On Saturday Oct. 19 at 10 a.m., Kenyon community members flooded into the Cheever room of Finn House to hear Caitlin Flanagan speak. “My voice is shaking, there’s so many of you!” the Atlantic writer joked. Presented by the Kenyon Review, Flanagan’s discussion centered around the importance of culturally relevant mid-century women who utilized their femininity and place in society as a means of power. Flanagan discussed her fascination with these women and their relevance to American pop culture. The figures she discussed included Marilyn Monroe, Patty Hearst, Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Joan Didion, Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey.
Flanagan described a certain mythology that weaves through the public eye’s perception of these influential women.
While she discussed the misogyny that encompassed the public portrayal of these women, she focused primarily on how many of these women took advantage of these traditional feminine stereotypes and claimed power by continuing to exist within the roles in which they had been placed.
“In that era there was an idea that, whether through nurture or nature, women were naturally good at certain things, and [the women discussed] all used those things,” Flanagan said. “These kinds of womanly things, these feminine things, can help a career instead of hurt them.” She cited Monroe and Walters as figures who found ways to insert themselves into important career-defining moments using society’s perceptions of them. Flanagan also embraced writer Joan Didion for her ability to use the impression people made of her—a delicate, quiet woman—to fit into spaces where she could create impactful writing. She referred to Didion as a writer “for the girls,” in contrast with her hyper-masculine contemporary Hunter Thompson. Flanagan cited Didion as the reason that she became a writer and highlighted the fearlessness within her flowery language.
Though she set forth how upholding female traditional roles could be a means of attaining power, Flanagan was unsure how this use of femininity will translate into the future. “What does every feminist want to do? They want to emasculate men … They want men to not be toxic—but beyond not being toxic, they want them to be, specifically, more like women. They want men to be less traditionally masculine. The more that happens, the less the feminine talents are going to work because the male audience won’t be so attracted to the binary of femininity. So I don’t know what’s going to happen to femininity in the future,” she said in an interview with the Collegian.
Audience members remarked that thoroughness of Flanagan’s research was apparent in her detailed reporting of each woman she discussed. At one point, Flanagan was unable to find a page of her notes on Oprah Winfrey, but completely recall her thoughts on the spot. This moment of quick thinking conveyed the depth with which she understood her subject. Despite her intense attention to detail, Flanagan takes pride in her ability to convey a large amount of information in just a few sentences. “The best thing that someone said about my writing was that … ‘there’s eight sentences behind every sentence.’ There was so much authority in the writing that, even though I wasn’t putting in the essay everything I’d learned, the reader could sense it,” she said.
Through Flanagan’s informed writing, audience members walked away with new insight into the lives of these women, the overall experiences of women in the 20th century and the strength within traditional femininity.