uninterested in making movies about strong women.” Of her rejection by second-wave feminists, who found her work “confusing.” Of society’s continued mistreatment of women in the public eye, citing the perpetually relevant “carping criticism of Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

“If you’re a woman who tries to tell the truth and smash the stereotypes, you’re severely punished. Truth-telling makes people very uncomfortable.”

And yet, she said, that should not be a deterrent. “I truly can’t believe the lack of respect with which women are treated after twenty-five years of feminism.”