Erica Jong is a legend: author, social critic, feminist, and general provocateuse. Her 1973 novel Fear of Flying was an epochal moment in American thinking about sex and freedom. Her career since has been defined by ceaseless activity and intellectual agility. We spoke with her about the 2016 election, the current political terrain, what millennial men and women need to learn, and her concerns for the future.
Octavian Report: You are, put bluntly, an icon of second-wave feminism -- what's your assessment of its successor movements?
Erica Jong: I wonder whether thinking of feminism in terms of waves is not self-defeating. Feminism has been a very long slog. It began with the Enlightenment, continued through the abolition movement in the 19th century, reached a peak with women getting the vote in the early 20th century and rose to prominence again in the 1960’s and 70’s. Following the Russian-rigged election of Donald Trump, the so-called POTUS, we are seeing a new surge of millennial feminism as young women realize we need the Equal Rights Amendment or we will never keep the gains we make.
OR: Do you have a strong view on millennial feminism?
Jong: Millennial feminism is important because women must realize that our gains -- birth control, hegemony over our own bodies, political rights -- can always be taken back unless it is embodied in the law. In order to be mothers and caregivers and also have successful careers, we need societal support such as parental leave, health care, and other changes which many industrialized countries have already made. Women in Denmark or Holland for example, already have health care, parental leave, and other necessary supports and yet they still realize that full equality is far away. Backward America refuses to give women the support we need. Backward America penalizes people who are poor or brown-skinned as if they were less than human.
Millennial feminists are at last beginning to understand the societal changes we need to make women’s lives more equal. But we still have a very long way to go.
OR: On intersectionality?
Jong: The word is too long. It’s not a friendly word. It’s also not a good slogan -- too academic.
Obviously it’s harder to reach equality when you are discriminated against as a black woman. Obviously it’s harder to lead your life if you are disabled. Obviously it is harder to live your life if you are poor. But do we really need a complicated word to express that? Clearly, we need equality of sexual preference, equality of physical power, equality of human rights. Disabled people should not be mocked and should get the support they need to be full members of society. People of color should be full members of society. But the word “intersectionality,” with its academic overtones, probably scares people away more than it convinces them.
OR: What is your broader assessment of American politics, right and left?
Jong: I’ve always been a Democrat and an admirer of FDR, JFK, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. But I do think that the Democrats are not doing the clever thing in terms of recruiting the next generation. If you give money to the Democrats, they besiege you with requests for more money. They are not as canny as the Republicans in using money to change hearts and minds.
We need institutes focusing on health care and education. We should be invading the universities with courses on medical care as a human right. We should be creating institutes that focus on human rights. Instead, our party is constantly saying, “More, more, more money,” and at the same time, criticizing the GOP for dark money. It seems illogical to me. If I were running the Democratic Party, I would be seeking to convince people of my ideas before hitting them up for money. Ideas are as powerful as donations. Donations follow ideas.
OR: What do you think the Right gets wrong about contemporary society?
Jong: American history shows us that every Republican administration of the 20th century was followed by a recession or a major depression. The right’s rejection of Keynesian economics, and their insistence that the rich will create “trickle down” effects that will make for more jobs is an absurdity. We have tested this theory many times and found that it leads only to a major recession. Greed will not save us. But enlightened opportunism may help society. We need to focus on innovation and giving back.
OR: What do you think the Left gets wrong?
Jong: The Left is too fixated on politics that may have worked in the 1930’s -- we need a new economic enlightenment in which we recognize that taking care of the less fortunate helps them become consumers. We need more innovation in ideas, in fundraising, in creating new ways of doing things.
This means enlightened education. Republicans have fought to keep an uneducated electorate and its triumph is Donald Trump who claims to “love the uneducated.” Of course he loves them -- he is perhaps the most uneducated person ever to come to political power. As long as we keep a large section of the population uninformed we will have uninformed leaders.
OR: What's your take on the rise of identity politics to a national level of prominence?
Jong: I would rather focus on the needs of human beings than skin color, native languages, or other things that divide us. We are all human beings.
OR: What about the politics of sex? How has it changed since you've been observing it?
Jong: The younger generation has a totally different view of homosexuality and of transgender people than the one that was common when I was young. That seems very positive to me. Love is love and sexual choices should be entirely free as long as they don’t harm others.
Ironically, I was made into an icon of promiscuous sex when I published Fear of Flying. That now makes me laugh because I’ve never thought promiscuous sex was the best sex.
Many of us want to explore sexuality in our 20’s. For some people, it’s a necessary stage of development. Other people crave promiscuous sex. I think it should be possible to choose the mode of sexuality that suits you, as long as you are informed about sexually transmitted diseases and the dangers of meeting up with total strangers. I’m not drawn to Tinder but if you are, you should be able to use it without getting killed or diseased.
Fear of Flying, Erica Jong’s first and most famous novel, sold over 27 million copies. In the four decades since, she has published over 25 books in 43 languages