Phyllis McGinley and the Left’s War on American Motherhood

The 20th-century writer’s life and work is a perfect reminder this Mother’s Day of the unique value and importance of being a mother.

W. H. Auden, perhaps the 20th century’s preeminent English-language poet, lionized Phyllis McGinley and wrote the introduction to her Pulitzer Prize–winning poetry collection Times Three in 1960. She appeared solo on the cover of Time magazine a few years later (one of only nine poets to receive that honor in 100 years) at a time when this was the ultimate mark of popular prestige. She wrote extensively both for the highbrow New Yorker and mass-market publications with equal success — her poetry, essays, and even children’s books all sold remarkably well.

Robert Frost was reportedly an admirer, as were celebrities such as Kirk Douglas and Groucho Marx, with whom she carried on a years-long correspondence. She was even a formative influence on Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton — today among the 20th century’s most celebrated female poets — the latter of whom wrote gushing letters to McGinley in Sexton’s early career.

Yet today there will be few under 50 who have even heard of McGinley — who died in 1978 — much less who could claim deep familiarity with her work. None of her books of poems or essays — so popular a generation ago — are even in print. Her voice is largely absent from major anthologies.

This was not due to any lack of quality — on the contrary, as Auden, Sexton, and others observed, her deceptively accessible poems showed a mastery of poetic forms. Nor was it primarily due to her style (she worked most frequently in so-called “light verse,” a form of poetry characterized by a humorous, wry tone— yet many of her poems were quite serious in theme).

No, what consigned McGinley to the dustbin of literary history was her politics. And in the un-personing of McGinley, we can get a glimpse of the Left’s simultaneous ruthlessness and cultural hegemony. Simply put, McGinley’s thought crime was that she was a happy, Christian, suburban mother and housewife who extolled both her life in the suburbs and traditional roles for women. For the Left, her failure to be miserable and angry at her situation was an unforgivable sin. The erasure of her voice and what it represented is a sobering thought for conservatives on this Mother’s Day. As with much else in our culture, absent voices like McGinley’s, we look at motherhood, even, through a left-wing lens.

One of her daughters noted approvingly as an adult that McGinley’s home life with her husband, a telephone-company executive, was “a sanguine, benign, adorable version of Mad Men.” Even in more traditional 1950s literary circles, this was enough to make her persona non grata. In a 1959 review of her collection of essays, the Province of the Heart, one reviewer commented on her work being a summary of “the joys of being all the things modern fiction deplores: married, feminine, suburban, maternal.”

McGinley compounded her unfashionableness by directly taking on the feminist movement. Describing herself as “quite the opposite of a feminist,” her direct response to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique — a collection of essays entitled Sixpence in Her Shoe — spent more than six months on the New York Times bestseller list, far outstripping Friedan’s sales. Friedan compared her to “an Uncle Tom” for attempting to put a warm and humorous face on the inherent oppressiveness of her condition as a homemaker.

Friedan was no doubt the sort of person McGinley had in mind as she wrote poems such as The Old Feminist: “Snugly upon the equal heights / enthroned at last where she belongs / she takes no pleasure in her Rights / who so enjoyed her Wrongs.”

As one scholar wrote about her recently:

McGinley’s alternative vision of women’s lives and potential has, its popularity and influence in its own moment notwithstanding, disappeared from the public record. . . . The swift decline in her reputation as a poet and commentator in the light of Sixpence in her Shoe is a measure both of the growing strength of feminist thought from the early 1960s onwards and of the cost of that success to those with dissenting views.

Of course, the contempt of the allegedly open-minded Left hardly surprised McGinley, who wrote in her poem The Angry Man:

The other day I chanced to meet / An angry man upon the street /
A man of wrath, a man of war / A man who truculently bore / Over his shoulder, like a lance / A banner labeled “Tolerance.”

McGinley saw women’s maternal role as absolutely central to their being. She wrote:

Women are the fulfilled sex. Through our children we are able to produce our own immortality, so we lack that divine restlessness which sends men charging off in pursuit of fortune or fame or an imagined Utopia . . . the wholesome oyster wears no pearl, the healthy whale no ambergris, and as long as we can keep on adding to the race, we harbor a sort of health within ourselves.

Needless to say, this sort of maternally focused thinking couldn’t be allowed in modern feminism. As a Christian, her views on morality were similarly unappealing to the literary smart set. “Sin has always been an ugly word,” McGinley wrote, “but it has been made so in a new sense over the last half-century. It has been made not only ugly but passé. People are no longer sinful, they are only immature or underprivileged or frightened or, more particularly, sick.”

Yet McGinley was not simply some reactionary fossil preaching a revanchist view of American motherhood or womanhood. Rather, like any sensible traditionalist, she sought a balance. Her goal was not the destruction of the working woman, but the elevation of the homemaker and mother. At the heart of this vision was her advocacy of “casual motherhood,” one that respects a mother’s identity not just as a nurturer but as a person with her own life goals: “Love with a casual touch never says, ‘My children are my life.’ That mother makes a life of her own which is full enough and rewarding enough to sustain her. And she permits her young to let their lives be individual accomplishments.”

As central as her identity as a mother and homemaker was, both in her home and in her poetry, she had little in common with today’s helicopter parents.

Likewise, her poetry, while certainly celebrating her suburban existence, was often filled with ironic detachment or wistfulness at the loss of her nurturing role, as her children grew and became more independent. She was not a literary Thomas Kinkade, painting a sunny, glowing picture of an imagined reality, but a subtle literary artist who captured in poetic form the reality of her existence as a suburban mother, with its banalities and disappointments as well as its joys and triumphs.

We celebrate this Mother’s Day at a time when American motherhood is under siege, with fertility at record lows and the traditional family often the subject of pop-culture mockery. At a time when dysfunctionality and despair are considered by many an essential part of the artistic temperament, McGinley is a reminder that great art can celebrate joy and health and that the maternal can stand on its own as an eternal human value and measure of worth.

Looking though McGinley’s affirming and beautifully constructed verse — which some enterprising publisher should rescue from its current purgatory — reminds us of how many valuable cultural legacies the hegemonic Left has effaced, and how many other treasures from our heritage patiently await rediscovery.


The Latest