‘The Bitch is Back’: Local author Cathi Hanauer edits new collection of women’s essays

  • Cathi Hanauer at her home in Northampton, Sept. 22.

  • Cathi Hanauer, at her home in Northampton, says “The Bitch is Back” is about “enlightened women and how we choose to age.”

  • Cathi Hanauer’s new book takes a fresh look at the post-feminist landscape. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2016

Around the turn of the new millennium, Cathi Hanauer found herself increasingly frustrated. More than that, actually: sometimes she was just flat-out angry.

The Northampton writer and editor was busy with her career, and she also had her hands full raising two young children with her husband, fellow wordsmith Dan Jones.

But like many working women, Hanauer felt she was handling more than her share of the childcare and other domestic tasks. Money was tight, life seemed chaotic, and she was often tired and resentful, with much of her anger directed at her husband — and at herself.

That state of affairs led her to compile and edit a collection of essays by female writers that became a surprise bestseller. In “The Bitch in the House,” published in 2002, 26 women, from their 20s to their 60s, sounded off on jobs, love, parenthood, and marriage and divorce as they examined what it meant for women to “have it all.”

But fast-forward nearly 15 years and Hanauer and many of her fellow “bitches” have mellowed quite a bit — though they still have thoughtful and often witty things to says about their lives.

In “The Bitch is Back: Older, Wiser and (Getting) Happier,” Hanauer, who’s in her early 50s, has gathered some of her past contributors and several new ones to take a fresh look at the post-feminist landscape as women age into their 40s, 50s and 60s.

“It was always in the back of my mind to do some kind of sequel,” Hanauer said during an interview at her home. “But the timing didn’t seem right, and I didn’t think I wanted to do another anthology.”

Yet as she reflected during the past several years on the changes she’d witnessed in the lives of female friends and colleagues, as well as in her own, Hanauer began to glimpse the seed of a new book. It seemed to her women were taking charge of their lives — whether through pursuing new relationships, adjusting their careers, or making peace with what they had — rather than letting anger define them.

“That’s really what [the new book] is about — enlightened women and how we choose to age,” she said. “It’s about figuring out what you think is going make you happy and taking the steps to make that happen.”

Whine-free zone

Though “The Bitch in the House” sold well (easing the money issues in the Hanauer-Jones household) and received fine reviews overall, some critics took issue with what seemed a preponderance of well-educated, successful essayists whose complaints about a less-than-perfect life veered dangerously close to whining.

With the new book, Hanauer says she made a conscious effort to seek more diversity in her contributors — from a transgender woman who came out to her wife after living as a man in their 12 previous years of marriage, to a housecleaner who escaped from a violent husband, to a former magazine writer who now tutors inmates.

In addition, “The Bitch is Back” is guided by a sense that the anger characterizing some of the first anthology may have been misplaced, particularly when many of the writers seemed to have married smart, sensitive men in the first place. Perhaps her generation of women, Hanauer writes in an introduction, had unreasonable expectations of their husbands and of marriage.

“We want a best friend and a soul mate, a financial and domestic partner, someone who cracks us up, turns us on, makes us feel attractive and confident, stays faithful and sweet, and as a bonus can … grill an organic, cage-free, locally-raised bird, possibly killing it himself — humanely, of course.”

Indeed, some of the most poignant essays in “The Bitch is Back” reflect marriages and relationships between men and women — and between two women — that are based on a deep love and respect. Yet sometimes that’s not enough to weather other issues.

In “My Filthy Little Heart,” Claire Johnson (a pseudonym) confesses that she and her husband of 22 years have not had sex in several years due to his loss of interest, a loss he can’t really explain. When therapy, marriage counseling and other measures can’t solve the problem, Johnson steels herself to leave the marriage, painful as that is.

“The thought of breaking up my home, my babies’ home, paralyzes me; the thought of leaving my husband … is excruciatingly sad. … But for years I’ve been slowly starving, and what I’ve come to at last is this: I deserve more.”

In “Wrinkles in Time. Or Not,” Barnard College President Debora L. Spar examines the conflict some women face as they grow older: As feminists, shouldn’t they take pride in their professional accomplishments and not be worried about waning looks?

Easier said than done, writes Spar, who’s in her early 50s. “As we age, we are supposed to become wiser and more generous, treasuring our wrinkles as the laugh lines of life. I love this idea. I wish I could embrace it.”

Making it work

The contributors to “The Bitch is Back” cover a lot of other ground for modern women: making peace with an aging parent; having a baby on one’s own; balancing parenting with work; rekindling romance with a long-term spouse; squaring religious differences within a relationship; finding peacefulness living alone.

Then there’s Julianna Baggott, a prolific and admired novelist (she moved to Amherst from Florida a few years ago) who for many years has been the sole breadwinner in the family, while her husband, Dave, has become an adept homemaker and also serves as her manager.

If she sometimes feels like a “bad husband” because Dave (a former writer himself) handles virtually all the household work and much of the parenting, Baggott says the couple know that they’re “in this together: this intricate architecture of motherhood, fatherhood, homemaking, breadwinning, labor, work, and love.”

Hanauer says the variety of things her essayists wrote about — she met with all of them beforehand to discuss what kind of piece she was looking for — is what particularly resonates with her about the new book.

“I think what it shows is that there are so many different definitions of what makes a marriage or a relationship,” she said. “There are so many ways to make it work, or to try and make it work.”

In her case, she and Jones, the longtime editor of the “Modern Love” column in The New York Times, have become empty nesters, as their daughter and son are now in college.

“That’s what I hope [readers] take away from this,” she added. “I hope they can see something of themselves in these stories.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.