June/July/Aug 2012

For Vassar or Poorer

Mary McCarthy's portrait of Depression-era women graduates

Maud Newton


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Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries

“WHEN MOST PRETTY GIRLS smile at you, you feel terrific,” Mary McCarthy’s friend Dwight Macdonald once said, but “when Mary smiles at you, you look to see if your fly is open.” Her 1963 novel, The Group, has the same effect. McCarthy thought of the book as “a kind of mock-chronicle” rebutting the notion of progress in “the female sphere”—“home economics, architecture, domestic technology, contraception, child-bearing”—through the stories of eight upper-middle-class girls who graduate from Vassar during the Great Depression. Although they expect exciting careers and equal relationships, most of the young women find themselves in the same predicaments as their mothers, locked in listless marriages or unfulfilling love affairs, judged for their femininity rather than their minds, rarely seen as people for whom real advancement or distinction—as workers, as artists, as thinkers—might be possible. Some of the women in The Group are Trotskyites (as McCarthy once was), some Stalinists, others reflexive or devout capitalists. But despite their intelligence and facility with economic concepts, their ideas are often—like their mothers’—determined by the men in their lives.

The main character, Kay, debates money and the coming “technocracy” by parroting her Communist playwright husband, Harald. She enlarges upon his opinions with passion and inappropriate frivolity, noting that the “smart new renovated tenements . . . were still another example of intelligent planning by capital!” In another telling scene, Kay accompanies her friend Dottie to a contraception clinic so Dottie can be fitted for a pessary and thus keep sleeping with the sexy cad who ordered her to get one. They try to ward off anxiety by pulling out cigarettes, until they notice the other two women in the waiting room—both looking down on their luck—and Kay and Dottie are struck with class guilt. As they sit waiting, McCarthy shows how the myth of improvement for all was often turned against individual women, especially if they dared to desire more than a woman’s traditional lot: “She could easily imagine him saying that she and Dottie were ‘profiteering’ on the birth-control crusade, whose real aim was to limit the families of the poor.” Another of the grads, Norine, a radical Socialist turned well-to-do stay-at-home mother, views her education, and her intellectual background, as a liability. “No first-rate mind can accept the concept of progress any more,” she tells a former classmate, explaining that her husband “doesn’t mind that I can think rings around him; he likes it. But I’m conscious of a yawning abyss.” Even as McCarthy satirizes her characters’ ruminations—their paradoxical blend of vapid complacency and yearning for artistic and intellectual respect—she is not unsympathetic. She knew these women, and to some degree she (herself a Vassar ’33 grad) was these women; Kay’s forced confinement in a mental hospital was drawn at least partly from McCarthy’s own life. All too often, for her characters, the tools of advancement only underscore the chasm between their desires and the roles open to them. Satire and compassion make a tricky cocktail, but McCarthy is a skilled mixologist.

Norman Mailer charged her of “meretriciousness. . . . Of refusing to reveal that the genteel lords and ladies who manage America are the psychic descendants of Conrad’s Kurtz. ‘Ah, the horror, the horror,’ and she will not take a burning look.” But amid our modern-day faltering economy, as our president jokes that The Man Show is “what we call a congressional hearing on contraception,” The Group still feels fresh and pointed, both remarkably scathing and insightful. Its continued relevance seems the best possible rebuttal to Mailer’s accusation that McCarthy, a likely future “old-maid collector of Manx cats,” is “not a good enough woman to write a major novel.” These women—despite their privilege—run up against the same problems that still bedevil so many women, from all backgrounds, now.

Maud Newton is a writer and critic living in New York.

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