Fifty years ago last month, Erica Jong published a debut novel that went on to sell more than 20 million copies. “Fear of Flying,” a book so sexually frank that you may have found it hidden in your mother’s underwear drawer, broke new ground in the explicitness of writing by and for women. Jong’s heroine, Isadora Wing, was a live wire. She was also a dead end, certainly for Jong, and maybe for feminism, too.
Born in 1942 to a family of freethinkers in Manhattan, Erica Mann, who became Erica Jong, belonged to a generation “raised to be Doris Day,” as she later wrote. Her Barnard yearbook photos showcase the full early-1960s checklist: velvet headband, twin set, pearls. Jong was gifted and ambitious. But even as a literature major at one of the country’s most distinguished women’s colleges, she had read vanishingly little work by female authors. She wed shortly after graduation, and when that starter marriage fell apart, she entered a second, to a Chinese American psychoanalyst, Allan Jong.
Jong left Barnard in 1963, the year, as the poet Philip Larkin joked, that “sexual intercourse began.” The F.D.A. had approved the nearly foolproof oral contraceptive that came to be known as the pill. Literature was growing raunchier. Several years earlier, the Supreme Court had declared that “sex and obscenity are not synonymous,” clearing the way for American editions of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Tropic of Cancer.” Shortly after Jong’s graduation, Mary McCarthy published “The Group,” a novel whose frank depictions of birth control, female orgasm and sexual violence led several countries to ban it for obscenity. In the United States, “The Group” was No. 1 on The New York Times’s best-seller list for months.
During Jong’s final semester, Betty Friedan had published “The Feminine Mystique,” based on interviews with Smith College graduates schooled to rule the world only to find themselves marooned in the suburbs wondering, “Is this all?” It, too, became a best seller. But though feminism existed as a term and as a centuries-long body of political thought, it was not, as Jong well knew, a curriculum, much less a social movement.