Even 40 years after it was first published, Erica Jong's groundbreaking novel Fear of Flying stunningly endures. In the book based on Jong's experiences, the bold, assertive Isadora Wing jumps through the page just as she did decades ago. Told through the course of a life-changing journey, serious issues like sexual expression and oppression, the intricate difficulties of womanhood, and fledgling second-wave feminism are brought to the forefront through Isadora's sharp wit and honesty. Dozens of books later, as her first is re-released today, here's what is on Jong's mind now — it involves the continued need to work toward gender equality and LGBT rights, starting with an overhaul of the Republican Party.
Jong loved her lesbian aunt, who she ended up caring for at the end of her life.
"I had an aunt who was gay, and I ended up taking charge of her life when she began to lose her memory, and when she started wandering around New York. Her younger parter didn't want to be bothered, and they couldn't marry, so her partner didn't have the rights of the next of kin. So my husband and I became responsible for taking care of her. And I loved her very much.
"My Aunt Kitty, throughout my life, she was a source of things my mother didn't know about. She was a painter, my mother was a painter, and their father was a painter — my maternal grandfather. But their personalities were very different. Kitty was very nurturing. My mother was very narcissistic, and could be very difficult, and possibly bipolar. I loved my mother a lot, but she was not an easy mother. Kitty represented the opposite, a very nurturing sense. She didn't have biological children, but she helped raise her partner's daughter. So she gave me that opposite thing that my mother didn't have. She was extremely nurturing, very loving, and she gave me a lot of maternal feelings. She also introduced me to Colette. She also introduced me to all kinds of literature that I wouldn't have known. Now we would call it gay literature, but at the time there was no such category."
Her aunt is one of the reasons why she understands the crucial need for marriage equality.
"I saw at first hand the way the inability to marry impacted her life. And when she grew old and sick, her partner not only couldn't take care of her and her illness, couldn't be in the hospital, but also sort of washed her hands of the issue of aging, and memory loss.
"If you think of these really basic human needs, such as aging, and health care, you're not going to have those until all partners have the right to marry, the right to take care of each other in the hospital — you have to have that. It's the bedrock of everything. So it was a no-brainer for me to understand the issue of marriage because I had seen it first-hand. I, myself, had hoped when I was faced with this issue, that I could find LGBT assisted-living facilities, but at the time I couldn't find a place where my aunt could feel comfortable.
"She had a brownstone in Chelsea, and a house in the Hamptons, both with her partner. They had done extensive renovation, and because she was a painter, and the partner a psychiatrist, and she worked at home, so it fell to her to do all of the renovations, which she was happy to do. But when her memory started going, the question was, What would we do about the property and about her life? My husband is a lawyer and he has a lot of LGBT clients; he's a family lawyer and he does divorces. So he understood that Kitty owned the property with her partner. But we were stuck with the fact that they weren't married. So that was a reason that couples should be able to get married. They're making a decision that they've joined their lives, their property, and their old age. Without marriage, it's very hard to simulate all these things."
Her classic character Isadora White-Wing almost did not come into fruition.
"Early on, I was a respected young poet. I had a wonderful editor, who was also the editor of Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth, and he had rejected my first novel. He said, 'It's not bad. It's OK. It's publishable, but you're not publishing in the voice of a woman. Go and write in the voice in which you write your poems.' And that was the most useful thing he could have said to me then. He said that passionate female, sad, voice of your poems is what I should put in my fiction. That was the right note at the right time. He was very sophisticated. He understood that feminism was rising. And he wanted me to write in the voice of my poems. That was a very helpful thing to be told at that time."
Isadora was a big middle finger to male-driven literature, which, at the time, was a majority of literature.
"John Updike once said Isadora is 'orgasmic.' He said this book is like a flower of truth in the war of the sexes because she always has an orgasm. The ability for women to have an orgasm makes them feel whole. To have a vagina and a clitoris is a great thing, but to be told that you can't use it is an absurdity, whether it's by the Catholic Church or through female genital mutilation. Isadora's story is about the need for wholeness, and it's about a bright woman's need to accept her body."
If Fear of Flying were to be a 2013 title, it would be about hookup culture and the ongoing battle with reproductive rights.
"If I were in my 20s now, I would have to write about hookups. I would have to write about the birth control wars. In a way, it's not so different [from 1973]. I would have to write about the exclusion of women from power. I would have to write about the fact that we have gay marriage in many states, but not all of them."
Jong first came to discover the inequality of women's lives through her mother.
"I identified as a feminist from the time I was a child. I think because of my mother. She went to art school at the National Academy of Design. My mother told me, 'I was the best draftsman in the class — they didn't say draftsperson back then — but I would never win the Prix du Rome.' And I said, 'Why?' and she said, because the head of the school said I paint better than anyone, I draw better than anyone, but we're not giving you the Prix du Rome because you'll just get married and have babies.
"I grew up in a big, extended, European-style family with grandparents. My grandfather was a painter who made his money with portrait painting, and he worked in the studio on the third floor of the triplex that we lived in on 77th Street. And my mother used to say, 'My father has a good a studio, I just set up a portable easel.' So she was in conflict with her father. She always said, 'Why do they expect women to set up a portable easel? Why don't I have a good studio?'"
Actually, she comes from a feminist family.
"My grandmother was of that generation of suffrage. She was born in the 1880s, and she witnessed the suffrage movement. She came from Odessa, Russia, and met my grandfather in London. It was a time of incredible turmoil before World War I with feminists everywhere, but women in England got the vote well before we did in America. They got married, had two daughters, and my grandfather left for New York because he didn't want to be drafted. So he went to New York, set up his studio in Union Square, and established himself and brought his wife and kids over.
"At the time, the newspapers were full with stuff about women getting the vote, and British women getting the vote before us. So my grandmother was very aware of the suffrage issue. She always told me when I was growing up — she said, 'Don't let them take away our rights. We fought hard for these rights.' She was a homemaker, but she admired women who were dentists, physicians, politicians. Even in that era, she sought out women dentists, women doctors, because she was so proud of them."
She has a fondness for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
"Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a wonderful woman, who I taught with one summer at the Salzburg Global Seminar, and is a great teacher. She came out and said men don't understand women's lives. And they certainly don't understand women's health issues. And, I was so glad she said that. Many pregnancies are normal and many are not. We need legislators that understand both genders. We're 52% of the population. We're not some weird minority."
She believes the Tea Party is holding back women, and society as a whole.
"As long as the Tea Party can hold the Republicans captive, as long as the Evangelicals can hold the Republican Party captive, how can we make legislation that helps childcare and women's health? One of the great things of Obamacare was that women had to be treated equally in terms of health. Every UN report on the status of women has shown again and again, that wherever women have access to health care, including birth control and abortion, and can space their pregnancies to have the children only when they can afford to raise those children, the entire society benefits economically. Allow women control over their fertility, and their body health, and the economics of the society goes up, up, up. Give women the control over their own education and the society soars. We doom ourselves to economic insecurity, by taking from women those two essential things: healthcare and education.
"What's interesting to me, whenever you have young people voting, whether the people are gay or not, they understand the issue. They're trying to shut down university populations from voting. People of color from voting. When you think of the voting rights act, the GOP is going after young people's votes and people of color because they're the most progressive voters. I think it's really interesting that the GOP is committing suicide. Unless they straighten up and fly right — or left — they're not going to have any voters. People do not want a war on women, and the majority doesn't want birth control and abortion taken away, and most people believe that those who rape should be punished for it. These are not fringe opinions. So I think that the Grand Old Party is committing suicide. At least I hope they are."