Erica Jong made a splash in 1973 with her debut novel, Fear of Flying, which articulated a new path of self-discovery and liberation for women and gave voice to a generation of burgeoning feminists. In this interview, she talks about feminism today and the need to be more honest with girls about the challenges they might face.
Omega: You've been working in the women's movement for decades; what do you see as the next frontier for women?
Erica: I think we've only accomplished about half the revolution. Every time women make tremendous strides, the right wing gets terrified and creates laws making it hard to get an abortion or birth control. Most of these laws are struck, but we spend an awful lot of time reacting and undoing. We don't have a clear path forward, and that's been the case for feminism since the 18th century, when the idea of the rights of women actually began.
Omega: How do you define feminism today?
Erica: Feminism is really the right of women to be full human beings and to not be defined only by their childbearing function. It's very simple -- too much has been made of defining feminism. Feminism is really the right of women to be human beings. That's it, yet that's so frightening to a lot of people.
A full human being wants satisfying work and love. A full human being is entitled to both, and is not simply defined by only one aspect of her being. Not everybody has to be a parent. In fact, in an overpopulated world where our resources are shrinking, it would be wonderful if people who didn't want children felt free to say so. In the 1970s, there was more tolerance for the idea that not everybody needs to be a biological parent.
Omega: At times you've been labeled an "outspoken feminist." You've said that one of the problems with activism today is that people don't know where to begin because there are so many issues.
Erica: Wherever you begin, it has to come from your gut. I was always a feminist. My mother was a feminist; my grandmother was a feminist. I always understood women had to fight very hard to do what they wanted to do in the world -- that it wasn't an easy choice. But I think the most important part is that we all want the right to be taken seriously as human beings, and to use our talents without reservation, and that's still not possible for women.
Omega: Where might someone start if they wanted to become a more active feminist?
Erica: The absolute bedrock of our independence is having control over our own bodies. You cannot be independent if the government or someone else says whether or not you can use birth control. Unless you're in charge of your body, you're not in charge of anything. I find it very provocative that we're going backward on Roe v. Wade, and every feminist has to make it absolutely clear that women are in control of their own bodies. I think that's really the bottom line of feminism.
We've shown again and again, in every UN report on the status of women, that wherever women control their own bodies and have access to education, societies prosper. Men's fortunes go up, children's fortunes go up. This is not news--it's been proven repeatedly. Anywhere those things are threatened, we have to defend them.
Omega: In Fear of Fifty, you discuss your life as a member of the "whiplash generation," "raised to be Doris Day, growing up wanting to be Gloria Steinem." What would you say to women wanting to expand their role and break through expectations of what it means to be a woman?
Erica: It's useful to know how much society's holding you back. My mother would talk about how she was told by the head of her art school that she was the best painter, but that she wouldn't get the biggest prize because she would waste her talent by having children. I think we have to get honest with girls about how they can expect the world to block them, and we have to prepare girls, and ourselves, to break through those blocks.
Omega: What do you hope most for women in the future?
Erica: I hope we don't have to keep going back over the same territory and winning the same rights over and over again. The battle for birth control. The battle for abortion. The parity of women's health. It's very depressing to think that you win these rights, but then you have to win them again, and again, and again, and fight the same battles over and over.
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